Amanda NunesCarmen Mandato/Getty Images
Move over, Matt Serra. Happy trails, Holly Holm. The MMA world has a new all-time underdog, a new author of one of the greatest upsets in UFC history, and her name is Julianna Pena.
On Saturday night at UFC 269, Pena beat the unbeatable. Making the walk as a massive +700 underdog per DraftKings in the main event, Pena shocked the regal and brutal Amanda Nunes to capture Nunes’ women’s bantamweight title. (Nunes remains the featherweight champ.) The end came via a rear-naked choke submission at 3: 26 of the second round.
“I’m not surprised, motherf–kers,” Pena told Joe Rogan after the fight, invoking the famous Nate Diaz line. “I told you. You don’t ever doubt me again. Willpower, strength, and determination will take you places.”
Julianna PenaCarmen Mandato/Getty Images
Three cheers for the new champ, but perhaps the biggest news here is Nunes’ apparent mortality. This was (still is?) the consensus MMA GOAT, the Lioness who melted a Cyborg. She hadn’t lost since Barack Obama was president. Coming in she had seven consecutive title defenses between the two belts she owned. It doesn’t get more dominant than Nunes.
And yet, there we were. After the fight, the Brazilian was gracious in defeat and notably candid with Rogan in her post-fight interview.
“Honestly, no surprise at all,” she said. “I know she’s a warrior, I know she’s gonna come forward, I know she can get hit and keep moving forward. I just, today, like, checked out. I have to work on a couple things. I’ll keep working to fix it.”
Are there things to unpack? You better believe it. But first let’s back up a second and tackle the actual fight.
The first round was fairly uneventful, with Nunes likely taking a 10-9 on the average judge’s scorecard. According to UFC stats, Nunes landed 10 of 14 significant strikes, with Pena landing just five of 20. Nunes also controlled ground sequences, at one point coming close to a rear-naked choke. More Nunes dominance, ho hum.
In the second round, things picked up.
Pena began to force the issue, getting inside and initiating a brawl. It was classic Wanderlei Silva stuff: taking two to give one. Pena fired sweeping left and right hooks, with the right hand in particular rocking the champion. Nunes fired back behind a damaging jab, but Pena was not deterred.
It was around this time that Nunes’ gas tank meter started to flash.
With exhaustion and flat-out concern registering on Nunes’ face, Pena pushed her back and clinched her up. As they stood along the fence, Pena crouched and executed a gorgeous and surprisingly effortless throw, rag-dolling Nunes to the canvas. Pena got her back from there, found the choke and squeezed. Nunes tapped and a champion was born.
“I thought she was going to fight longer, but she tapped,” Pena told Rogan. “I asked the [referee] if it was over, and he said, ‘Yeah, you won.’ And I said, ‘Oh, great.’ … I definitely expected a win, I’m so grateful and the world is my oyster.”
Pena (top) takes the back of NunesChris Unger/Getty Images
So where does this really rank among the UFC’s greatest upset victories? There’s no official ranking or methodology, but a list from Tapology shows that Serra was a +850 dog to defeat welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69. Holm was +830 to upend another seemingly unbeatable women’s bantamweight champ, someone named Ronda Rousey.
There are a few other randoms here and there, but if you’re talking about the biggest fights and the biggest stakes, even if Pena isn’t atop every mock draft, she’s certainly on Mount Rushmore.
As for Pena and Nunes, what happens from here? The upset unlocks a few interesting possibilities.
For starters, new blood at the top of the bantamweight division instantly creates at least one new contender. Fittingly, that contender is Holm.
Sitting in the division’s No. 1 slot, Holm likely never would have gotten another chance at Nunes, who knocked her out in spectacular fashion in the first round of their contest in 2019. But she’s never faced Pena.
The picture for Nunes is a little cloudier. It’s hard to know what exactly “checked out” means. Was it a lapse in concentration or preparation? Was the hotel unsatisfactory in some way? It’s the kind of comment that invites interpretation, even when it clearly won’t lead anywhere.
In terms of fighting, this could channel Nunes back to featherweight, where her weight cut is easier and she rules with an iron fist. This reality could create a very sought-after bout at 145 pounds. Will Kayla Harrison, the two-time judo Olympic gold medalist currently shopping for a new promotional home, make the move to the UFC? Although she’s competed mainly at 155 pounds to this point, Harrison has repeatedly indicated she a) can and will cut to 145, and b) wants big fights. After UFC 269, will Nunes still be a bigger fight than, say, Cyborg in Bellator? We’ll see, but if Harrison jumps to face Nunes, that’s worthy of a pay-per-view main event.
The final and most likely option is a Nunes-Pena rematch. It could be announced quickly. But is it really the fight to make immediately? Adding at least one fight to their ledgers in between this one and the rematch has the power to let the matchup marinate while further stirring things up in two different divisions that both, quite frankly, could use a little stirring.
That said, an instant rematch has to be the odds-on favorite of all these options. But Pena just reminded us what that can be worth sometimes. The underdogs had their day Saturday, no matter what comes next.
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