DALLAS (AP) — Julianna Peña stunned pretty much everyone but herself when she took the bantamweight title from two-division champion Amanda Nunes in one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
“I’m the champion of the world. This is what I wanted,” Peña said. “Now there’s nothing left to do but the job itself. And that’s let people know who I am. This is my opportunity to show people who I am and kind of let them get to know me.”
Her first defense of the title in the 135-pound division will be a rematch against Nunes at UFC 277 on Saturday night, and the former bantamweight champion wants back the belt that she had held more than five years before her 12-fight winning streak was snapped last December.
Nunes (21-5) said she wasn’t properly prepared for that fight at UFC 269 because of knee issues that affected her cardio training.
While Nunes didn’t want to delay again after being forced to withdraw from a scheduled August bout because of a positive COVID-19 test, she also thought she was ready. But she got hurt and tired in the second round, then tapped out when unable to escape a rear naked choke.
“It was the challenge that I needed,” Nunes said. “I went without a challenge for so long, now I’m finally like getting into the position that I like to feel a threat. These are the moments that I shine in the most.”
Peña-Nunez isn’t the only rematch during UFC’s first fight night in Dallas since 2018.
Brandon Moreno (19-6) and Kai Kara-France (24-9), the top two flyweight contenders, will fight for an interim title in the division. Moreno won a unanimous decision over Kara-France in December 2019.
Deiveson Figueiredo regained the flyweight belt from Moreno with a unanimous decision in a trilogy fight in January. But because of a hand injury for Figueiredo, there will be an interim champion instead of a fourth fight now against Moreno.
“I don’t want to wait. … I just wanted to fight,” said Moreno, who fought only once in 2021 — the middle fight against Figueiredo when he became UFC’s first Mexican-born champion.
Nunes, still the champion in the 145-pound women’s featherweight division, and Peña were coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter” for the 30th season of the reality TV show that just aired its final episode.
That only created more animosity between the two fighters, even though there is a shared respect.
“Without Amanda and without me, there would be no headlining of this UFC 277. We are the two best female fighters in the division in mixed martial arts,” Peña said. “If I didn’t have Amanda and if Amanda didn’t have me, then none of this would exist. So I absolutely respect her and honor that fact because it takes two to tango.”
When asked what she learned about Peña while taping “The Ultimate Fighter,” Nunes responded that she was weird and always on her phone.
Peña, who said she caught Nunes watching some of her team’s practices, wanted to pull off an epic prank during the show. But UFC President Dana White squashed plans that included Johnny Knoxville and a giant bear.
While calling Peña a tough opponent, Nunes said she is definitely 100% for the rematch. She is even considered by most the favorite to win this time, though not by nearly as much as those 10-1 odds she was favored before the pre-Christmas loss in Las Vegas.
“I want the belt back,” Nunes said. “I miss the belt.”
Kara-France has gone 4-1 since his first slugfest against Moreno, who said his opponent appears to have more confidence in the octagon.
“Better decisions. That makes a fighter very dangerous,” Moreno said. “I’m expecting, maybe not the same fight than the last fight in 2019, but I’m expecting fireworks.”
A three-fight winning streak for Kara-France includes a first-round win over former champion Cody Garbrandt and a victory over contender Askar Askarov.
“I stopped chasing the ‘becoming the champion’ and started believing it,” Kara-France said. “I’m at the stage where it doesn’t even matter who I’m fighting. …. It’s about yourself, and I’m just more than ready to become a world champion.”