SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Julianna Pena enjoyed every moment of her multi-year break from competition, but now she’s ready to get back to business at UFC on ESPN+ 13.
Pena (8-3 MMA, 4-1 UFC) stepped away from her career as an active fighter following a loss to Valentina Shevchenko in January 2017. She used that time to give birth to her first child, a daughter who turns a year old later this month. She’s relished motherhood, but always knew a return to fighting was on the horizon.
There was never a definitive timetable to make a comeback, Pena said. She got back in the gym with more frequency as her child grew older, then it was a matter of finding an opportunity.
“I definitely played it by ear,” Pena told MMA Junkie at UFC on ESPN+ 13 media day Thursday. “I think taking (my daughter) with me to all my practices helped me to get back to the octagon sooner. She’s been growing up on the mats since after I had the baby at like six weeks. I think it’s awesome she’s been able to be with me on my journey. I didn’t have a strict timeline for when I want to get back or like, ‘I got to be there in less than a year.’ I just definitely played it by ear and let it go and come and go as it did.”
The circumstances around Pena’s return aren’t what many would expect. She steps in as a short-notice replacement for the injured Sara McMann in a matchup with former UFC flyweight champ Nicco Montano (4-2 MMA, 1-0 UFC).
Pena said she alerted the UFC that she was ready to fight earlier this year, but upcoming cards were already filled. Then the call came in to fight Montano on just three weeks’ notice, and Pena had “no hesitation” accepting.
Prior to the loss against Shevchenko that preceded her hiatus, “The Venezuelan Vixen” was the No. 2-ranked contender at women’s bantamweight, according to the UFC’s official rankings. The division has evolved a lot over the past 29 months, but Pena sees an opportunity to slide back in as if she hasn’t missed a beat.
“I’m back, I’m ready to go, I’m ready to fight,” Pena said. “I’m taking this fight on three weeks’ (notice) and that’s literally not something I’m holding onto, like, ‘Oh, I only took it in three weeks.’ I’m back, I’m back in the game and I’m fighting a former world champion.
“I feel like beating a former world champion definitely puts me back in that spot, with an impressive victory, to compete or contend with the champion. That’s kind of what my eyes are set on and I kind of want to just pick up where I left off with the last fight.”
UFC on ESPN+ 13 takes place at Golden1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. The entire card streams on ESPN+.
Although Pena has no complaints about her time away from fighting, she does admit it wasn’t entirely easy. The thirst for competition was still there, she said, but she was able to somewhat satisfy it with a commentary role for Combate Americas.
“Commentating for Combate Americas has been my life-saver in a sense,” Pena said. “It’s my 24 hours, 48 hours to go into to MMA and delve myself into my passion, which is (MMA). I can talk to a rock about MMA all day long. It’s such a blessing to be able to work for Campbell McLaren and to commentate. I got the gift of gab.”
Pena said she looks forward to parlaying her commentary career into the UFC eventually and would like to serve as the first female to call the action from the booth. That’s a long-term goal, however, and the short-term is all about this weekend.
Montano moves up to the 135-pound division to fight Pena after a well-documented saga at flyweight that saw her stripped of UFC gold. Montano has been out of action for a long time, as well, but Pena said she sees a threat ahead of her. Though not one so great she can’t conquer it.
“Nicco is a former world champion at 125 pounds, so I know that she definitely has everything that it takes to be a complete mixed martial artist and to be a champion,” Pena said. “It’s going to be an amazing fight. … I’m definitely taking her truly seriously. As far as the fight goes it’s going to be truly a war. On the feet, in the clinch, on the ground, wherever it goes it’s going to be a scramble, it’s going to be a high-paced fight and it’s going to be a really exciting fight.”