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Ahead of UFC 200, Julianna Pena says, 'My job is to be a gladiator'

2278 days ago
Deanna Cioppa
Special to
Photo: Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Five minutes into a conversation with Julianna Pena and you think, OF COURSE she comes from Spokane, Washington -- she's boilermaker stock. The fifth-ranked UFC bantamweight seems more forged than born of woman. As she speaks, her words gain velocity, her voice volume, her tone dynamics -- as if, in her Las Vegas hotel room, where she waits to fight Cat Zingano at the UFC 200 prelims, she's applying a bellows to her speech.

It's been an eventful couple of years in and out of the cage for the 26-year-old, who's currently undefeated in the UFC. There's been devastating injury, convalescence, a headline-grabbing arrest and, recently, legal reprieve. But little of that really matters if she can beat Zingano, currently ranked No. 4, and get one step closer to fighting former coach Miesha Tate for the belt.

Pena's main coach, Rick Little of Sik Jitsu Fighting Systems, says she's a sponge, the most coachable fighter he's ever worked with. But much of what the bantamweight has learned hasn't come from the gym.

"One thing you can't teach is heart," she says of her relative inexperience. (Pena has been fighting only since 2009.) "One thing you can't teach is true grit. One thing that I've never been is a quitter."

As she tells it, Pena's story is really one of family, particularly of strong women. She was the youngest of four growing up in far eastern Washington, and the so-called "Venezuelan Vixen" learned early that scrappiness and a certain level of aggression were not only helpful, but critical, to making it. And it wasn't just a lesson gleaned from sibling beatdowns. As she grew up, watching her mother closely yielded some valuable knowledge. Namely:

One, you don't spend your childhood as a migrant field worker, picking whatever fruit is in season, to become dependent on anyone other than yourself for anything. Two, when you take a job as the lone female in the gladiatorial world of union boilermakers, you're going to get pushback. You're going to have to fight those who want you to quit, who try to make your life a little harder so you'll leave. You push through.

And three, nothing good ever happens after midnight. (More on that later.)

"I think that my mom's experience has shaped the way that I am as a fighter and how I am as a person," Pena says. It's part of the reason she and her siblings have "an amazing work ethic," she says.

But it's an ethic best suited to solo achievement. When she was in high school, she was constantly frustrated at the lack of hustle by her teammates in soccer, softball and volleyball. Pena didn't stumble across martial arts until she was out of school, when she followed her oldest sister to a cardio kickboxing class at Little's gym in Spokane.

"She walked into cardio kickboxing a little young and slightly overweight," says Little, who demonstrated a few combos for her and the other women in class. Little said that most women tend to "hit with little rabbit punches and forget the combo after the third punch, but Julianna just starts cracking them."

When Little asked Pena where she'd trained before, she just stared at him, wide-eyed. "What do you mean? You just showed me," she said. She was offered entrance into the MMA program immediately, and like most of her ilk, she found "love at first punch."

"What attracted me to MMA was that it was an individual sport," says Pena, "and the only person that I had to count on was myself. I didn't have to worry about being a part of a team where they weren't trying their hardest and they didn't want to win."

With no background in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling or stand-up combat, Pena took in everything at once. She embraces her pan-combat-style approach, rather than considering herself at a disadvantage to women who started in, say, Muay Thai at age 11.

"I feel like I'm not necessarily more dominant in one area," Pena says. "I'm comfortable wherever the fight goes because I just learned how to fight MMA as a whole."

A look at her 7-2 pro record bears this out -- a mélange of strikes, armbars and chokehold submissions leading to victories. But it was punches that brought her (along with a host of other female competitors) into mainstream consciousness. At The Ultimate Fighter 18 finale in 2013, under the guidance of Tate, she beat Jessica Rakoczy.

That win was the last good thing for a while. Only a few months after taking TUF 18, Pena suffered a catastrophic injury during training, traumatizing nearly every piece of connective tissue in her right knee and forcing her out of UFC 171. It would be a year before she fought again. 

After returning, Pena beat Milana Dudieva in April 2015, then Jessica Eye this past October. She used that opportunity to blast longtime sort-of nemesis Ronda Rousey, saying after the fight, "I'm 6-0 in the Octagon, and so is Ronda Rousey. Dana White calls her the Mike Tyson of MMA. Well, I'm Evander Holyfield. So I'm right here, I'll be your huckleberry."

It's a bold assertion. Maybe the MMA gods, still enchanted by Rousey back then, didn't like Pena's comment. Maybe it was just bad luck, or, as Pena would say, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever it was, it came down like a hammer in the wee hours of Dec. 20, 2015.

Pena faced off in a street fight against what she says were some 20 drunken guys outside a bar in Spokane, at least one of whom had allegedly slapped her butt earlier in the night. The fight itself ended with her and her badly beaten training partner, Joshua Gow, making a run for a friendlier bar nearby. Ironically, that's where things went south.

Pena alleges that the bartender gave her and Gow permission to use the bathroom to clean up Gow's face. On the way, however, the bouncer allegedly stopped the pair and told Gow to leave.

"Now I'm throwing a fit and drunk and panicking and screaming, like, 'Why won't you help this guy? This is his human right to use the bathroom,'" Pena says. "He says, 'You both can get out.' So we're fighting with the bouncer, and all of a sudden the bouncer picks me up and throws me off of a ledge. I end up falling on my ass and dropping every content that was in my purse. ... I got up off the ground, and I teep-kicked him basically to say, 'Get your hands off me. Don't f---ing touch me.'"

By the time Pena and Gow left, the police were on their way. Body-cam footage from that night shows a drunk, irate Pena arguing with police officers. Pena was charged with two counts of assault, having allegedly kicked not only the bouncer but also the bar owner, both in the crotch. Although she doesn't deny that her kick landed in the bouncer's groin, she said in our interview it was never her intention to kick him there. She made no mention of the bar owner.

Aside from wrong place, wrong time, Pena believes Dec. 20 was a lesson on the effects of fame, even fifth-ranked fame.

"People are going to want to mess with you and buy you drinks and say, 'I partied with this girl or that girl,' and try to be getting their Snapchats and selfies," she says. "I think that's part of the gig, and that's something that I didn't quite realize was as intense until that night. I realized I can't go out in my hometown alone anymore."

Of course, there was her mother's salient notion about what happens after midnight ...

In March, Pena was granted a stipulation order of continuance, which basically means that if she keeps her nose clean and goes to counseling for a year, the charges will be dismissed. The UFC, which had opened its own investigation into the matter, decided to let Pena continue her career in the promotion unobstructed.

Which brings us to now -- or rather, to Saturday, the only thing on Pena's mind. When she talks about fight time, her voice becomes steely, the emotions of the previous 40 minutes tightly controlled now. The legal kerfuffle, the injury, that's all in the past. "I don't think about anything other than, my job is to be a gladiator," she says. "It's time to kill or be killed and either you're going to do it or not. That's my only concern."

She'll have a time of it as well. Zingano may be coming off a long break between fights and a devastating loss to Rousey before that. But as Coach Little is quick to point out, Pena's opponent has beaten both of Saturday's title-fight contenders before. That ups the stakes for Pena and could lead to major recognition by the promotion should she dominate. "The two best girls in the world are fighting on Saturday," Little said, "and it's not the title fight."

Up against possibly the toughest opponent of her career, with family, friends and certainly all of Spokane watching, what does the fifth-ranked female bantamweight have to prove? Everything, but mostly, she'll be "damned if any of these bitches think that they're harder than me. Not on the inside, and not on the outside."

Forty-five minutes into a conversation with Julianna Pena, and you need to hang up because the phone has turned white-hot.