A few years ago, Julianna Pena considered fighting in the UFC little more than a dream. On November 30th, that pipe dream happened to become reality. And not only that, but Pena also became the organization’s first female to ever win The Ultimate Fighter competition on a night where three of the five main card bouts featured women.
What a long way the ladies of MMA have come.
Once upon a time, UFC president Dana White proclaimed that he never envisioned the UFC to feature women fighters. It wasn’t necessarily sexist. Rather, it was a point of view based on the amount of women fighters out there for him to create a legitimate division with enough competition that it wouldn’t become stale. But a judo fighter with a unique temperament and a knack for breaking arms named Ronda Rousey came along and captured the interest of White and the rest of the mixed martial arts world.
Fast forward a couple of years and Rousey is the women’s bantamweight champion and helped usher in an era of female fighters in the UFC. It all came full circle this fall when, for the first time, the reality show The Ultimate Fighter featured both male and female fighters and was coached by Rousey and her arch nemesis Miesha Tate. It all culminated with The Ultimate Fighter Finale at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, NV.
It wasn’t the largest crowd to ever attend a UFC event, but it didn’t make the occasion any less momentous. The 4,346 in attendance still fared better than many of the previous TUF events and it would be the first time fans were more interested in the female fighters than the men despite a main event featuring Gray Maynard and Nick Diaz. The interest generated had nothing to do with drama in the TUF house although the tension between Rousey and Tate was palpable. Instead the significance was based on the excitement generated from the women’s fights rather than the men’s. It appeared that the women were hungrier than their male counterparts and fought as such. Meanwhile, two of the male fighters failed to make weight and saw their dreams evaporate due to their own negligence. Suffice it to say that the women took this more seriously than the men.
Nevertheless, The Ultimate Fighter Season 18 finale marked the continuation of a new era of UFC fighters. Raquel Pennington kicked off the main card with a dominant performance over veteran Roxanne Modafferi where she showcased her effective striking and fight changing power. Jessamyn “The Gun” Duke punched her way past Peggy Morgan in the next fight between bantamweights. To that point there hadn’t been a finish during the entire night.
But that’s when Miesha Tate’s first pick Julianna Pena stepped up and put a halt to the knockout-less evening. “The Venezuelan Vixen” may be a pretty face, but her grit and determination was a highlight on the reality show. She was constantly undermined by her fellow cast members and was always expected to lose. However, she proved herself time and time again. Her first victory was against the favorite to win the entire tournament, Shayna Baszler, as she submitted her via rear naked choke. She followed that performance up with yet another submission victory over Sarah Moras to put herself into the finale against former boxer Jessica Rakoczy. And with the stakes higher than they have ever been for her, Pena pounded on Rakoczy and earned the TKO stoppage with one second left in the round to win a six-figure contract with the UFC.
“It means the world to me, it really does,” Pena said afterwards as she smiled with her trophies. Her dominant performance punctuating a journey that saw her capture the opportunity of a lifetime. “I’m finally able to put the stamp on the end of it and give myself a pat on my back. “
For her, the victory means so much more considering she nearly walked away from the sport and survived being struck by a drunk driver last year. Her victory wasn’t just for her, but for every woman who has ever considered stepping into what was once considered a man’s world. “I always envisioned the UFC remaining for men and, to me, it was a pipe dream,” Pena said. “But now we’re here and we’re here to stay because we steal the show every time and bring the most exciting fights. This is a dream come true.”
At one time, Pena’s aspirations were solely financial but she recognizes the impact her victory has on other young women’s lives considering that she just made history as the first female winner of The Ultimate Fighter.
“I didn’t get in the game to be a role model for anybody; I got in to put bread on the table,” she said with a laugh. “Now I see that there are young women looking up to me and I think that’s great. I want to do my best to make those girls proud and inspire them to believe they can achieve their dreams like I am.”
Image: Julianna Peña Twitter