Julianna Peña is tough as nails. She took a beating for five rounds against Amanda Nunes last night. A brutal, bloody beating. Yet through the knockdowns and the elbows, Peña never took her foot off the gas pedal and was able to get Nunes in trouble (at times) on the ground later in the fight. Peña was almost as impressive in taking the pounding as Nunes was dishing it out.
Before the first Peña fight, Nunes was running out of opponents. While also holding a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Nunes is one of the greatest strikers to ever compete in mixed martial arts. She had taken a blowtorch to the UFC, and was a -1200 favorite against Peña in Dec. 2021. That fight was originally supposed to take place in Aug. 2021, but Nunes caught COVID and the fight had to be postponed. She would later suffer a knee injury in camp, but pushed through to make sure the second date would take place.
The fight started as many expected. Nunes dropped Peña to the mat twice. She tried to end it after the second knockdown. Peña gave up her back quickly and the fight looked over, but she recovered and put the then champion to work on the ground. Fatigue set in quickly in the second round for Nunes, who would get taken down and choked out.
Nunes didn’t look in terrible shape in fight one, but in fight two she entered the octagon in such good condition that her body looked angry. From head to toe, she looked determined to make things right on Saturday night by not only winning, but doing so in a way that would erase what happened in fight one.
The first round was similar to their December bout. Nunes was able to put Peña on the ground with her mighty strikes, but she was more patient and didn’t get involved in a long wrestling match. Then in the next round, she dropped Peña three times, and while the Women’s Bantamweight champion fought valiantly, the unstoppable force vaporized the immovable object.
Sometimes, in combat sports, we focus too much on winning streaks. As impressive as they are, avenging a loss is a significant sign of greatness. Georges St. Pierre avenged both of his losses to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra by TKO. It’s why he can be considered the greatest fighter even though Jon Jones’ only loss is by disqualification — also, St. Pierre has never tested positive for performance-enhancing substances.
Nunes didn’t get the stoppage, much to Peña’s credit, but that unanimous decision left no room for doubt. In an era in UFC that has a list of champions as strong as any in the history of the sport — Israel Adesanya, Kamara Usman, Francis Ngannou, and Charles Oliveira — Nunes is as outstanding a mixed martial artist as any of them. Her 12 consecutive wins were great, but the one feat her resume was missing was avenging a loss.
Her first opportunity at the bantamweight belt was derailed by a loss to Cat Zingano in 2014. Nunes would never get the opportunity to make that loss right, because Zingano lost her next three fights. Her second straight loss was on the same card as Nunes — UFC 200 in July 2016. She lost to Peña, and Nunes won the championship against Miesha Tate.
Part of what makes sports compelling is watching the greatest athletes in the world have to deal with adversity on live television. Seeing them gimp and gasp for breath and still manage to grab hold of victory is riveting programming.
Nunes looked mortal for the first time in a long time last winter. She was stopped in the second round by a woman who defeated the only other woman that she had lost to in the UFC. Nunes held onto that for six months and “The Lioness” came roaring back to assume control over her kingdom.
Peña, Nunes III would again be appointment viewing. However, as gritty as Peña was on Saturday night, her resilience actually showed the difference between the two fighters. Peña is outstanding, but Nunes is a legend. Peña fought effectively through a titanic beating, but it was Nunes that delivered it.
She’s back on top, and watching her get back there was every bit as fun as it was watching her stay there.