Nothing has come easy for the newly crowned UFC bantamweight champion Julianna Pena.
Pena pulled off one of the biggest upsets in mixed martial arts history when she scored a second-round submission win over Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 last week.
Life could have been very different for Pena, however. In 2009 she was run down by a car, which left her with horrific injuries.
“I went out and I was walking on the sidewalk, and these guys came round the corner and they were catcalling me in their car,” Pena tells BBC Sport.
“They stepped on the gas instead of the brakes and they jumped the curb and hit a tree. The tree snapped across my face and my nose got shattered and I got run over.
“I woke up underneath the bumper screaming and running for my life. I thought I was in a drive-by shooting.”
‘I have an unwavering belief in myself’
The 32-year-old did not let the incident deter her from chasing her dreams to become a UFC champion. She went on to win The Ultimate Fighter in 2013 but her fighting career was put on pause when she tore a knee in 2014 and gave birth in 2018.
“There’s been things in my career which has delayed the process, but I’m the type of person to face adversity and still be able to climb out and make it out on top,” Pena says.
“I won’t be denied. I have an unwavering belief in myself and my skillset. I have the heart of a champion and that is something that sets me aside.
“It’s definitely been a hard road especially from all the things I’ve endured in my private life.”
Finding Nunes’ ‘breaking point’
Making it to the top is exactly what ‘The Venezuelan Vixen’ did when she beat two-weight champion Nunes.
As one of MMA’s most dominant champions in history, Nunes was a heavy favourite and Pena looked to be in trouble in the first round.
Pena came storming back in round two, rocking Nunes with combinations and a flurry of punches before locking in a submission. Nunes had not been beaten since September 2014.
“I’ve been saying for five years that this was going to happen,” Pena said.
“We’ve seen that in her past fights. We’ve seen her shell up and go into the foetal position. We’ve seen the referee have to come in and save her.
“I knew if you are going to do that once, you will do it again. You just have to find that breaking point. I just needed to give her a way out and I absolutely achieved that.”
‘I broke down’
Pena was emotionless when the referee called off the fight. On her knees, she hugged Nunes and made her way to her corner.
She had just shocked the world, yet there was little celebration.
Asked how she was so calm in the moment, Pena says: “When you lose it’s a really sad day for your opponent. I didn’t want to rub it in her face too much. I wasn’t going to pour salt in the wounds.
“Amanda has been such a good champion for so many years and I didn’t want to be disrespectful. For me, we can celebrate behind closed doors. It’s nothing personal and it never has been.”
However, when Pena returned backstage, the magnitude of her achievement hit her.
“Immediately [you’re taken] to the dressing curtain and they put you in front of a doctor and in that moment, I just broke down,” Pena says. “I just bawled. I just needed to release it. I needed to let it out.
“I was just so happy that it was finally over and I’m sure she felt the same. She felt a burden was lifted off her shoulders, like a weight has come off her. After it’s all said and done, you can breathe again and that was my moment to breathe.”
What’s next for the new champion?
Nunes has already expressed her interest in a rematch.
Pena believes the outcome of a rematch will be no different and hopes she can be part of season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter alongside Nunes as one of the coaches.
“The same thing will happen [in the rematch],” she predicts.
“The perfect case scenario is we both teach The Ultimate Fighter and we end up fighting in August.”
Two-time Professional Fighters League champion and free agent Kayla Harrison was cageside to witness Pena dethrone Nunes.
Harrison had some choice words for Pena after her win, saying: “She needs to be careful about what she says and who she says it to.”
Pena shrugged off these comments but made it clear she would be ready for Harrison should she move to the UFC.
“Who is this Ronda Rousey wannabe?” Pena says.
“Kayla is not on my radar. I don’t even think she can make 135lb, but if she wants to make the weight, pack your stuff and come on over here, honey.
“In the meantime, my focus is the rematch with Amanda.”