When Dana White strapped the bantamweight belt around Julianna Pena’s waist after one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, the promotion’s president immediately thought back to the first time he met her about eight years ago.
The way White remembers it, Pena found him at his sons’ jiu-jitsu tournament. She charged up to the executive, stuck out her hand and said: “I’m going to fight for you someday, and I’m going to be a world champion.”
Pena’s journey from that cheeky introduction to this triumphant moment led her down a path she never could have anticipated, including detours for major reconstructive knee surgery in 2014 and the birth of her daughter in 2018. She pursued her dream relentlessly against those life obstacles and despite two recent losses, culminating in a showdown Saturday night with the most accomplished champion in women’s mixed martial arts history.
When Pena emerged from UFC 269 as the first new bantamweight champion since 2016, nobody in the sport appeared to be less shocked than the 10-to-1 underdog herself.