Julianna Peña, best known for being the first woman to win “The Ultimate Fighter,” is running late because she needs to fix her make-up. The 25-year-old jiu jitsu expert from Spokane is coming back from the sort of knee injury – torn ACL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus - people don’t come back from and the make up matters. She explains this as soon as she arrives in the restaurant, causing a bit of a stir with an outfit that required more forethought than fabric.
“Sex sells,” she says. And though it’s hardly an original thought it does sound different coming out of this Latin beauty, who could beat the ever-living shit out of the waiter. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
It’s a rocky start, but Pena doesn’t speak entirely in cliches. To the contrary, she’s frank and forthright. She makes the sort of eye contact that fighters make even as she leans in with practiced feminine familiarity. The effect is disconcerting, seductive and intimidating in equal turns. She’s not wearing leather, but she implicitly demands submission. And men do submit.
“My fans are persistent,” she says, bragging more than offering a critique. “I put a photograph on Instagram of me naked with my butt handing out holding chiffon ribbons. That's so not me, but I had to try to keep myself relevant.”
Spoken like a fighter and, more specifically, spoken like a hobbled fighter.
Pena hasn’t gotten into an octagon (on television anyway) for a year. And nowhere is the old adage about being out of sight more true than in fighting, where you have to be not only in the spotlight, but within shouting distance of both your opponent and your fans. Pena is an interesting position in both regards: Her looks and attitude have earned her an ardent following and her next fight will be against Ronda Rousey, the loudest, most-frequently-bikini-clad woman in the sport.
Rousey, who medaled in Judo for the US at the 2008 Olympics, knows a thing or two about selling sex and a thing or two about fighting. The planned bout is already being treated as a sort of hybrid title match/wet t-shirt contest. It’s no wonder, but it’s also a bit reductive. Both women are world class fighters and there isn’t going to be anything titillating when they set about trying to inflict damage on each other. There is no love lost there.
“Ronda is so full of herself,” Pena says. “She’s really arrogant. That arrogance costs her the respect of fighters and some fans. She’s just a bully. Ronda believes her own hype, but she’s never fought a woman like me. I’m going to be the toughest SOB she’s ever fought.”
Pena calls her style “aggressive and raw” and takes the opposite approach as Rousey, who is a technician and strategist. Pena is a hitter and she comes out swinging. And that’s just what she plans to do when the big day finally comes. She’s seen the tape of Sara McMann clipping Rousey on the chin in their February 2014 bout, the way the champ’s knees buckled slightly. If Pena gets close enough to land a punch flush on Rousey’s chin, there will be no more trash talk – not from Rousey anyway.
“She said she’d still kick my ass,” Pena says smiling. “I just laughed at her. I’m just a natural fighter. When I decided to try MMA, I let the devil inside me out. You can’t teach heart like I have.”
This may not be an overstatement.
Rousey’s favorite submission hold is an armbar. That’s noteworthy because an opponent caught a much younger Pena in that hold years back. Rather than tap the mat, quit, and stop the pain, Pena kept fighting until her arm broke. “I knew I wasn’t going to take my loss and give her the satisfaction of me tapping out,” Pena says of that bout. This is the sort of comment that - far more than any of the rest of the trash talk - intimidates. Beating Pena requires hurting Pena badly or knocking her out. That’s it.
And even the horror of her knee injury didn’t keep her down as long as expected. She’s limber and self assured. And, yes, that has as much to do with how she looks as how she feels. “Sex and beauty are part of my brand,” she says, reiterating a point that really needs no reiteration.
Here’s what Pena knows: If she beats Rousey, she’ll be famous and her brand will matter more. She’s talking about preparing for the fight, but the dress and the tone and her practiced mix of swagger and flirtation all speak to something else: What happens if the fight goes well? Julianna Peña, fighter, is training to be Julianna Peña, famous person. She wants more than a win.
Photos by Ian Spanier / Zuffa LLC / Getty Images