UFC champ Julianna Peña talks wild alley brawl, Joe Rogan

    Since defeating Amanda Nunes at UFC 269, Julianna Peña doesn’t feel her life has changed that dramatically after her December victory over the longtime UFC women’s bantamweight champion.

    “To other people, I think they’d say that. To me, I feel exactly the same. I don’t really feel like much has changed. I feel exactly the same,” Peña told The Post over dinner at a Venezuelan restaurant in Chicago.

    Joined by close friend Piera Valle, the wife of one of Peña’s coaches, Rick Valle, and the owner of the Valle Flow Striking gym outside Chicago, the 32-year-old athlete added that while much of her daily routine has remained the same — “I still have to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to take my almost 4-year-old daughter, Issa, to school” — one aspect of her life has changed since her fight with Nunes.

    “My phone has been a bit busier,” she said.

    Peña knew from a young age that she was a fighter, even when she was just messing around with her siblings as a child.

    “Just being the baby of four, and getting roughhoused. My brother was obsessed with WWE. He dropped the People’s Elbow on me. He’s my biggest fan now. He was front row at my fight. All of them are happy with me now. They’re all like, ‘Why don’t you ever tell stories of the times I kicked your ass? I’m waiting for you to tell those stories,’” she said.

    An early test for Peña came when she battled a colleague in an alleyway, resulting in a gruesome aftermath.

    “I fought a dude in an alley and got my left eye swollen shut for three days. It needed 11 stitches,” she explained.

    Julianna Peña carries the Venezuelan flag at a weigh-in in 2016.
    Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    At the time of the fight, Peña was working as a food expediter at a local eatery called The Onion, which she likened to a “D-level independent version of Red Robin.” There, she worked alongside a former colleague from a pizza restaurant in Spokane.

    “He was just a nuisance. I constantly had to tell him what to do. I had to cut people from their shifts depending on how busy they were, and the second I could let anybody go, it would be him. I’d be like, ‘Get out of here,’” Peña explained of her previous gig, where she worked as his supervisor.

    Though Peña had just started training around the time she started working at The Onion, playful ribbing from colleagues fueled an alley rumble.

    Julianna Peña at a Venezuelan restaurant in Chicago.

    “The management staff would always egg him on, being like, ‘Don’t mess with her. She’ll kick your ass,’ instead of telling him to knock it off or you’ll get fired,” Peña said. “I had just started training at that point. We would banter back and forth. He would literally be like, ‘I would lay you out and I won’t even feel bad about it.’ I’d respond, ‘Bring it the f–k on.’”

    Believing herself to be a “skilled fighter” with just two matches under her belt, Peña was ready to show her colleague who was boss. Unfortunately, the battle didn’t swing in her favor.

    “We went out back and he knocked me down three times,” she recalled. “He punched me right in the eye. I dropped. I say this because I remember it like it was yesterday. I popped right back up. I swear to God I popped right back up. I went to attack again. Boom! He dropped me right again. Same spot in the eye. I popped right back up again and went to attack him. Boom! Right in the eye, and I dropped, and was like, ‘F–k you!’ and I walked away.”

    Julianna Peña celebrates victory over Amanda Nunes.
    Zuffa LLC

    Despite being left with an eye shut swollen and 11 stitches in her eye — not to mention a mother packing firearms asking “where the f—k” her opponent was — Peña walked away bigger lesson learned.

    “Being able to pop back up like I did, and fight through that adversity, knowing that guy wasn’t gonna put me down, to me gave me confidence,” she said. “And, on top of that, getting the s–t kicked out of me from my brothers and sisters my whole life.”

    Beyond her early fights, spoke Peña also spoke The Post about a wide range of topics, from FaceTiming Mike Tyson to a future appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and if she’d ever do professional wrestling.

    Julianna Peña prepares to enter Octagon.
    Zuffa LLC

    Who’s the wildest celebrity that has reached out to you since beating Nunes?

    Peña: Mike Tyson. We share the same agent – Chad Bronstein. Chad’s a beast. He put me on FaceTime with Mike. When an all-time legend and great like Mike Tyson’s reaching out, ‘You made it kid.’

    Have you picked up new sponsors?

    Peña: I just signed a new deal with Jones Soda. Shoutout Jones Soda!

    What were your previous sponsors?

    Peña: Columbia Care [a cannabis health company], Wesana Health [a mental health and performance biotechnology brand], and Fyllo [a tech firm]. All three of them are coming aboard again.

    What is your dream sponsor?

    Peña: Kim Kardashian’s Skims. I love the Kardashians/Jenners. I buy all their products. 

    Julianna Peña enters UFC Octagon.
    Getty Images

    What brought you to Chicago?

    Peña: The UFC sent me here on a Latino heritage month, and they asked me to be their representative. I was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel on Michigan Ave. My head coach Rick Little told me there was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt in Schaumburg. I took a train, had them pick me up at the train station, and met Luiz Claudio.

    I came back later and stayed with Luiz for a couple months. I’ve always been a massive Kanye West fan, and always thought in my head that if I could live anywhere it would be Chicago. My first initial drive in the city, I fell in love right away. The skyline is gorgeous. It smelled like pizza and chocolate. How does a city smell like chocolate? When I came back and lived with Luiz, I decided if I ever moved out of Spokane, it would be to Chicago. There comes a time in every fighter’s life where you need to add skills to your training, and that was something that I got here that I wasn’t getting in Spokane.

    Speaking of Luiz, he said that Amanda Nunes “underestimated” you. Do you agree with that?

    Peña: I think Amanda was prepared for the best version of Julianna that she was gonna see. She was ready. I said six months prior to the fight exactly what I was gonna do. I exposed her and I even gave her the message prior to the fight that that’s what I was gonna do. She didn’t underestimate me at all. She trained her ass off and was adamant, in her mind, to win the fight no matter what. She just got exposed, and that’s kind of what it was. 

    Julianna Peña with UFC bantamweight belt.
    Zuffa LLC

    I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never been in a fight, but I feel like if I were such a great fighter that I became a champion I’d want to bring the belt with me everywhere. What’s it like to have that in your possession? It’s got to be so powerful.

    Peña: It is. It also makes me very paranoid. This caused a major drama, but someone asked me to take a picture with the belt right after I won. I was like, ‘Okay, no problem, I know this person.’ And then somebody else was like, ‘You just won that, you can’t just let everyone hold it.’ I’m like, ‘This belt’s for everyone. It’s the people’s belt.’ I’m a representative of the UFC, I want people to know about fighting, and anyone who wants to hold it can hold it. 

    Then, you’ve got people who are superstitious, who believe you can’t touch the belt until you win it. Otherwise, you’re never gonna get it. I was like, ‘Everyone can hold it.’ Then it’s real. Then I started noticing scratches on it. You can’t buff that out. That’s gonna be on there for life. Then I started getting paranoid about it, being like, ‘I’m not handling it properly. It needs to not be touched.’

    The etiquette of the belt is still something that I’m very reluctant on, because it’s still all new, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to handle it. At WWE SmackDown in Chicago, the kid behind me asked if he could hold the belt. I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ Then I noticed that my heart started pounding. I was like, ‘Is this kid gonna run off with the belt? What if he scratches it more?’ Then I thought, ‘It’s fine, let him hold the belt.’

    After I won the belt, I put it on the floor for a second to compare it to some replica belts that I bought for my coaches. My daughter Issa just started standing and jumping on it and I was like, ‘What are you doing?! Don’t jump on my belt!’ But she’s really cute with it. When I shine it, she’ll get a towel and start shining it with me.

    How does this work? Let’s say you eventually lose the belt. When that happens, does someone else own the same belt, or do you get to keep this belt forever?

    Peña: I believe that with every title fight and defense, you get a new belt. So, when I win another fight, they’re gonna give me another belt. 

    I’m a little older than you, but when we were growing up, there weren’t really famous women’s fighters like there are now. Was there anybody that you looked up to that made you want to become a fighter?

    Peña: There was, the girls that were fighting before me, while I was coming up. Mischa Tate, Cris Cyborg, and Gina Carano. I loved Gina Carano. Those were the ones that I remember too. 

    Gina Carano at an event for “Mandalorian”
    Getty Images

    Shayna Baszler, too. I remember buying her shirt and getting her autograph and being a fan of hers. And then I had to fight her on “The Ultimate Fighter.” I was like, ‘I’m fighting someone that I look up to! Someone that I think is really great!’ It was so weird to be fighting a legend. That definitely happened.

    What city has the best fight crowds?

    Peña: Vegas. Chicago has a fight scene as well. 

    You should do a title defense here at some point.

    Peña: Whenever Amanda’s ready, I’d love to. But, it would be a little difficult to do here, or anywhere other than Vegas or Abu Dhabi with all the COVID-19 restrictions right now. 

    Julianna Peña celebrates victory over Amanda Nunes with her team in Las Vegas.
    Zuffa LLC

    What’s the coolest media opportunity you’ve gotten since defeating Nunes?

    Peña: I’m going on Joe Rogan on January 26. 

    Oh wow, that’s a gigantic audience. How did that come about?

    Peña: I was like, ‘Joe, I wanna come on the podcast.’ He was like, ‘Let’s f–king go. How about January 26?’

    It’s a little crazy to me how mad people get about his opinions. I have a philosophy where if people aren’t inciting violence, or in positions of government authority where they hold power over others, I don’t get hung up over anybody’s opinions. I get much more mad about actions than people’s opinions. I see him as someone trying to learn in real-time, and just because he says something now that people think is bad, it’s not necessarily a permanent harmful thought. I think he’s valuable for the proverbial conversation.

    Peña: I find him very interesting. I actually find a lot of what he says to be like-minded with the way that I feel. Not all things, obviously. I listen to the podcast, but it’s not like I’m waiting for him to say something people disagree with him.

    Joe Rogan interviews Julianna Peña after she defeated Amanda Nunes.

    What are your thoughts on him as a UFC commentator?

    Peña: Coming from a commentating perspective, because I call fights for Combate Global, it’s a hard job. It is also a fun job. It can also be redundant. There are a lot of fights and a lot of fighters. It’s a constant wheelhouse of the same thing. Sure, some people are different, but it starts to all blend together. Being present, I think, is a hard thing to demand of someone who’s been doing it for so long.

    And he makes so much money from his podcast, that UFC is almost a labor of love for him at this point.

    Peña: It is, and the fact that we even still get him is a blessing. The fact that he still wants to do it, and that he’s still passionate about it, shows the kind of person he is, where his heart is and how loyal he is. I admire that. There’s not anything bad that I can say about Joe. I think he’s a genuine, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person, and that’s a rarity in this day and age – to see people who are “no bulls–t.”

    If you could go anywhere in the world for a vacation, where would it be?

    Peña: Bali or the Maldives. 

    Would you ever want to compete in WWE?

    Peña: Right now my focus is on fighting. Later on, if that opportunity presents itself, I don’t see why I couldn’t explore that avenue. Definitely, my focus is on fighting for the UFC. 

    Piera Valle: Physically, did one of your surgeries, or getting hit by a drunk driver, or having Issa, take a bigger toll on you than the alley fight?

    Peña: Look, I’ve been through the wash. I’ve torn ligaments in both legs. I’ve dislocated both of my elbows. I’ve fought in an alley. I’ve gotten run over by cars. All of that made me who I am and brought me to this point where I am today. You are your only limit. Nothing’s gonna stop me. I’m gonna have to get taken out in a different way to get me to stop. It’s all be a freaking crazy comeback. Everything that I’ve gone through has molded me into who I am. Nothing’s going to deter me with all the s–t that I’ve been through.

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