Julianna Peña put on the performance of a lifetime on Saturday night at UFC 269. Few predicted that she had a chance against UFC women’s flyweight and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, a woman with hands of sheet metal. Nunes had dispatched of her last 12 opponents dating back to 2015. This includes a unanimous decision victory against Germaine de Randamie in 2019, who submitted Peña in 2020 despite being known more for her striking than for her grappling.
That was Peña’s second loss in her previous four fights. The other one was a submission loss to Valentina Shevchenko, who pushed Nunes in a 2017 championship fight but still recorded a loss by split decision. In Nunes’ recent victories, the question is usually asked, either in the middle of a dominating unanimous decision victory — or after a quick finish: “Who can provide her a challenge?”
The answer to that question shockingly turned out to be Peña. She took a beating in the first round on Saturday night, but while on the ground was able to keep the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt from finishing her the same way as Shevchenko and de Randamie. It forced Nunes to expend some energy early in the fight, and Peña’s corner calmed her between Round 1 and Round 2 saying “We’ve got her right where we want her.”
Corner advice like that sounds about as ludicrous as predicting Peña to win the fight, but what was even wilder was how the second round began. Peña started trading blows with the stone-fisted Nunes. Even as the swelling in Peña’s left eye increased, she was able to hold her own against that champion and eventually put her on her back. Peña then jumped on Nunes and submitted her with a rear naked choke.
This is a New York Giants defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII type of upset, and it ‘s arguably the biggest in the history of the UFC. Nunes was a -1200 favorite to defeat Peña. Prior to Saturday night, what was commonly regarded as the biggest upset in UFC history is Matt Serra knocking out arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, Georges St. Pierre.
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Serra got the opportunity to fight St. Pierre almost as a gimmick. He won the welterweight competition in the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, back when the UFC’s cable television partner was Spike TV, and for that season it wasn’t two top contenders coaching opposing teams of fighters while preparing for their big pay-per-view showdown. The prize for The Ultimate Fighter 4 was a championship fight. St. Pierre was a -1300 favorite to defeat Serra and lost by TKO in the first round.
It’s a personal choice on which legend it was more shocking to see pummeled, St. Pierre getting ground and pounded into meat by Serra, or Nunes getting knocked down and choked out by Peña, but Saturday night will go down in the annals of sports history.
A -1200 underdog with a .500 winning percentage over the last five years knocked out a fighter who many thought had no viable challengers. There’s always the chance that this happens, but rarely does it come to fruition.
There’s the chance that Mike Tyson lays an egg against Buster Douglas in a heavyweight championship fight, or that Mike White has the most passing yards in the NFL in his first career start.
However, these mind-boggling upsets didn’t mean that these underdogs all of a sudden became the unstoppable forces that their highly favored foes were perceived to be. The Giants didn’t win another playoff game for four years. Serra lost three of his next four fights before retiring, including a TKO loss in the second round to St. Pierre in their rematch. Douglas lost the heavyweight championship in his very next fight and never regained it, and White has not played since his four interception performance against the Buffalo Bills.
Maybe that will be Peña’s fate as she will likely again be an underdog whenever she and Nunes have their rematch, but for now she gets to be the fan favorite David. Peña used her slingshot to choke out a mixed-martial arts Goliath. For now she’s the champ, and for forever her performance will be remembered.