2021 MMA Junkie Fighter of the Year: Julianna Peña

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In the minds of most observers, Julianna Pena entered December’s UFC 269 after the fact.

It wasn’t meant to be a statement of Peña’s skills, but rather a reflection of how then-two-time UFC champion Amanda Nunes was – and still is – in the MMA community.

Of the 13 selections made in MMA Junkie’s Staff Picks, all 13 sided with Nunes. MMA Junkie readers also voted Nunes an overwhelming favorite, with 87% of the votes cast in his direction.

Tipico, the exclusive sportsbook and iGaming provider for USA TODAY Sports and MMA Junkie, had Nunes listed as an incredible favorite -1100, meaning you’ll have to risk $ 1,100 to earn a profit of just $ 100 for one. victory for “The Lioness”, involving a 92 percent chance of winning.

In short, few outside Peña’s inner circle predicted that she would step down from the competition as the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. But that’s exactly what happened.

Peña (11-4 MMA, 7-2 UFC) was forced to face early adversity, was swept to the ground with a scathing kick and fell with a jab soon after. “The Venezuelan Vixen” displayed resilience, struggling to get back on her feet, but was brought back to the canvas soon after, with Nunes appearing to outsmart her on the ground. Nunes was so confident in her dominance that she took a brief moment to look up and smile at the cameras.

Peña, however, refused to leave, effectively attacking Nunes’ left arm in the dying seconds of the frame.

The second round was played on the feet, with Peña showing no fear as she stood facing the woman widely considered to be the tallest of all time. It seemed like a rather risky strategy, as Cris Cyborg sadly discovered in 2018. However, for Peña, the risk provided a rather incredible reward, with Nunes visibly fading into the trading. As the round progressed, Peña was able to lead the fight on the ground, immediately move to the rear, and lock in a bare rear choke ending the fight.

A victorious Peña came back to her feet after the victory, seemingly as shocked as the sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, finally turning to the broadcast crew and repeating three words: “I got you. said. I told you.”

For as many doubts that existed before the fight, which veteran commentator Joe Rogan called “the biggest upheaval in the history of the sport,” Peña never deviated from what she saw as her destiny. From the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 18” to the UFC champion, it was a journey Peña believed she was always meant to be.

A complete reconstruction of the knee, damaging almost all the moving parts of the joint? A two-and-a-half-year hiatus from competition to focus on motherhood? Four-month delay once she got the title shot after Nunes tested positive for COVID-19?

None of these obstacles once left the slightest doubt in Peña’s mind, and she scintillently delivered one of the most memorable clashes in women’s MMA history.

It wasn’t Peña’s only win of the year. She also subdued former Olympic wrestling silver medalist and UFC title challenger Sara McMann in January, also by strangling at the back. But it is Nunes’ victory that will forever be etched in the UFC history books, as well as in the minds of all who witnessed that moment. For this reason, she is MMA Junkie’s 2021 Female Fighter of the Year.

Honorable mention: Kayla Harrison

Kayla Harrison, two-time Olympic gold medalist and now two-time PFL Women’s Champion, continues to establish herself as a dominant force in women’s MMA.

In 2021, Harrison (12-0) entered the cage four times and was victorious in all four contests, with two wins by submission and two by TKO. Only one of those fights came out of the first round: the 2021 PFL Championship bout with Taylor Guardado, which Harrison finished in the second.

If there is any doubt about Harrison’s skill, it may simply be because she has faced a level of competition that doesn’t seem quite up to her own talent. Of course, given his athletic prowess, there’s no guarantee that a stint in the UFC or the Bellator would provide more rigorous testing. Harrison might be that good too.

It looks like Harrison is doomed to drop to 145 pounds in 2022, where she could potentially face reigning UFC champion Amanda Nunes, her top team-mate USA or defending Bellator champion Cris Cyborg, who is widely regarded as the best. featherweight in the history of women’s MMA. Should she manage to defeat any of these superstars, Harrison could prove to be a challenger for that honor again next year.

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