On Saturday, January 28th, Julianna Peña (8-2), the UFC’s number-two ranked women’s bantamweight, headlines her first UFC event opposite number-one ranked Valentina Shevchenko (13-2). However, Peña told Bloody Elbow that this fight with Shevchenko may not have happened at all, had it not been for outspoken UFC fans and their desire for this particular match-up.
“I think this fight is a long time coming and this is a fight that the fans have been dying for,” said Peña. “It’s a fight that the fans have been chirping in my ear about nonstop and people have been telling me that I’m scared to take the fight, but it has nothing to do with that and more so the fact that I felt if I wouldn’t have fought, I probably would have been fighting for title anyways right now, if I would have just sat and waited. But that’s not the way the cookie crumbles and unfortunately the fans wanted to see me fight one more time before I fight for the belt, so I’m actually doing this fight for the fans and doing a fight which they have asked for and have requested for me for a long time now, so I hope that I make them happy and then they can be a little bit grateful for the fact I am putting it all on the line for them.”
In preparation for Shevchenko, who is a multi-time World Muay Thai and K-1 champion, Peña has been working with Wayne Gregory - the first American kickboxer ever to win a fight in Bangkok’s storied Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. Gregory is based in Chicago, IL. Peña recently relocated to Chicago from her hometown of Spokane, WA. The move was both personal and professional for Peña, who recently began a new relationship. Chicago also puts the former TUF winner closer to her BJJ coach (three time world champion Luiz Claudio) and allows her to train opposite Yair Rodriguez under his coach Mike Valle. To round out her training camp Peña also flew in her long time trainer Rick Little and other associates from Spokane.
Despite working closely with US Muay Thai legend Gregory, Peña insisted that she is not focusing too much on Shevchenko’s abilities during camp.
“I definitely think you have to focus on yourself,” said Peña. “I take into consideration who I am fighting, but for the most part I just focus on my mat time, and putting in the work, and just focusing on what I can do and what I know I can do. I want her to have to feel like she has to adapt to me and not the other way around.”
Peña called Shevchenko “well rounded” and assumed her opponent would be “comfortable” wherever her fight goes. However, Peña does believe the ground is where she may find her biggest advantage against the Peruvian/Kyrgyz fighter.
“I’ve seen her struggle in positions on the ground,” stated Peña. “Like, getting submissions and then letting them go and not really being too familiar with the finishes, but I know she’s working on the ground sharpening up her ground skills so I’m anticipating the best Valentina that there ever has been and that she’ll be covering all her bases as far as the wrestling and jiu jitsu goes, as I have with the stand up.”
Peña said “it feels great” to have the opportunity to headline UFC on FOX 23, especially since she feels this moment has been a long time coming.
“I felt left out in the past,” revealed Peña. “Since other women have been able to headline cards and I haven’t, so to be able to have this opportunity, and not to be on FOX Sports 1 and not [with fans] having to pay sixty-dollars on pay-per-view, but to be the main event on ‘big FOX’ where everybody can tune in. It’s quite an accomplishment, it’s a big honour and I am so excited just to have this spot.”
Should she be victorious in the biggest showcase of her career, Peña believes there’s only one fight that makes sense for her to take on next.
“I definitely think I’ve been deserving of a title shot for a long time now and if I don’t get a title shot [after beating Shevchenko] then I’ll be baffled,” stated Peña, who then conceded that it’s very hard to tell what the UFC will do when it comes to match-making. “At the end of the day, my main focus right now, and my sole focus right now, is Valentina Shevchenko and that’s it.”
UFC on FOX 23 takes place at the Pepsi Center in Denver, CO, with the main card starting at 8 PM ET/5 PM PT.