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Julianna Peña’s Upset of Amanda Nunes Shakes Up the U.F.C.

“Julianna is a person who always believed in herself and believed that she could win this fight if she got it,” the U.F.C. president, Dana White, said at the news conference. “It’s one of the things that makes this sport so incredible.”

Rarely has anyone dominated Nunes, 33, in quite this way since she entered the U.F.C. in 2013. Her rise included easily dispatching Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Cris Justino, known as Cyborg. They were all pillars of women’s mixed martial arts and helped accelerate its footprint. Her defeat of Justino in 2018 to earn the featherweight title made her the first woman in U.F.C. history to hold two belts at once.

But Peña, who entered the promotion in 2013, had wanted to to fight Nunes for five years, ever since the night Nunes beat Tate to become champion at U.F.C. 200 in 2016. Peña claims Nunes avoided her and chose different opponents each time, saying their brawl would be an unfavorable stylistic matchup. The two were scheduled to fight in August, but Nunes contracted the coronavirus, forcing the fight’s delay. It frustrated Peña, and in one instance she mimicked a reporter at a news conference and asked White when the two would finally compete.

Peña’s coronation on Saturday is the next chapter in her up-and-down journey. While training in 2014, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, lateral collateral ligament and meniscus in her right knee. The recovery process forced her to sit out for over a year. She also did not fight in 2018 because of the birth of her daughter.

“Nothing was going to stop me from getting this belt,” Peña said. “This has been 13 years grinding, and it’s finally come to fruition. And it’s my time.”

The outcome, though, complicated the U.F.C.’s plans for a hypothetical blockbuster. Had Nunes won, her next fight would most likely have been against Kayla Harrison, a champion in the Professional Fighters League. Harrison’s league contract expired in October. White said in a phone interview last week that he and other U.F.C. officials met with Harrison on Thursday night.

Nunes, who was not made available to reporters afterward, still has options. A rematch is most likely, but she could also defend her featherweight belt. The first openly lesbian U.F.C. champion, Nunes recently married her partner, and they had a baby last year; White said it would not be surprising if Nunes stopped fighting.

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