Reigning Bantamweight queen, Julianna Pena, seeks to retain her throne opposite divisional great, Amanda Nunes, this Saturday (July 30, 2022) at UFC 277 inside American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Pena talked big ahead of UFC 269, and most in the fighting community scoffed, myself included. The woman guillotined by Germaine de Randamie of all people was going to dethrone Nunes? It didn’t sound very likely, but sure enough, Pena lived up to her promises to the letter. She walked down the champion, willingly engaged in a wild scrap, that pulled out ahead on the strength of her guts and toughness.
Can she do it again? Let’s take a closer look at her skill set:
Look, Pena may have boxed up Nunes in the second round, but that was all grit and confidence. Technically, her standup skills are still decidedly average for her division.
Pena is able to get away with mediocre kickboxing at such a high level in her division for several reasons. First and foremost, she’s larger than most of her foes and a superior athlete as well. Secondly, the primary purpose of her striking is to land herself in the clinch, so she rarely spends that much time trading blows. Since there aren’t many knockout artists in the women’s Bantamweight division, it often becomes a volume game, and Pena has the cardio to play.
All that said, Pena did make some smart adjustments against Nunes. For one, Pena made it clear that addressing the low kick was a priority. Her defense wasn’t spectacular or anything, but Pena did check some kicks and pull her leg back. When that wasn’t an option, Pena at least stepped forward and fired back.
Mitigating — even partially — the low kick had a huge effect on the fight. Without her calf kick, Nunes didn’t really have an answer to Pena’s jab. It wasn’t a spectacular jab, but Pena did a nice job of keeping her head off the center line (GIF). In addition, she smartly would use her left arm to frame after jabbing, which helped avoid taking an overhand across the top.
The calf kick and overhand are Nunes’ best weapons, so credit to Pena for managing them well.
In short, Pena’s offense is pretty predictable. After throwing out a stiff — not in the good way — jab or hook, Pena will soon flurry into a combination of hooks and crosses. These punches definitely hurt when they land, but they are also quite predictable. Additionally, Pena’s head remains still and her chin raises, which is a defensive nightmare. If you don’t believe me, the following link puts that pair of problems on full display (GIF).
Often, Pena is only punching long enough to land herself in the clinch, where she scores a majority of her takedowns. She is definitely capable of taking a shot into a single- or double-leg against the fence, but even then, it begins in the clinch. When forced to shoot from the outside, she tends to over-extend on her shot, meaning there is little power or drive behind it.
Once in the clinch, Pena is hyper aggressive with her trip attempts. At times, she’s able to simply secure a tight underhook and/or body lock to force her foe to the mat, but that’s less common against more skilled wrestlers. When faced with a women she cannot so easily out-muscle, Pena will attempt both the inside and outside trip. When she looks to either technique — for what it’s worth, she generally finds more success hooking outside the leg and driving down with the underhook on the opposite side — Pena fully commits her body weight to the takedown.
That leads to a lot of success in throwing her foe to the mat, but it also tends to get her reversed. Many women from Jessica Eye to Nunes have found success by waiting for Pena to attempt a trip and then countering while she’s off-balance, leaving her out of position to do anything but pull guard.
Pena’s jiu-jitsu is the most refined aspect of her game. She may possess some strong submissions, but her ability to cause and win scrambles is often what has allowed her to defeat strong opponents.
As mentioned, Pena ends on her back shockingly often for a fighter who tends to dominate from top position. From her back, Pena does an excellent job of securing an underhook and using it scramble into a sweep or clinch. Against Nunes, she spent a majority of the first round on her back, but she didn’t take much damage thanks to her ability to hang onto the kimura or threaten the single leg from half guard.
From top position, Pena is a very strong positional grappler who works to actively batter her foe while advancing position. Whenever still in the guard, Pena does her best to stand over her foe, keeping her hips very heavy and trapping her opponent. Doing this, she’s usually able to advance to half guard quickly, where she can posture to strike and take advantage of any openings her opponent gives.
After feeling Pena’s weight and punches, it’s not uncommon for her opponent to turn and give up the back. As her foe turns away, Pena keeps her weight heavy and latches onto the seat belt grip. Once there, Pena is very much in control and will threaten with the rear naked choke.
Alternatively, Pena will flatten her foe and secure an underhook, allowing the pass to mount. From that position, Pena’s balance is exceptional, as she climbs very high before dropping hard elbows and punches. Regardless of her opponent’s attempts to buck, Pena remains in dominant position and continues to work (GIF). As Pena transitions between dominant positions, she is looking for submission opportunities, usually in the form of a choke.
It does have to be mentioned that a pair of strikers in Valentina Shevchenko and de Randamie did submit the champion. Largely, this is a consequence of Pena’s habit of really forcing the fight and takedowns in particular. Pena is willing to take chances and tire herself out in pursuit of a grappling exchange, and as a result, there are opportunities for her opponent.
Pena is a tough scrapper with the size and mentality to match Nunes to a degree. Hopefully, this rematch will prove whether or not Nunes simply had an off-night, or if “Venezuelan Vixen” really is a bad match up for the Brazilian great.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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