Julianna Peña is one of the brightest young talents in MMA. At just 25 years old, the “Venezuelan Vixen” has gone 2 – 0 in the UFC and, in 2013, became the first ever woman to win the Ultimate Fighter. Despite suffering a major injury setback so early on in her career, Peña is back with her eyes firmly set on climbing the women’s bantamweight rankings. I got the chance to talk to her about all of that and more.
Peña had a very busy July, and not just because of her appearances during UFC Fight Week. “I was on the road for 21 days starting from July 6th through July 27th. I went from the UFC Fan Expo to Sam Sicilia’s fight in San Diego, to being a special guest in Seattle with Uriah Faber and then to Chicago to corner Elizabeth Phillips. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting my fans and interacting with them because they are the Soul of the UFC.”
On the subject of Phillips’ fight, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to ask about her teammates performance, as well as her much tweeted about cornering skills that were on display before and during that fight. “Elizabeth fought Jessamyn as an amateur on short notice and with 4 or 5 months of MMA training. This time she was ready and I could not have been more proud.” With a smile, she added “And yes. I’ve been told my cornering skills are top notch. Guys in my gym have argued about if I’ll be in their corner or another’s corner and I have to tell them to relax, I’ll corner them both. The twitter posts just re-emphasized what I already know.”
Peña is clearly passionate about cornering her teammates, but the next move in her own fighting career was announced recently; a UFC 192 bout with Jessica “Evil” Eye in a fight in which a win would propel her up the division, something Peña knows well. “Jessica’s a tough girl. I’m looking to put on a relentless show and after I win, I should be in title shot contention.” She also said “I don’t care who I fight as long as I have my required time to get ready, which won’t be a problem now because I am training full time.”
Peña’s confidence and determination shines through, something which was also evident when I asked her about comeback from the serious injury she suffered after winning TUF 18. “I did overcome a massive setback and I think that just shows a small fraction of my character, determination, and will to survive. I felt very overwhelmed emotionally and was stressed out to what I thought was my max. I literally couldn’t take one more second. I knew I had an opportunity to channel that into my fight and that’s exactly what I did. It felt amazing. The weight instantly lifted.”
Her TKO victory in that comeback fight with Milana Dudieva was impressive and one of the most popular wins of the year among fans. However, winning The Ultimate Fighter is probably the biggest achievement of her career so far. “Winning the Ultimate Fighter was a blessing that I worked hard for. It was huge for gaining experience and invaluable in my development because it taught me how to eat properly, recover properly. It helped me become closer to the company. It helped prepare me for when people ask me for a picture or autograph. It showed me how self-belief, hard work, determination and the will to win can overcome any obstacle.” When asked if she would consider a coaching role in a future series, her answer was resounding. “If I was asked to coach I would absolutely jump on the opportunity.”
All fighters obviously come from different backgrounds and get introduced to MMA in different ways. With that in mind, I then asked if fighting was something Julianna always wanted to do. “I did not grow up knowing I wanted to be a fighter but, I was ALWAYS fighting! I come from a pretty big family with lots of cousins and we would spend more of our time rough-housing which made me tough. My older brother would kick my butt when we would play together, and from my sisters… well, let’s just say I learned to fight with words from them.”
So, in that case, what were the aspirations of a young Julianna Peña? “As a little kid, I dreamed of being on TV! Either as a TV host or interviewer. I was always singing with a microphone in hand, and I knew all the lines to any Disney movie. This drove my sisters crazy. To me as a kid, I was living the dream, I just didn’t know it yet. Being a UFC fighter has brought the best of both worlds to me. I’m kicking ass on TV!”
Watching Peña fight, her athleticism is plain to see, which is not something that a person obtains by accident. So, before discovering MMA and indeed for the majority of her life, Peña was already a very active person. “I come from a very busy family. We were always doing something that required movement. From sweeping floors to riding bike rides on the Centennial trail. We played a lot of basketball, soccer, and volleyball as a family, and I have fond memories of watching my mom sweat her ass off to Jane Fonda step aerobics tapes in the living room and my dad wrestled. Although I wasn’t on any varsity team for any one sport, I could hang playing whatever it was we were doing. MMA came to me by default. I took a cardio kickboxing class with my sister at a place that also taught MMA. It was love at first punch.”
Outside of MMA, there are many things Peña enjoys, but chief among them is spending time with her family. “I mentioned that I have a pretty large family. Right now, we have 8 nephews! Our family is getting ready to welcome the first niece in October, the same month as my next fight. I spend a lot of time with my family, spoiling the boys rotten. I also spend quite a bit of time with my closet friends.” She then went on to discuss some other interests she holds. “Music was also another big theme growing up as a Peña, I get that from my dad. I love to listen to music, find new artists, watch videos and have dance parties alone in my undies. I enjoy getting my sweat on with some hot yoga. I’m all over the place when it comes to hobbies. I can’t stop spending money on makeup,” before adding, with a laugh “and there’s nothing like eating whatever I want when I’m not training!”
The day to day life of a fighter is something that people are always curious to find out more about. For Peña, it depends on if she’s in fight mode. “When I’m training, I wake up and have breakfast. Then work out, come home and eat and take a nap. I run errands, spend time with family or friends, snack, work out again, come home and eat and sleep. When I’m not training, see larger response to the previous question. Oh, and lip gloss…lots and lots of lip gloss.”
Another thing about Peña that one can feel is her pride. Namely, the pride she has in her family and her heritage, which I asked if that served as a motivational factor for her. Peña’s reply was full of enthusiasm. “Yes! When I’m in Houston on October 3rd, I will feel right at home. There is a huge Latino population there, and I know they’re going to be cheering for me. I will give them a fight to remember!”
Peña’s popularity among fans is undisputable, but, as is increasingly becoming the case with certain female MMA fighters, she is seen as a role model to young girls who want to succeed, not just in MMA, but in sports in general. Something she is very proud of. “First off, being called a role model is such a huge compliment to me. I am very flattered to think that what I am doing is giving young girls dreams of doing the same thing. It’s also a little scary, because I am not perfect! All I can say is, I’ve been marching to the beat of my own drum since I was in diapers. If the drum beat you hear growing up doesn’t match that of everyone else, that’s OK. Keep on marching girl! And be kind to each other.”
I would like to sincerely thank Julianna for taking the time to speak with me, but, before wrapping up the interview, Peña had some special words for her fans which I believe should serve as the final words to this article. “I love my fans! I could spend all afternoon talking about them. Your support and love keeps me motivated. You guys mean so much to me. My fans are the soul of the UFC. Your continued support is everything and I cannot stress that enough! I love you loyal guys and I thank you! I bleed for me but I also bleed for you!”
Brad Pickett, “I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much”
As Saturday looms closer, a new championship belt lies in waiting. Not just a new title, the first title bestowed from a young and growing promotion. Rise of Champions hosts its fifth event Saturday, in which new amateur and pro champions will be crowned.
Saturday is a great opportunity for the young promotion. Co-owner and former UFC veteran, Brad Pickett doesn’t look to compete with the bigger promotions like Cage Warriors or ACB, let alone the UFC. To his luck, Rise of Champions 5, doesn’t have to. While the UFC does have an event scheduled for the upcoming weekend, it happens to be the somewhat rare occurrence of a Sunday night show. Though, it does make sense, with the North American market free from the anaconda like stranglehold the NFL (American football) maintains for nearly 5 months of the year. Nonetheless, the Sunday night cards are strewn from the norm. Which is essentially what ROC looks to provide.
The regional circuit in Europe holds a good portion of quality promotions and Pickett wants to add ROC to that list. “I just want it to be a really recognizable name. Like for (people to say), ‘Oh, that’s a good show’. You hear that name and go, ‘that’s a really well worked, a really good show’.” It seems for the retired UK MMA legend, he couldn’t be happier. In describing what it meant to run a promotion, he said, “I just feel great to be a part of it. I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much, and I just like to put back what I’ve learned over the years with my coaching but then also later, run a promotion, give guys a good platform to grow and showcase their skills. For me, in a way, I feel it’s my duty to do something like this and stay within the sport”.
The other co-owner, Mickey Papas and he began the promotion together, while Pickett still competed in 2015. Papas and Pickett have a long-standing relationship stemming from early in the former Bantamweights career. “My relationship with Mickey started off like this; I remember when I was fighting in Cage Rage back in the day, I knew nothing on the floor really. I was just like a stand up fighter. I knew a little bit but I was unversed, and then I remember going to do some Jiu Jitsu and then also bumping into Mickey. Mickey was more Pankration, which I thought back then, the wrestling side of MMA was more important than just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the gi… he’s been one of my coaches ever since, even when I (went) out to America, I trained in America for a lot but also I’d come back in and train here. I had two teams, I had ATT and Team Titan.”
Upon further discussion of his promotion, Pickett revealed an aspect of his promotion which separates ROC from the rest of the popular regional promotions. “I like the fact when I have a pro main card of 4-5 fights and the rest of my card is amateur fights. Where shows like Bamma and Cage Warriors are predominantly only pro fights.” He continued, “I want to keep to my emphasis of young talent. And also in my pro fights people like Mike Ekundayo (an undefeated fighter coached by Pickett at Team Titan) who is the main event… I’m still trying to promote younger, unbeaten talent to help build themselves”.
Through his MMA journey, the retired fighter took many personal experiences while competing and coaching under a litany of promotions. He depicted one odd story in which, “I remember one of my fighters fighting on the show getting quite a bad cut on his eye. I remember seeing it backstage where I had other guys fighting on the show, later on the card, (guys) that I’m cornering. He’s just sitting back there and I said, ‘What’s going on, are you going to get stitched? The doctor going to see you to get you stitched up?’ He goes,
‘No, no, they gave me these steri strips’.
‘What do you mean they gave you steri strips?’,
‘They gave me steri strips to do it myself’. And I’m like,
‘You’re taking a piss’…
I went and complained, and they said, ‘Oh no, there’s one doctor, he’s by the cage side. He can’t come back and do the stitches. There’s a hospital just down the road why don’t you leave and go there?’ and I’m like you’re expecting one of my fighters to leave your show looking like he does with a massive gash on his face? It’s just like loads of things like that, it always happens.”
Having experience in the regional circuit, at the time that he did, Pickett was exposed to a lot. When asked about the preliminary conception of Rise of Champions, he explained it as so, “I’ve been to a of lot good shows in my career and I’ve been to a lot of bad shows. I’ve been to the best shows in the world as well. So for me, I knew that I have a very good insight on how a show should run, in front of the camera and more importantly behind the camera, because you get a lot of promoters who know how it should look for the camera but don’t know how to treat the fighters backstage or how things should run. Me (having) competed at the highest organization for many years, I know what that means.”
Pickett continued, “And it’s not a case of always about having money, it’s about proper organization, doing things well and at the end of the day knowing that, the fighters are the stars of the show. Where at some shows, they’re treating the fighters like cattle. (They treat them) like, go in fight and see you later, who’s next? For me, I am very much against that. Also, I felt the emphasis of my shows is to try and help grow and nurture, young developing talent… when I was doing it, it wasn’t really a career path for anyone, but now it’s a legitimate career path for young and aspiring athletes to be able to go out there and earn life changing money.”
As a self-critical person, Pickett believes ROC’s first four events turned out well, although he sees room for improvement. “I do believe they always can get better. One thing I can’t complain with, is the fights. The fights have always been really good, and at the end of the day that is what matters. There is no point of having this glitz and glamour, and spending thousands and thousands of pounds on lights, cameras, and just having complete dud fights.” Without much of a pause, he continued, “I do all the matchmaking myself. I do believe I know what are good fights and I put on some really good fights on my show. That’s what I am happy with. If the show keeps growing, then I can add a bit more glitz and glamour. A bit more on the production and things.”
One aspect he wishes translated better to the broadcast, is the ROC fighter ceremonies. “I do like a Pride thing, where there’s a ceremony before the start of the show where all the fighters come out in front of the audience, (all the fighters) on the under card. Then midway through the whole event, there’s a pause, a break and then we have another ceremony for the main card fighters.” In this certain structure, he believes the ceremonies not only add to the spectacle of the event but excite audiences for the fights to come. “It gives the (fighters) a bit more time in front of the crowd. And where, you may go (to) see Joe Blocks fight, but then you just see these two other guys come out and think, ‘Man, these two guys look like they’re gonna have a great scrap. I wanna watch that fight as well’… if you can get people interested in other fights on the card, it’s a win. That’s why I’m trying not to just make a good fight, I’m trying to make a good event where people go, ‘this is good, I would love to come to this show next time no matter who’s fighting’.”
While ROC does not occupy all his time, the hectic nature balancing multiple jobs earned Picketts attention as soon as he retired. He claimed, “Its weird, I’ll be honest with you, it was so much easier when I was a professional fighter. All I had to do is concentrate on myself, get up in the morning, train for a couple (of) hours, relax, (then) train a couple of hours in the evening and that’s it. It was so much easier. Also, I earned great money when I was fighting towards the end of my career. But now, I have to go back to the hustle… it’s not always about being financially rewarding but that obviously is important, I have a kid. I’ve got a house, a mortgage to pay. So that is important but, it also is to try to do what I like doing as well”.
It is evident, even from afar, that retirement hasn’t worn out the rugged mentality training and fighting gave him. Besides co-owning a promotion with his friend and business partner, Mickey Papas, Pickett hosts a weekly podcast (The One Punch Podcast), has a beautiful family (with an adorable son you can catch on his Instagram account), coaches fighters, trains average citizens, and travels for seminars. Yet, he finds time for all of it.
I imagine it would be hard to find another human like Brad Pickett. His youthful exuberance, tough mentality, and pragmatic nature make him an impossible character to clone. Speaking to him and feeling those qualities, only magnified the respect and admiration I had for the man. The MMA community is lucky to have Brad Pickett, and even luckier to keep him inside of it.
Rise of Champions 5, takes place this Saturday, February 16th at the Brentwood Leisure Centre, in Brentwood, England.
Jonas Magard, “This is all I do. I don’t have anything else”
In the late hours of this upcoming Saturday night in the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, a new Bantamweight champion will earn his crown. A little over 300 feet from the A12 in Brentwood, England, inside the Brentwood Centre, is where it will all happen. The medium sized venue will host Brad Pickett and his Rise of Champions promotion, for their fifth event and second with the venue.
An important event, ROC 5, represents something greater to a few different people involved with Saturdays show. For the promotions co-owner Pickett, it represents an opportunity to capture American audiences on a UFC-less Saturday while being broadcast exclusively on the world-leader’s streaming service, UFC Fight Pass. Although the former UFC contender has a lot riding on the success of his shows, ROC 5 may mean less to the owner than to both his main event fighters. Currently, the ROC 5 main event is set to determine the promotions first ever champion when Denmark’s Jonas Magard takes on London’s own, Mike Ekundayo.
Both young, talented, and riding unbeaten streaks, this main event represents a major stepping stone in their careers. In the case of Jonas Magard, “It’s just a new opportunity to do something, to put my mark on things. With or without the title I just want to fight. He’s in my way to something bigger”. His words echoed his demeanor. While the Danish Amateur MMA Champion, wanted to behave excited for the opportunity, fighting under the ROC banner, his attitude simply would not allow him. “I can’t wait to see how they put on the show and stuff, I think it’s going to be fun. But again it’s just me and him, it’s not about the show… I have not been training to fight at that event. I’ve been training to fight that guy and if it’s that’s event or if it’s in the backyard, it’s the same for me”.
Not only was the young Danish fighters’ mentality impressive but his record as well. At 8-3, Magard owns 7 stoppages, 6 by Japanese neck tie. The same submission he defeated Michail Chrisopoulus, with a little less than half of the opening round remaining, in his most recent appearance at ACB 75. And the same submission in which he holds the record for most finishes.
His journey to this point could not be described by the meager word, easy. After training for a year and two amateur fights in his home of Jutland, Denmark, Magard decided to make a change. “I went to Copenhagen to try to train there, in one of the bigger gyms and they just opened their arms and welcomed me. So, I thought why not move? I was 19 at the time. I didn’t really know anybody in Copenhagen”. He continued, “the first couple of times I was over there, I would live with some of the guys from the gym. I would have an amateur fight coming up, so I’d stay there for a month… I would still have my address and live back in Jutland, but I would just go over there do my training and my training camps”.
Magard travels quite a bit for his MMA training. In his current situation, Magard splits time between Rumble Sport in Copenhagen, Denmark and All Powers gym in Manchester, England. “I think a lot of fighters, they get too comfortable in their own little circle of fighters and in their own gym, where I like to just go out, get the best training work whether it is in Denmark or wherever. I don’t care about traveling or getting pushed as much as I can”.
He’s made a routine of being uncomfortable, something he does not think can be said of his opponent, “I think he hasn’t been battle tested, the same way as I have. Yeah, he’s a good opponent, he’s a guy I have to beat. He’s undefeated… but you know, I don’t think he’s been battled tested as he’s going to be now, with me (in) this fight, it’s just different”.
“I’ve seen his opponents and his opponents are okay but, they didn’t have a lot of fights either like he don’t. Not even as an amateur. As an amateur, I fought the guy who just fought for the Cage Warriors title, Alexander Jacobsen, he had like 125 boxing matches… I fought the guy who is going to fight for the Cage Warriors flyweight championship, Sam (Creasey)… I had the hard fights as an amateur, I don’t think he had the hard fights, that’s the difference about over here in Scandinavia. We get battle tested,” he continued to elaborate, “in amateur, people don’t get built up, people are getting hard fights. I had two fights the same day, for the Danish MMA amateur championship… I’ve been facing guys who I know come there to win, who’s just not there to be food… this is all I do, I don’t have anything else, I don’t have a day job I’m going to everyday and that’s the difference. I’m a professional, I live off this, I live for this, this is all I do. He has not met anybody like me before, who has the experiences I have.”
Magard believes the experience he earned through his MMA journey is what separates himself from his opponent. Outside of MMA, the Dane fought two shoot-fighting matches and one professional boxing bout. “He is a good fighter, he is a good strong fighter but I know the guys over here, there stronger side is not the ground. The wrestling in England, people want to punch each other in the face they don’t want to wrestle. I come from a place where people like to wrestle. And during this fight camp, I’ve been training with the (Danish) Greco Roman Olympic silver medalist [Mark Madsen]. I’ve been training with Martin Kammpman the former Danish UFC fighter… I eat I sleep I breathe MMA every day and I don’t want anything else. That’s going to be the difference in this fight one hundred percent”.
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