Julianna Peña, “The Venezuelan Vixen,” is the rising star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In 2013, the Latina athlete became the first female to win The Ultimate Fighter, a reality television show and mixed martial arts competition. She paved the way for future female competitors, as the show had never featured women before Peña’s appearance. She took a break from her intense training routine to chat with Chica about life outside the ring, staying confident, and why the right song makes all the difference.
Chica: How did you get started in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)?
Julianna Peña: My sister had invited me to a women’s cardio kickboxing class to lose some weight. It was love at first punch. I haven’t looked back since. I started to stay for the MMA classes afterward and learned the whole game.
Chica: And was your family supportive of this [career path]?
JP: At first they were very hesitant because I’m the baby of four and my dad didn’t like seeing his baby girl get punched in the face. Once they saw how dedicated I was and passionate I became with MMA, they jumped on board and have supported me wholeheartedly. I’m glad to have changed their minds.
Chica: How does it feel to be the first woman to win The Ultimate Fighter?
JP: To be that first ever female to win that tournament is an honor and something that I hold in high regard because it’s going to go down forever in UFC history.
Chica: Did you feel any pressure being the first women to win?
JP: No, I just knew that I wanted it. I would’ve been absolutely heartbroken if anyone got that title besides me. I wasn’t going to let anyone else be the “first ever.” I had to fight for it.
Chica: And as someone who has to fight for it, I assume you have to have a lot of confidence. What are ways that you keep your confidence high?
JP: The belief in myself and the strong mindset that I have. The sheer will and determination to know that no one is going to beat me up. I think you got to have that confidence and be aware that you’re in just as good of a position to beat the holy living crap out of somebody as anybody else on any given night. I have that. I’m very sure of myself so I don’t ever have these moments where I have to question whether or not I can do it. I know that I can do it. When you know that, it’s easy.
Chica: Do you have any rituals before competitions?
JP: I keep these little mementos that I’ve collected throughout the years that my family and friends have given to me; I carry those around whenever I fight. I also have a change of song every time I fight. Dana [White, President of the UFC] has been picking all my songs so far from The Ultimate Fighter finale up until my last fight. I never like to know what I’m walking out to. I like to be surprised and I kind of had some bad superstitions with my walkout song in the past so I make sure that it’s random every time going forward. I don’t want to put so much pressure on myself to pick the perfect song. That way, I could focus more on the fight than the song.
Chica: Is there a genre that you would never walk out to?
JP: I hope that I would never have to walk out to something crazy that I don’t like.
Chica: Do you feel that when you meet people that they have a misconception of you?
JP: I do feel that people that a wrong perception of me sometimes. But people are going to think whatever they want to think about you. That’s none of my business what they think. My job is to go out there and put on some great and amazing fights—and make people want to watch me and be excited about my fight. I’m not too worried whether they’re scared or their perception. I am who I say I am. I got to do me. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to pay my bills so I don’t focus too much on what people think.
Chica: Who is Julianna Peña outside of the ring?
JP: I love hanging out with family. I have eight nephews and my first niece came in February. If I’m not training with my friends, I’m usually with my family or out in nature doing something in the Pacific Northwest like going on hikes. I love to have fun. I love to laugh. I love to serve others and do things for other people. I like to make sure that everybody is happy.
Chica: Do you have ways in which you connect with your [Latino] culture?
JP: My family loves to cook all the time. That’s definitely something I connect with in my culture. Every week, we’ll have family dinner at my brother’s house, where it will be all sorts of Mexican food because my mother is Mexican. She makes some really good enchiladas.
Chica: And how did you get your nickname “The Venezuelan Vixen?”
JP: My dad is from Venezuela so my coach named me Venezuelan Vixen because he thought it was fitting to my character and my fighting style. If you look up the definition of a vixen, it’s pretty funny. Google ‘Vixen.’ [Laughs]
Chica: What advice would you give to women who are told they can’t do something?
JP: I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum and that’s what I suggest that you do. Some people didn’t want me to fight and they tried to keep my away from fighting. I never listened to that. I’m going to do what makes me happy. I think that if you have a focus in life— anything is possible and don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not. Go ahead and march, and don’t look back.
Chica: So what’s next for you?
JP: I’m waiting till the smoke clears. I’m waiting for my next fight. In the meantime, I got a job to do: lifting weights, staying in shape, and making sure that my food is on point. Smiling, nodding and looking pretty—that’s all I’m worried about right now.