SPOKANE, Wash. — Julianna Peña has been a bit busy the last few weeks. That's what happens after you win a UFC title.
But no matter what, being back in Spokane for Christmas was a priority — even if that meant she arrived on the night of Christmas Eve.
"I started in a small gym," said Peña as she sat in Rick Little's Sik Jitsu headquarters, which is a small garage attached to his house. "I made it to the biggest stage in the world, and I became a champion. This gym, to me, signifies my roots. This is the foundation of who I am as a fighter and that’s just a raw dog. That’s what’s been instilled in me as I have grown up in fighting with Rick."
It’s been quite an experience for Peña and her trainer Rick Little over the last few weeks, especially in terms of the reaction from their hometown.
"It’s been almost more than I expected," Little said. "You’ve got people like Mark Rypien reaching out and saying it’s one of the biggest deals ever. That’s a Super Bowl champion and MVP. I looked at him as maybe the biggest sports figure ever in Spokane, and he’s basically calling her the biggest sports figure. I think that’s accurate."
Little couldn't quite wipe the smile off of his face on Monday and remarked at how surprised he is at the happiness Peña's win has given him.
For Peña, there isn't much happiness in winning. That's because she expected the result.
"The belt is just the cherry on top of what we’ve been thinking and always been saying. I feel personally validated because it’s come true. I did it. You can’t deny it. The belt speaks for itself," Peña said, gesturing to the glittering piece of hardware.
She’ll have defend that belt against Amanda Nunes, the person she beat in the bantamweight title fight, in a date yet to be announced.
You may expect for Peña and Little to be annoyed that they'll have to face off with Nunes again, but they aren't. They know it’s necessary to cement their legacy.
"I’m not content with just winning the belt. I want to defend the belt. I want to go on and show everybody that it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t something where I just touched her on the jaw and she tapped. I made her quit. I want to show that I’m going to make her quit again a second time," Peña said.
"She didn’t get than fanfare of Amanda through the UFC’s machine," Little said of Peña. "They do so well promoting that it’s just Amanda, Amanda, Amanda. She’s going to have to make up for that by beating her twice."
And so the two of them will take on their next conquest. It’s just the latest in a journey that they started together 13 years ago and they have no plans on stopping any time soon.
"He gave me a career. Literally, in a sense, I owe my life to him. He’s been somebody who’s always, always, always directed me on the right path and who has never left me behind and has never given up on me, even when I wanted to give up on myself," said Peña of Little.
"I don’t know if she’s ever heard this, but when I started coaching, I was thing close to quitting many times," said Little of Peña. "I literally needed her to emerge as a coach. If she didn’t come, I don’t think I would’ve continued to coach. I think I would’ve quit this in a year and went on to something else. There would be no Spokane fight town, there wouldn’t be all these fighters from Spokane, this would’ve never happened."