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The Weekly Takedown: Will Julianna Peña prove her upset of Amanda Nunes was no fluke?

The bantamweight champ shocked the world at UFC 269 and enters Saturday's UFC 277 headliner poised to reassert her dominance.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

julianna-pena

Julianna Peña makes her first defense of the bantamweight championship this Saturday at UFC 277, seeking to defeat Amanda Nunes for a second straight time.

"For many years, I've been trying to get this recognition," Peña says. "I want to let people know I'm here and I belong. People still doubt me, so there is a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. It wasn't some lucky punch in that last fight. I'm going to prove that again on Saturday."

Peña (11-4 MMA, 7-2 UFC) forced Nunes (21-5 MMA, 14-2 UFC) to tap out in the second round of their bout last December at UFC 269. Fighting fire with fire, Peña exchanged shots with Nunes, wearing out the seemingly unbeatable champ. Peña's attack made Nunes look labored, off-balance and fatigued, and it even appeared she was on the verge of winning by knockout – which is her goal entering 277.

"I was being a good student," says Peña, who listened to her corner to go for the takedown even when it appeared a knockout was imminent. "My corner was shouting at me to press, but I was thinking, 'I got this!' I was literally ready to finish this on the feet. My boxing coach was the only one who wanted me to keep throwing, though he was excited when I took her down and choked her. Luckily for me, I get a second shot to do it."

In addition to her striking, Peña believes she can outlast Nunes with her wrestling. As recently as last November, that seemed unrealistic. Yet after Peña looked so dominant against Nunes in December, that suddenly seems like a legitimate possibility.

"I train everywhere, and I'm comfortable everywhere," says Peña, who needs to again exhaust Nunes to win this fight. "I won't be outworked. That has attributed to a lot of my success.

"I fought through adversity against Amanda. I took some devastating shots. I can take a punch, and I'm going to keep fighting. My will was why I won that fight."

Nunes enters the rematch as the favorite and ready to win back the belt, but she has a tall task in front of her – breaking Peña's spirit will be incredibly difficult to do.

"Possession is ninth-tenths of the law," says Peña. "I'm not giving up the belt. If she wants it, she'll have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers."

* * * * *

Kai Kara-France has a golden opportunity in front of him Saturday, a rare chance to avenge a prior loss and win his first UFC title.

Kara-France (24-9 MMA, 7-2 UFC) challenges Brandon Moreno at UFC 277 in an interim title bout for the flyweight championship. Moreno (19-6-2 MMA, 7-3-2 UFC) is the former champ, having lost to reigning champ Deiveson Figueiredo after defeating him in spectacular fashion in June 2021. Moreno is a walking highlight reel in the cage, and he has an almost innate way of winning over a crowd with his undeniable fighting spirit.

"I have a lot of respect for Moreno," Kara-France says. "We want the same things. This is my chance to go against one of the best, and after winning my last three, I feel like I'm already the champion going into it."

This bout marks a rematch from their 2019 fight, which Moreno won convincingly by unanimous decision.

"I'm not the same fighter," says Kara-France, who ended Askar Askarov's undefeated streak in March. "I know Brandon isn't, either. He went on to become greater and win the title. Now I am hitting my peak, and I believe I'm the best in the division. I just took someone's zero; now I'm ready to beat a former champion by putting Brandon away."

Kara-France and Moreno share history dating back to "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2016. Both were eliminated by Alexandre Pantoja, who, incidentally, is also on the 277 card. A win for No. 4-ranked Pantoja against No. 6 Alex Perez would put him in the mix for a title shot, either against Figueiredo or the new interim champ. And, despite the fact it is interim and not undisputed, Kara-France desperately wants that championship.

"Regardless of the fact it's the interim title, it is what I've been working for all these years," Kara-France says. "I put everything into this camp, and I'm ready for a dog fight and to take it to Brandon.

"I'm going to put on a show. I'm walking into a hostile territory with all of Brandon's fans, but I can't wait to feed off that energy. I am going to be the next to bring a title to City Kickboxing."

The Pick 'Em Section:

UFC 277 main event bantamweight title bout: Julianna Peña vs. Amanda Nunes

  • Pick: Amanda Nunes

UFC 277 interim flyweight title bout: Brandon Moreno vs. Kai Kara-France

  • Pick: Kai Kara-France

UFC 277 heavyweight bout: Derrick Lewis vs. Sergei Pavlovich

  • Pick: Derrick Lewis

UFC 277 flyweight bout: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Alex Perez

  • Pick: Alexandre Pantoja

UFC 277 light heavyweight bout: Anthony Smith vs. Magomed Ankalaev

  • Pick: Magomed Ankalaev

Last week: 4–1

2022 record: 83–48

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.