Spokane's own Julianna Pena — the fiery mixed martial artist who's become a fan favorite since landing a contract in 2013 with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as champion of its 18th consecutive The Ultimate Fighter competition series — is getting back into the cage this spring.
The classically beautiful and deeply motivated athlete hasn't been able to compete since that November 2013 victory. Pena sustained a devastating knee injury one year ago while training at her Spokane gym, Sikjitsu, and initial predictions were that she might never return to the sport. Those sentiments, however, only made the relentlessly determined Pena — one of a small percentage of women in a sport dominated by male athletes and fans — push herself even harder to make a full recovery and return.
And just yesterday, the UFC announced Pena is indeed scheduled to return to the ring on April 4, against a recent UFC newcomer, Russian fighter Milana Dudieva. What's remarkable about that matchup, however, is that Dudieva most recently fought Pena's teammate and training partner, Elizabeth Phillips, at a hotly contested matchup in Macau, China, last summer. (Read our feature on Phillips and Pena written just before that event.)
After Phillips was declared the loser of the fight against Dudieva, UFC President Dana White removed a judge (a move later determined by the organization to be a breach of protocol), upset with the match's scoring, and of the bout before it. The upsetting loss was an unexpected blow to Phillips, her fans and even sports writers covering the event, who believed Phillips to have undoubtedly bested her opponent.
But with the upcoming matchup of Pena vs. Dudieva, fans of the two Spokane-based women can hope to get their revenge. Long-time fans of mixed martial arts and the UFC may also question whether the organization's pairing of Pena and Dudieva was an intentional move to rally both fighters and their audiences.
Following Phillips' loss in August, Spokane's two UFC-signed male athletes — teammates to the two women, all four coached by Sikjitsu owner Rick Little — both suffered defeats as well. Sam Sicilia lost via submission in September, just weeks after his training partner Mike Chiesa experience an incredibly disappointing defeat. Chiesa's opponent in that event, Joe Lauzon, landed a skin-splitting blow to his face, forcing doctors on site to call an end to the contest.
It's been a rocky year for the Sikjitsu team, but things are looking up. Just this past weekend, on Jan. 24, Sicilia knocked his opponent (Akira Corassani) out cold in a furious exchange of fists. The KO happened with a minute-and-a-half remaining in the first of three rounds, and Sicilia was considered the underdog going in.
And joining Pena on the April 4 fight card is Chiesa, who's set to go up against Canadian fighter Mitch Clarke. Both men hold professional records of 11 wins and two losses.
It's going to be a big night for Spokane's top MMA athletes — one not to miss.