When Julianna Pena steps into the Octagon at Fight Night 63, it will be a moment that has been a long time in the making—and one that almost didn't happen.
After her dominant run on The Ultimate Fighter during which she defeated Jessica Rakoczy to become the Season 18 tournament winner, Pena was poised to hit the UFC women's bantamweight division with some momentum.
Shortly after her time on the reality-based fighting program, her next bout was booked against Jessica Andrade at UFC 171, and the Washington-state native set about preparing for the fight.
And that's where her story takes a cruel turn.
The 25-year-old bantamweight suffered a devastating knee injury that required major surgery and put her mixed martial arts career in jeopardy in one brutal swoop.
Nevertheless, Pena's mental toughness matches her aggression inside the cage, and she was determined to return to competing inside the Octagon. While she admits that there were some tough spots throughout her road to recovery, Pena never doubted her ability to return to form.
"I was able to stay positive with the help of my family and friends, the fans and my management team," Pena told Bleacher Report. "They were able to lift my spirits and help me get through the difficult times. I want to give a thank you to my friends and family, the fans who have stayed loyal and dedicated, and Oren Hodak at KO Reps. They really made all the difference."
On the physical side of things, the scrappy TUF winner put full trust in her surgeon, Dr. Ronald Kvitne, and her team at Sikjitsu to help her regain fighting form.
As soon as her knee could hold, Pena was back in the gym, and all the hard work and sacrifice invested are what she will be looking to turn into victory this Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia.
She will make her return against Milana Dudieva at Fight Night 63, and Pena has every intention of making it a triumphant comeback.
"I am competing at the highest level of this sport, but Dr. Kvitne was very confident in the surgery I received that I would be fighting within a year," Pena said. "I just did everything both he and my physical therapist requested of me. I've always been known for my work ethic and I worked very hard in rehab. I was very dedicated and diligent in my recovery process, and as soon as I was back to submitting my partners in training and moving around the gym like I used to, that's when I realized I hadn't really missed a beat. I knew I could compete again, and that's why I signed on to fight.
"[Dudieva] is very scary and dangerous. She's coming to take my head off, and I take that very, very seriously," she added. "It feels awesome to be back. I'm pumped up and I can't wait."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.