Bleacher Report 2021 MMA Awards: Biggest Upset

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 22, 2021

Julianna Pena
Julianna PenaChase Stevens/Associated Press

Nothing stirs a fight fan's blood like a great upset.

Whether you're jumping on tables in elation or hurling your phone across the room, there's always emotion involved, the story of an underdog made good. Who can't get excited about that?

In looking back over the MMA year that was in 2021, pondering the sport's biggest upset doesn't actually require a lot of pondering at all. The choice is clear, and we don't have to look back that far to see it. This, of course, would be Julianna Pena's upset for the ages on then-two-division champ Amanda Nunes on Dec. 11 at UFC 269.

"I'm not surprised, motherf----rs," Pena told the crowd after capturing Nunes' bantamweight title.

That made one of us.

I can guarantee you a lot more people extolled Pena's chances after she'd done the thing than before, when Pena was a major +650 underdog (bet $100 to make $650) on DraftKings.

Not only was Pena's shocker the biggest upset of 2021, but it ranks among the biggest in MMA history. We'll get back to that momentarily.

MMA History Today @MMAHistoryToday

Julianna Peña might have just pulled off the greatest upset in MMA history. She became the first person to defeat Amanda Nunes in over 7 years.

First, let's look back at the fight itself. What initially looked like another display of dominance for the incumbent changed dramatically as the fight took shape.

Nunes was an easy 10-9 winner in the first round. According to UFC stats, she landed 10 of 14 significant strikes, with Pena landing five of 20. Nunes also controlled ground sequences, at one point coming close to a rear-naked choke. However, Pena defended well, controlling Nunes' left arm for long stretches, which helped keep Nunes from achieving full dominance or sinking in the choke. That arm control may have paid dividends that carried into the second round.

In the second, the action picked up. Never short on confidence, Pena took the fight to the Lioness. Conventional wisdom would deem that to be lacking conventional wisdom, but as Pena charged forward to attack, it seemed a brilliant strategy to bully the bully, who hadn't been shaken in years. (Bear in mind that Nunes hadn't lost a fight since the Obama administration.)

Pena (right) punches Nunes
Pena (right) punches NunesChase Stevens/Associated Press

Pena began to force the issue, getting inside and initiating a brawl. Of course, Nunes fought back, but Pena kept her head, faking the takedown to get inside the proverbial phone booth to exchange with the champ from close range. Pena took some to give some and got hit with some massive stuff, but her chin and wits never failed.

A big right hand rocked the champion. Nunes fired back behind a damaging jab, but Pena stayed with the strategy. 

Remember Pena's control of the left arm? In the second round, that appeared to take some starch out of Nunes' dangerous left hand. The champ has always been hittable, and now was even more so as she struggled to keep her hands up.

ZeroPark30 @ZeroPark30

Just witnessed history. Amanda Nunes, the greatest female fighter in MMA history just got upset by Julianna Peña. Unbelievable! #UFC269 https://t.co/0i3zQqOgQc

Another Nunes weakness—cardio—began to rear its ugly head as well. Looking visibly tired, Nunes appeared to take her foot off the gas ever so slightly. Meanwhile, Pena never let up, pouring on the strikes at every turn. The second round's stats are decidedly different than those found in the opening stanza: 74 of 115 (64 percent) significant strikes landed for the challenger versus 36 of 85 (42 percent) for Nunes.

When a Pena right hand again found the mark, she followed up and clinched up with the champ along the fence. A beautiful throw followed, and suddenly Pena had the champ's back. It didn't seem like all of Nunes wanted to be there anymore.

Pena sank in the choke and Nunes quickly tapped—so quickly that Pena remarked on it after the fight.

"I thought she was going to fight longer, but she tapped," Pena told celebrity broadcaster and podcaster Joe Rogan after the fight. "I asked the [referee] if it was over, and he said, 'Yeah, you won.' And I said, 'Oh, great.'"

Looking back, it's easy to note that Pena exploited the weaknesses that were already there. Previous challengers had simply lacked the confidence or presence of mind to consistently attack those areas, because it included a risk of running afoul of Nunes' power. That may be true, but it undermines the truly shocking nature of this upset.

Speaking of which, where does it rank among all-time UFC upsets? That's not the world's easiest metric to apply, as it can mean different things to different people. That said, betting odds can provide a pretty strong sense of where Pena's stunner stands.

Pena (top) sinks in the choke
Pena (top) sinks in the chokeIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

According to a Tapology ranking of the biggest oddsmaker upsets, Matt Serra was a +850 underdog when he shocked Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title back in 2007. Holly Holm was +830 before her 2015 head kick heard around the world on Ronda Rousey—while this ranks an all-time upset for sure, in hindsight the Rousey train, fueled almost entirely by that famous armbar, was a bubble ripe for bursting. 

Other entrants include T.J. Dillashaw's (+650) knockout of bantamweight champ Renan Barao in 2014 and Frankie Edgar (+588) defeating a still-in-his-prime BJ Penn back in 2010. 

There are others that won despite longer odds, but these get my nod as the biggest big-fight upsets, which at the end of the day are the ones that garner the most weight and attention. 

Does Pena-Nunes top them all? Probably not, as Serra, Dillashaw and maybe Holm all have equal or longer odds. 

But if absolutely nothing else, it's solidly on the Mount Rushmore of biggest title-fight upsets. This is compounded by Pena's underdog status as an athlete, precipitated by years of serious injuries and inactivity. That's more than enough to earn her the distinction of the biggest upset of 2021.


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