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Julianna Pena ready to take over for Ronda Rousey as face of women’s MMA

Julianna Pena will take on Valentina Shevchenko in the main event of a UFC on Fox card Saturday. (Getty)

Julianna Pena is a multi-tasker, and on this day, as she’s climbing a mountain to prepare for her women’s bantamweight bout against Valentina Shevchenko on Saturday in Denver, she’s also doing an interview.

And before long, the subject turns, at least tangentially, to one of her least favorite topics: Ex-champion Ronda Rousey.

The day before the interview, a column in the New York Post appeared online with the headline, “Ronda Rousey’s fall is the end of women’s MMA as we know it.” Asked about it, Pena responded as she does in the Octagon, by attacking aggressively.

“I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment specifically on it, but the end of women’s MMA as we know it? Please,” she said. “Ridiculous.”

Pena isn’t about to discuss the Post piece at any length, though. With a win, she may get the next shot at Amanda Nunes’ title, and she’s bound and determined not to get caught thinking about anything other than how to defeat Shevchenko.

And that surely means that she won’t agree to spend much time discussing Rousey or the impact that her second loss in a row had on the division.

“At one time, Gina Carano was the face of women’s MMA and when she moved out, Ronda came in,” Pena said. “And now that Ronda is on the way out, a new face has to come forward and carry the torch and I’m willing to do that.

“ … But unless we’re fighting and we’ve got a fight scheduled, I don’t really care to talk about the girl, because she’s irrelevant. I’m the present and it’s my fight with Valentina that matters, not anything about her.”

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Pena and Shevchenko, who defeated Holly Holm in her last outing, are at the top of a division that is clearly in flux after Rousey’s back-to-back one-sided losses and ex-champion Miesha Tate’s retirement.

There is a tinge of bitterness to Pena’s voice as she discusses her career arc. After winning the first season of women on “The Ultimate Fighter,” she was sidelined by a knee injury that kept her out more than a year.

She was impressive in her last two fights, unanimous decision wins over Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano. After the win over Zingano at UFC 200, Pena approached UFC president Dana White about landing a title fight. And White told her that he was going to give the next shot to Rousey.

It stung hearing those words because Nunes had said she was willing to fight Pena.

She said she wanted to fight me and she admitted publicly that she would when it looked like Ronda wasn’t coming back,” Pena said. “But when Ronda decided to come back, she decided she didn’t want to fight me and she wanted to fight Ronda. So I kind of got bumped out of that title shot.

“So when I had to deal with that, not getting a title shot, I said that the fight that I wanted, the fight asked for, was against Valentina. I’m willing to fight anyone in the world, but this is the most important fight right now because it would clearly establish that I should get the next title shot.”

She’ll have earned it, with consecutive wins over Eye, Zingano and Shevchenko, because Shevchenko has proven herself to be a formidable foe in her brief stint in the UFC.

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In her first UFC bout, she defeated ex-Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman. She took on Nunes at UFC 196 and after falling behind badly early, she put on a furious late rally and wound up just short.

And then in her last fight, she clearly defeated Holm in Holm’s first bout since losing her title to Miesha Tate at UFC 200.

Shevchenko, whose mother has a black belt in taekwondo and introduced her to the martial arts, doesn’t display her emotions as outwardly as does Pena, but they share common thoughts.

She said she believes it would be “a very different result,” if she met Nunes a second time, but knows that Pena is a significant obstacle in her path.

“Julianna is an excellent fighter, that is true, but I believe this is my time,” she said.

She was 5 when her mother put her into martial arts classes, and even though she wasn’t all that interested at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to her.

She learned to love it and found she was good at it.

“I think it was my destiny to do this and to be a champion,” she said. “To start the way I did and to finish with the world title, that would pretty amazing. I know it’s just a matter of time before I fight for the title and when they said ‘Do you want to fight Julianna?’ I was OK with that because I believe in what I can do.”

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