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Julianna Pena defends Joe Rogan, apologizes for COVID-19 ‘conspiracy’ comments: ‘It absolutely is real’

UFC 269: Oliveira v Poirier
Julianna Pena
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Julianna Peña knows she needs to be more careful now that she’s a champion under the microscope.

The UFC’s current bantamweight titleholder raised eyebrows recently when she made controversial comments about COVID-19 during an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, saying, “I’m a massive conspiracy theorist on this whole thing, and I have been since the very beginning. I’m like, ‘This is just a money grab. They’re trying to kill us, and this is ridiculous.’”

At a media scrum (h/t MMA Junkie) on Tuesday ahead of UFC 271, Peña apologized for those comments when asked about the controversy currently swirling around Rogan, who has come under fire both for his role in spreading COVID-19 misinformation and previously using the N-word on his programs.

“I can’t speak for Joe, I can only speak for myself and I took a little heat on that as well,” Peña said. “And what I mean to say is, once again, my words were a little bit misconstrued. I am tired, I am exhausted. We are going on this pandemic two years going on three years now, I just want things to go back to normal. I realize that they probably won’t but I didn’t mean to come across as insensitive, especially for the fact that I had COVID. Everybody that I know had COVID. I lost my aunt in Venezuela, I lost many people that were near and dear to me.

“It absolutely is real. I’m just angry and frustrated and exhausted over the whole situation because I just am wanting things to go back to normal. And so if I offended anybody by my comments on COVID, please I would like to apologize. That was not by any means what I meant to say. I just meant to say that I’m frustrated with the way that the world is right now.”

Peña went on to defend Rogan, taking full responsibility for her comments on his podcast and suggesting that recent scrutiny of the popular UFC commentator stems from critics attempting to silence him.

“But they’re trying to cancel him because of what his feelings are on the whole matter,” Peña said. “They’re trying to dig up everything that they can. They’re trying to find any negative thing that they can to try to cancel him because of his original message.

“I can’t speak for Joe, I don’t know how his thoughts are, me being still learning in the process, I think that he was trying to divert away from that when I was on the thing and I just kept getting right back to it and hammering it. My sister’s like, ‘You can’t read a room? This guy’s literally trying to tell you let’s quit talking about this.’ So now I feel like I can’t say how I really feel about anything because they’re just gonna find a way to make a headline. So now I’m just like, keep it PG, Julianna. Just keep it PG.”

Her COVID-19 comments aren’t the only subject Peña found herself apologizing for.

Shortly after defeating Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 for the bantamweight title this past December in what has widely been hailed as one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history, Peña spoke about becoming the first mom champ in UFC history, a comment that rubbed some the wrong way as Nunes recently became a mother herself.

Peña clarified her comments on an episode of The MMA Hour, praising Nunes and explaining her own experience as a mother differed (Peña is the first fighter to give birth and win a UFC title. Former featherweight champion Cris Cyborg adopted her daughter during her reign as champion and Nunes’ partner Nina Nunes gave birth to their daughter), and elaborated further on Tuesday.

“Here’s the thing, I’m still learning,” Peña said. “I’m still going on this journey. This is something that I had worked for for the last 13 years. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, it meant so much to me. So when you win the biggest fight of your life, like I step one foot outside the octagon and they’re already in your face with the camera and being like, ‘How does that feel?’ It was such a very emotional time for me and I have a problem with sticking my foot in my mouth and sometimes I feel like I need to take a beat, hear what the reporter said and then answer from there. And so I’m still learning and I don’t even remember what the question was, I have not looked back on it because I’m still, like, mortified, embarrassed that the second that I win the biggest fight of my life I’m getting canceled after two minutes. So for me it was a horrible experience and I used a poor choice of words.

“But absolutely, Amanda’s a mom champ, I’m a mom champ, when you got kids you’re a champ in all your kids’ eyes. There’s dad champs, there’s mom champs, so anyone that has children can attest to the fact that your kids look up to you like you’re a champion. So everybody’s a mom champ, everybody’s a dad champ, I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t by any means have any ill will. It was just an exciting moment and my words were misconstrued.

Up next for Peña, she coaches opposite Nunes on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter 30. The two are then expected to meet in a rematch later this year.

TUF has typically been used as vehicle to build up anticipation for a fight between the coaches and while Peña — the winner of TUF 18 — and Nunes will undoubtedly have plenty to say each other, Peña hopes that the mom champ discussion is a dead issue.

“I think she kind of understands that my words were misconstrued,” Peña said. “I think she knows what I meant and I made probably 10 interviews right after that whole situation, kind of addressing what I meant and how my words were misconstrued and I know that she understands that because I saw in her comments, ‘Yeah, I heard what she said. OK, it’s over, it’s done with.’ I hope that she’s not still bent out of shape about it because she absolutely is a mom champ.”