Adam Morrison and Julianna Peña both know the taste of greatness. And they’ve also been haunted by defeat.
Peña reached the highest of highs when she upset Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title. Nunes entered that fight in December of 2021 as an unstoppable force, and only a precious few outside of Peña’s friends and family envisioned her emerging victorious. Yet she did, in remarkable fashion, bludgeoning Nunes with a flurry of strikes before forcing her to tap. She also knows the lows of defeat, which stung her last July when she lost the belt back to Nunes.
“Those tough times, you can’t allow them to hold you back,” says Peña. “You need to be strong. I’ve lost, and I know that pain–and I’ve tore up both my knees, too. All those instances, they made me ask myself, how can I get better? That’s been my driving force, to get back and compete at the highest level. Being better every day, that continues to push me forward.”
Morrison played his college basketball at Gonzaga, spending three years on the court for the Bulldogs, sharing the prestigious Oscar Robertson Trophy during his junior year with Duke standout JJ Redick for national player of the year. That was the season that an NCAA championship seemed like a very real possibility for Gonzaga–and those dreams were brought to life in the Sweet Sixteen when the team held a 17-point advantage against the famed UCLA Bruins.
Unlike last night, when Gonzaga held on to win, it was different in 2006. UCLA emphatically stormed back to win that game, a comeback that has permanently embedded itself into the month of March as the college basketball tournament begins anew. The loss left Morrison devastated, and the sight of him on the parquet in tears while UCLA joyously celebrated remains a heartbreaking-yet-iconic reminder of the joy of victory and the heartache of defeat.
“At the time, it was traumatic,” says Morrison. “But that’s part of the game. It’s a big topic of conversation each March, and I know it’s never going to go away–it was an all-time classic game.”
In the NBA, Morrison ended up being teammates with Ryan Hollins and Jordan Farmer, who played both for UCLA. They never discussed the UCLA-Gonzaga game.
“We put a lot of time, heart, and effort into that season,” says Morrison. “So it still elicits emotion.”
Peña and Morrison share an even deeper bond than wins and losses. Both are from Spokane, Washington, and each knows the sacrifice and dedication associated with reaching the highest point in their field. Morrison won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, widening his perspective on greatness. Long after his playing career, he remains inspired by the nonstop work ethic of Peña, who is training to regain her title.
“I have so much respect for Julianna and what she’s accomplished,” says Morrison. “She worked, grinded, and stayed ready for her opportunity, then she seized upon her moment. She’s classy, professional, and does a great job with the broadcasts.
“Being from Spokane, we’re always rooting for her. She had a lot of tough moments in her career, but she keeps fighting. It’s especially meaningful because I have two daughters and a son, so they can look up to her, too.”
Peña shares a similar admiration for Morrison, who never allowed the setback in the NCAA–which is now highlighted in AT&T’s “Madness Loves Company” ad campaign–to detract from his pursuit of greatness.
Their friendship dates back over a dozen years ago. Peña was making extra cash as a bowling lane server in Spokane, and Morrison would frequent the establishment.
Admittedly star-struck, Peña mentioned in conversation that she was an aspiring fighter–and, unbeknownst to her at the time, Morrison would go on to lend a helping hand in her championship journey.
“That was a crucial point in my career,” says Peña. “I was at a point where I was not able to afford massages to get my body back on track for fighting. Adam gave me his girl’s contact, then sponsored the massages for me, making sure I got the best treatment available. I’ll always be grateful that he rallied behind me.
“Adam’s a standup guy, and I love the way he represents Spokane. He’s helped open the door for sports in Spokane, and helped me make it to the big show, too.”
A longtime MMA fan (“I went to UFC 60 [in 2006] at the Staples Center and saw Royce Gracie against Matt Hughes–that’s when I started getting into it,” says Morrison, the former basketball star believes that Peña is due a rematch against Nunes.
“They should do a trilogy fight,” says Morrison, who can still be heard on the radio calling Gonzaga games. “I hope Julianna gets that opportunity. She’s still hungry, and she’ll make the most of the next opportunity she gets.
Following Nunes’ loss to Peña, she received an immediate rematch. Peña would relish that same courtesy, and vowed she will be ready when that time comes.
“It’s just a matter of time,” says Peña. “Until then, I am living in the training room. When I do get the call, I will be 110 percent ready.”
Holly Holm signs new six-fight deal with UFC
Holly Holm just signed a new six-fight deal with the UFC.
The former bantamweight champion is already a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame , she is also a future UFC Hall of Famer. Even at 41, she continues to stand among the most elite fighters in the UFC.
Holm (14-6) fights tomorrow at UFC Fight Night against Yana Santos, and it is a victory she needs. Santos (14-6, 1 NC), who has split her last four fights, is a talented striker, but Holm is the better all-around mixed martial artist. After losing last May by decision to Ketlen Vieira, the onus is on Holm to return to the win column.
At this stage in her career, it is nearly impossible to picture Holm competing anywhere but inside of the Octagon. That is going to be the case, likely up to her retirement, as this new six-fight deal ensures that the only place to watch Holm is the UFC.
The Pick ‘Em Section:
UFC on ESPN bantamweight title bout: Chito Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen
Pick: Chito Vera
UFC on ESPN women’s bantamweight bout: Holly Holm vs. Yana Santos
Pick: Holly Holm
UFC on ESPN women’s flyweight bout: Maycee Barber vs. Andrea Lee
Pick: Andrea Lee
UFC on ESPN middleweight bout: Albert Duraev vs. Chidi Njokuani
Pick: Chidi Njokuani
ONE Fight Night 8 flyweight kickboxing title bout: Superlek Kiatmuu9 (c) vs. Danial Williams
Pick: Superlek Kiatmuu9
Last week: 4-1
2023 record: 28-16
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com . Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.