By: Brent Briggeman May 2, 2018
With a May 12 title bout against Amanda Nunes in Brazil – the headline event of the pay-per-view UFC 224 – Pennington could capture the world bantamweight title and thrust herself into that realm of the sport’s biggest stars.
But the Colorado Springs native and Harrison High School graduate doesn’t see herself as belonging in the same conversation with those big names – at least not outside the octagon.
“For me it’s never been about money or reputation,” Pennington said. “I’m actually considered the dark horse in women’s MMA, which I’m completely fine with.
“I don’t have that level to where everyone knows exactly who Raquel Pennington is or things like that. I don’t have a million followers on Instagram. You know, all the little things that people pay attention to. I don’t care about social nets.”
But with a victory, the “social nets” will soon find out about Pennington, who currently has 89,000 Instagram followers compared to 10.3 million for Rousey, 1.9 million for Tate and 1.3 million for Holm.
If the spotlight does shine on Pennington, who trains at Triple Threat Gym in an industrial park just north of the Colorado Springs airport, it will find someone with a layered personality who never intended to take the path of a fighter.
The highlight of the past 18 months for Pennington came not in a fight, as injuries have kept her inactive, but rather as part of a pair of marriage proposals with fellow fighter and-now fiancé Tecia Torres.
“Because she’s a female and I felt like she deserved her own proposal,” said Torres, who followed Pennington’s proposal at their housewarming party in north Colorado Springs last spring with her own surprise at Garden of the Gods, blindfolding Pennington after taking engagement photos to lead her to a spot with their family and friends, a guitarist singing their favorite song – James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go” – and finally to Pennington’s grandparents holding a sign saying, “Will You Marry Me?”
Dave Hogan, Harrison’s athletic director since Pennington’s junior year and her basketball coach when she was a sophomore, thinks back on this world-class fighter and recalls not her tenacity, but her smile.
“She had a great smile,” Hogan said. “She was just a really nice, hard-working young woman. She liked being on teams. She was coachable. Her teammates liked her. She was just this quiet kind of girl. You just didn’t think this piece would be in her.”
Ironically, the last time Pennington traveled to Brazil prior to last month’s pre-fight press conference in the city where she will fight Nunes on her native soil, it was to assist her sister-in-law in preaching peace through missionary work.
These contradictions have followed Pennington since her inadvertent entry into mixed martial arts.
An all-around high school athlete – softball, basketball, volleyball and track occupied most of her time – who doubled as the National Honor Society secretary, Pennington broke her back snowboarding just before college. Thinking the injury would end her athletic career instead of launch a new one, she began attending UCCS as a pre-med student.
While recovering, Pennington and her mother were exercising in a back studio at Bally Total Fitness on Colorado Springs’ south side – the location that is now Crunch Fitness – when a group sharing the space began alternating between drills in judo, wrestling and kickboxing.
Pennington was intrigued by the intensity, so she talked to the coach and attended her first practice the next day. Four months later she entered her first fight, and won. Eleven years later, she is fighting for a world title after compiling a 9-6 career record that includes a four-match winning streak.
She had never fought prior to that introductory bout outside of a few childhood scuffles with a cousin and some tackle football on pavement with boys, but the self-described tomboy had no issues with the contact.
“I don’t know how fighting is so exciting, but it was exciting,” Pennington said.
Pennington poured herself into training and learning, but has resisted turning her bouts into personal grudge matches. In fact, she and Nunes – who needed just 48 seconds to dispose of Rousey in December 2016 – are good friends.
“I’ve fought against other girls that I’ve had friendship before, like Miesha Tate,” Nunes said in the press conference. “It’s very natural for us. We’re very professional.”
It’s this professional motivation – the climb to the top of her game – that drives Pennington.
“This has been my ultimate goal, so it’s exciting to be here,” Pennington said. “If I can impact people’s lives in any shape or form, that’s something I’ll continue to do. If there’s something that can make a difference, that’s all that matters to me.”
As the fight of her life approaches, Pennington has grown more reflective on all that led to this point. She provided Torres (the No. 5 contender in UFC’s strawweight division) a full career recap this past weekend over steaks and bacon-wrapped asparagus around a backyard fire.
“I like to go back to my roots all the time and just see where I’ve started and how far I’ve grown,” Pennington said. “It’s a really rewarding thing.”
The outside noise hasn’t found a way to penetrate walls surrounding the small circle who spend their time training at Triple Threat. Even if it did, it would be drowned out by the young children playing around the mats and a leashed dog barking jealously because he wants to join in the action.
It all feels so far removed from the sense of celebrity associated with other stars who have reached this point. But that could change if Pennington emerges from Brazil victorious.
“I train in my little gym with my coaches and I just enjoy life and I enjoy my passion,” Pennington said. “(Attention and fame) doesn’t bother me either way. I’m blessed with everything I have.”