15 years and counting. That’s the amount of time Jessica Penne has found herself entrenched in a mixed martial arts lifestyle. However, for four of those, she had her livelihood held out in front of her within reach seemingly begging for its pursuit to end.
Every athlete in sports experiences their own ups and downs, wins and losses are just a part of the game – no matter what game it is. Penne, 38, acknowledges that openly and has perhaps seen it better than most – not only in her own journey but in her teammates that surround her at Alliance MMA in San Diego. Most notably, former two-time UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz also knows what it’s like to have no say in absences from doing what they love.
Mid-commentary duties after Penne’s successful return on April 17, 2021, Cruz found himself locked in a sweaty embrace from his comrade. The strawweight veteran never thought she would be able to fight again after the saga she endured.
“It does [feel like a fresh start],” Penne told MyMMANews regarding her comeback to MMA. “It was a bit cathartic. Just remembering everything that I’ve gone through, the ups and downs, and then after that fight, it was like a weight off my shoulders. There was a lot of stuff I was able to leave behind after that fight. I do believe that it’s a fresh start for me and a new opportunity to learn and grow, and just keep reinventing myself in the sport.
“I’m definitely motivated. I’ve found a renewed sense of love for the sport. There were times when I was going through everything, and there was a lot of resentment and frustration. I just didn’t even want to watch fights, I didn’t want to be a part of it, I didn’t want to train. It was painful but going through all of that I realized how much I really love this sport and I just want to keep learning and growing for as long as I can – as much as I possibly can. Because the future is unclear so I want to stay present and focus on getting better.”
A former 105-pound atomweight champion of the world during her days with Invicta FC from 2012 to 2013, Penne eventually joined the UFC in 2014 as one of the very first 115-pound strawweights. Cast onto the historic season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), the Newport Beach native worked her way to the semifinals and went on to win her promotional debut opposite Randa Markos at the finale.
Penne had been a model of consistency throughout her career by fighting every year from 2006 to 2017. Following her first UFC win, a lone career losing streak of three in a row accrued – the starter of those being a crack at UFC gold while the last was a controversial decision.
Through this entire stretch, and even prior, Penne believed she truly shouldn’t have been fighting at all.
Accidental usage of a banned supplement led the Alliance staple to a blessing in disguise in the form of a USADA suspension in early 2018 – roughly eight months after her last loss. Originally 18 months, the suspension was reduced to six after further evaluation.
This period allowed Penne to go down a path of self-discovery. Once ready to fight again in a scheduled February 2019 bout with Jodie Esquibel, Penne had opened up about her longstanding battles with anxiety and depression which caused gnarly panic attacks in the most critical of situations.
During that period it had become evident that her mindset wasn’t the clearest earlier on. But all that could be done was “suffer in silence” as fighters are often viewed as needing to stay strong at all times without showing weakness – a conflict within itself.
Common perceptions be damned, time has only helped Penne with her fights outside the Octagon.
“I’m good now,” she said with a smile. “There are still ups and downs but what I was experiencing with my depression and anxiety – it completely derailed my professional career and was really severely affecting my personal life. So I was happy to get that in check. The silver lining in not competing is I really got to focus on myself. I got to do a lot of work on that so I have not been experiencing anxiety in the same way. I haven’t had a panic attack in several years which is really amazing. But I still experience anxiety, I feel I’m just wired that way and with time and a lot of practice, it will become less and less. But it’s still there and something that I experience.”
Promotions such as Hook N’ Shoot, Bellator, Invicta, and the UFC all have one thing in common when it comes to historical foundations – Jessica Penne played parts in certain points of all of them. The first organization to really highlight women in the U.S., one half of the first women’s fight in Bellator history, the first champion, one of the first to make up a weight class. Taking on Esquibel was supposed to follow suit with an appearance at the UFC’s debut event on ESPN TV.
Unfortunately, after missing weight by two pounds, Penne would suffer a badly sprained ankle that forced her to withdraw from the matchup on just a day’s notice. Rebooked for two months later and Penne suffered another injury that prevented her from competing. Then, USADA came back into play when a test revealed picogram levels of stanozolol – similar to Jon Jones’ case with turinabol.
A devastating four-year suspension was put on Penne which essentially felt like a forced retirement. Creating another fight outside of fighting, it came down to seeking justice. Penne and her team found it to a certain degree as USADA again reduced the suspension to 20 months.
In December 2020, the shackles were broken once and, hopefully, for all.
“That’s another part that was so heartbreaking about the whole situation. I couldn’t coach, I couldn’t corner, I couldn’t support people that I care about, it was really hard,” Penne said.
“After weighing my options, talking to my manager, Brian [Butler-Au], we just figured that the best bet was to fight it head-on instead of running and hiding. It was just to really stand our ground and do the best we could and get the support of a lawyer and we had the support of the UFC through Jeff Novitszky and Donna Marcolini, they were with us every step of the way just trying to rectify the situation. But it’s difficult with an organization like USADA, they have all the power and there’s no one who regulates them and so they’re constantly trying to show that what they’re doing works and they want proof by showing their results. It’s not necessarily right, however, they’re trying to show they’re doing their job. And I believe they have cleaned up the sport, I believe their mission is a good one, however, I feel like there are some things that don’t work and don’t fit with MMA.”
Despite not being able to be around MMA that involved those she’s closest with, Penne did find MMA-related activities to keep herself busy during the four years away.
Partnering up with regional promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championships (CFFC), the 18-fight veteran branched out as a commentator, analyst, and in-cage interviewer. Delving into different aspects of the sport she loved was best described as an awesome experience and one that hopes to be expanded upon down the line. If there were any positives to be taken out of not being able to fight, this was one of them.
On top of it all, the world saw a disaster strike thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully for Penne, an admitted introvert, not much changed as staying home is naturally therapeutic. Comforted by her two dogs and three horses, the situation allowed the option to be a support system for others when needed.
With everything pointing to a solid point of stability for a return to competition, Penne went for it and set up what would be her first fight in as many years as she had number of bouts fought in the UFC.
But it just couldn’t be smooth sailing quite yet.
Matched with 5-1 prospect Hannah Goldy for March 2021, Goldy would contract the aforementioned COVID-19 virus delaying the former atomweight titleholder’s comeback a month further. Weeks later, the new date was April 17 and before the time came, Goldy withdrew again for undisclosed reasons. In to save the day came the recent LFA championship winner, the unbeaten 5-0 Lupita Godinez.
“I was like, ‘Listen, I’m tired of this…’ (laughs)” Penne said of the opponent change. “I believe everything happens for me and this happened for me for the best outcome possible. So, I’ve learned that there are things I can control and things that I can’t. One of them is myself and my response to things and how I handle everything. Sometimes it’s gracefully, sometimes it’s not but I’m a human. So I was just open to it and whatever was put in front of me I was going to be open to because I was ready at that point.
“I feel like the fight had gotten pushed back with my previous opponent and that really happened for me because I hadn’t fought in so long and I really hadn’t been in the gym at that point. So I believe the extra time was for me to give my best performance.
“I think that’s fair [to say],” she added regarding if the rollercoaster ride led to newfound appreciation. “Not being able to participate in something that I love and never saw myself apart from that really changed my mindset and it really allowed me to focus on appreciation and gratitude and focusing on the positive things and things that I can control. Because life is crazy, crazy things happen and a lot of it is out of my control so I just get to focus on the things I can control and what I could focus and control was my process and focusing on myself, healing, and just other avenues. Focusing on family and friends, stuff like that.”
At UFC Vegas 24, Jessica Penne got back in the Octagon welcomed with her hand raised high after a tough battle. Snapping her three-fight losing streak by picking up a split decision, it was Penne’s first victory since 2014 when she successfully debuted for the UFC.
Essentially a career’s length since then for some, when she says it felt like a fresh start, it’s difficult to imagine it any other way. The change in Penne’s self as an individual was evident, as was the change with the overall times.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the emotions of finally getting to make the walk again, Penne found a sense of familiarity fighting in front of no fans – reminiscent of TUF. So from that perspective, happiness was easily found in the emptiness of the UFC Apex facility.
While the post-fight soreness was one minor aspect that was not missed, it was simply nice to know that the feeling was there because a fight had actually been fought.
“I am for once allowing myself to be happy and proud of myself and my performance and not try and just dissect everything and overcriticize myself because that’s normally where my mind goes,” Penne said. “There were a lot of things that I did well, there were things that I didn’t do well, there were things I wanted to do but didn’t do. But the only way I can get better is to just get in there. I did experience a lot of emotions, a lot of nerves throughout camp but fight week was especially intense and there were a lot of questions in my mind that were only going to be answered if I fought and if I got through that.
“I’m just proud of myself, I overcame a lot in that fight. For me, it wasn’t just about the fight, there was a lot of baggage. It was kind of like closing the door on the past and allowing myself to move forward and I’m excited to move forward.”
Jessica Penne joined MMA at age 23 and never looked back. With more historical landmarks to her name than many may realize, she’s only continued to prove the right choice was made by sticking to it all these years later. Savoring the experience while it lasts, perhaps this progress will be built off of as soon as a targeted July date.
But as time often does… it will tell. In the meanwhile, all you can ask for is the effort put in toward being your best self.
“Honestly, I feel like in my last performances when I was going through what I was going through, I wasn’t able to show aspects of my game where I’m dominant,” Penne reflected. “I brought back an aspect of myself from my past Invicta days, from my past starting out days. I don’t know if it’s about not getting credit or acknowledgment but I know that in my past fights I haven’t shown up – as far as who I am as a fighter. So I feel like moving forward I have the ability to show them a different side of myself and keep reintroducing and reinventing myself.”
Drake is an MMA writer based out of Brush Prairie, Washington, USA who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. He has been a passionate fan of MMA ever since 2009. Drake has most notably written for BJPenn.com, FanSided, The Body Lock, South China Morning Post, MyMMANews, WhatCulture, Cageside Press, Sherdog, The Scrap, and MMA Today. He has also written for and created video content for RT Sport. As for other sports, Drake is a longtime fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @DrakeRiggs_ . Also check out all of his video content on YouTube at YouTube.com/DrakeRiggs where he uploads fighter interviews, podshows, and various other types of content.