Meet the strawweights that will be competing on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter...
If you don’t know Jessica Penne, you might have assumed that when it was announced that the Italian-American strawweight was going to be on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, the female Phil Baroni was on her way to reality television.
“No, no, no,” she laughs.
Matt Serra then? Ray Longo?
It’s none of the above for the 31-year-old southern California native, who does admit that she doesn’t fit the stereotype usually attached to those of us whose families originally hail from that part of the world.
“Everybody looks at me like ‘what’s the matter with you?’” Penne said. “It just takes me a long time to get out of my introverted self and become extroverted. Around my family I’m very different because I’m comfortable and familiar with them, so it depends on my comfort level with people and what they see of me.”
Six weeks living with 15 strangers training to punch you in the face probably isn’t the best way to get out of that comfort zone, so for Penne, that was a challenge that went way beyond fighting.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason and I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that time,” she said of TUF 20. “I still had my guard up and there were parts that were really, really difficult for me, but I think I handled it the best that I could. The growth that I had as a person and the confidence that I’ve built through competing and training, that gave me the confidence to go into the show and be under the microscope, whereas years ago I would have not been able to do that.”
It’s odd hearing that from someone who shows no lack of confidence in competition, and for good reason. 11-2 as a pro, a record that includes wins over two of her TUF 20 castmates – Angela Magana and Lisa Ellis – Penne was also Invicta FC’s first atomweight champion and widely considered to be one of the best fighters in WMMA regardless of weight class. It hasn’t been a bad start for someone who never set out to be a professional prizefighter.
“I just followed my instincts,” she said. “I feel like all these different opportunities led me down this path and led me to where I am and I really didn’t think about it. I’ve always been athletically inclined and I take to sports really easily. I enjoyed what I was doing so much that I went with the natural progression of things, from jiu-jitsu tournaments to a couple amateur stand-up fights, and before I knew it I was fighting pro because that was the only opportunity at the time. It progressed from there.”
Soon, everything in Penne’s life that didn’t involve training and competing took second place, and just like that, she arrived. That may have been a surprise to the fighter herself, but not to those around her.
“A lot of people really aren’t surprised,” she said. “They (family and friends) know that I’m a competitive person and very focused and driven. Everybody thinks that it’s really cool and they’re very supportive of it because it’s not something that many people do or really have the personality and the drive for.”
The drive is evident. The personality? It almost reminds one of former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver’s admission that despite traveling around the world to compete in front of packed arenas, he had a fear of flying and large crowds. So for the usually shy Penne to not just fight, but to be in a situation now where there will be more and more cameras showing up daily, it’s an odd paradox, one she accepts though.
“I think it takes a certain personality type to be a fighter,” she laughs. “There are all different types of personalities, but I really do think this sport chooses you, and if you’re not meant for it, you’ll find out pretty quickly.”
Penne has what it takes, in and out of the Octagon, and if you ask her where she’s at right now, she’ll give all the credit to the sport for getting her to this point.
“I never really thought I was any good at this (fighting), honestly,” she admits. “It took a long time. Growing up I was very shy and a pretty insecure person, and this sport really helped to shape me into a more confident version of myself and really helped me come out of my shell. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself until my first fight at 105. And after that I kept challenging myself, and each fight that I’ve ever fought has challenged me in different ways. There were people around me – my friends, family, teammates, and coaches – that believed in me and helped me keep going, but I never really started getting confidence until a couple years ago.”
And if you’re looking for a fighter’s fire, that’s already accounted for. Just ask her about not being selected as one of the initial eight for TUF 20.
“I was a little hurt that I wasn’t asked to join initially, and I kind of had to swallow my pride a little bit and go try out,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter how I got there. I was meant to be there and I made my own path and got there.”
Now it’s statement making time, a chance to prove that she should have been part of that first group all along. But don’t expect a loud roar in the process, just more of an ‘act like you’ve been there before’ response. That’s more Jessica Penne’s style.