Personally and professionally, everything is coming together for Raquel Pennington.
“There is definitely a lot going on — a fulfilling year, for sure — and way to kick off the New Year, right?” beamed Pennington, who takes on Ketlen Vieira in a critical bantamweight bout this weekend in Las Vegas. "I just feel like everything has truly aligned with what we want: in our lives, our careers; I’m excited for 2023.”
In the summer, Pennington and her longtime partner, UFC strawweight standout Tecia Torres, got married, with plans for a full-scale ceremony and party later this year. At the start of December, the couple found out they were having their first child, a baby girl, whose gender was revealed by Torres landing kicks on a body pad wrapped around Pennington and sending pink dust everywhere.
“Man — my heart is so full!” said the newlywed and mother-to-be. “There are so many different aspects that go into it. You can go into the gym and train and train and train, but if your head and your heart ain’t right, it never really matters.
“And for me, my head and my heart couldn’t be in a better place, and now I get to live my dreams, put in the work, and get one step closer to my ultimate goal.
“You want to talk about a different level of motivation? It’s there.”
Professionally, last year only provided one opportunity for Pennington to step into the Octagon, but she made the most of it.
Entering 2022 on a three-fight winning streak and coming off a short-notice submission win over Macy Chiasson up a division, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant stepped in for Irene Aldana opposite Aspen Ladd in April at UFC 273. Despite little time to prepare, Pennington emerged victorious, pushing her winning streak to four and putting herself in a position where Saturday’s fight with Vieira feels like it could determine the next title challenger in the bantamweight division.
“It’s been an interesting camp, to say the least,” offered Pennington, who was sidelined with a hand injury coming out of the fight with Ladd and accepted this assignment 14 weeks ago. “Not only am I going through the same routine with everything in terms of training and doing all that, but the home life is completely different and there are so many different aspects to it.
“It’s been a really unique camp, but for the positive.”
For the 34-year-old veteran, this camp is a continuation of a process of refinement and maturation that has coincided with her current run of success.
She’s shown flashes in the past, including turning her last four-fight winning streak into a championship opportunity against Amanda Nunes at UFC 224. But serious injuries in the time between her win over Miesha Tate at UFC 205 in New York City and her fight with Nunes in Brazil took a major toll, and it took a lot of time, energy, and vulnerability for the Colorado native to take the steps needed to get things moving in the right direction again.
“For one, I got my body healthy and started feeling like myself, really tapped into some different things,” Pennington said when asked what has clicked over these last four fights. “I started focusing a lot on my health and recovery.
“Mentally, I’ve matured. I pretty much just got out of my own way. I was in my own way constantly.
“I fought girls where — all the losses that I have are decisions, and not to take anything away from them, but a lot of those fights, I beat myself before going out there. This sport is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical, and so when your head isn’t right, it doesn’t work, and that has been the big difference.
“I really started focusing on the mental as well as the physical,” Pennington added. “As much work as I put in physically, I started putting that much work in mentally with different behind the scenes things.”
That includes making changes when it comes to some of the coaches she works with and who will be cornering her, as well as finally finding a sports psychologist she clicks with.
“I’ve put myself in vulnerable positions in order to grow, and it’s really helped me,” she said. “Everything has been different.”
That includes the way she’s approaching her fights, and the thing she’s focused on heading into battle this weekend.
Like so many of her contemporaries, Pennington admits to being her own worst critic, and knows the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” cycle all too well. But rather than fixate on the result of her upcoming fight, she’s opted instead to invest all her energy into the things she can control.
“I don’t want any more of those ‘I could have done this; I could have done that,’” began Pennington, who carries an 14-9 record that includes wins over Ladd, Chiasson, Tate, and Irene Aldana into Saturday’s main card pairing with Vieira. “We all have those fights, and it doesn’t matter — you can go out and put the greatest performance of your lifetime on, but as an athlete, we’re still going to have something where it’s ‘I wish I had done a little more of this.’
“So many people get focused on the win or the loss, but my focus is on best effort, because that’s all I can control. I can control what I’m capable of and I’m capable of putting forth my best effort, so when I step into the gym for the day or the Octagon, it’s just about putting the best effort forward.
“My mentality has gone from not wanting any more ‘what I could have done’ to ‘I know I put forth my best effort, and win or lose, I am happy.’”
And that shift has filled her with confidence, as she knows she’s done her level best throughout this long, grueling 14-week training camp.
“I have respect for every opponent I get in there with, but, at the end of the day, she’s in my way,” she said flatly. “My focus is on dominating every aspect. I’m confident in every area and I’m excited for the fight.”
She’s also excited about getting to dig into some of the food her now-pregnant wife has been enjoying these last several weeks while she’s been dieting and working towards making weight on Friday.
“Fourteen weeks is a long camp so, needless to say, I’m ready to get this over and done with,” she said with a laugh. “I want to enjoy food like Tecia is enjoying it, man! I’m sitting here dieting while she’s having all these crazy cravings…and I just have to watch.
“I don’t have any crazy cravings, but Tecia has been enjoying the hell out of hamburgers and breakfast sandwiches, and I cannot tell you how much I am craving a greasy hamburger, with a giant bun, a couple strips of bacon, some cheese, mayo, ketchup — that is all I want.”
Best effort Saturday. Best greasy bacon cheeseburger to follow.
Sounds like a nice little weekend.
UFC Fight Night: Strickland vs Imavov took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 14, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!