Raquel Pennington lets out a sigh and gives a sly smile when asked about Julianna Peña’s axis-shifting upset win over Amanda Nunes at UFC 269.
“There’s a lot of emotion behind this, for one,” she told UFC.com.
Pennington had her eyes on Peña since they were on The Ultimate Fighter together in 2013 and sensed they’d cross paths in the final. Injuries prevented that from happening, and Pennington bowed out of the tournament in the semifinals.
Since then, the two went on their distinct journeys. Pennington eventually earned a title shot in 2018 after going on a four-fight winning streak, but the bout came after an injury-riddled 18-month layoff. She fell short, losing via TKO in the fifth round, and she spent the past few years breaking Nunes down in hopeful preparation for a second shot at taking down the “Lioness.” Timing wasn’t on her side, however, and she had to watch from the sidelines like everyone else as Peña shocked the world.
“It’s just like, if you do this, this and this, (Nunes is) beatable,” Pennington said. “At the end of the day, she’s a human being. Did I necessarily want it to be Julianna who did it? Of course not. I wanted it to be myself, but those things happen.”
Seeing someone reach a mountaintop before you do is always a bitter pill to swallow. What makes it even less palatable is Pennington’s view on the way Peña has handled herself since becoming the bantamweight champion on December 11.
“For one, congratulations to Julianna, but I just think she’s honestly arrogant,” Pennington said. “The stuff that she’s saying and whatnot. Yeah, she has a hard work ethic to her and everything else, but there’s a difference when it comes to carrying yourself as a champion and stuff. Like, all right, you won the world title, but be a humble champion.
“Let’s just say it’s motivating, and there’s a fire under my ass for that one.”
Before she can get a shot at either Peña or Nunes, she has business to take care of at UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs Daukaus.
Heading into her December 18 clash with Macy Chiasson (who stepped in on short notice after Julia Avila fell out of the fight), Pennington is riding back-to-back wins over Marion Reneau and Pannie Kianzad. The win over the latter was particularly cathartic as it followed a six-month USADA suspension and a difficult battle with COVID-19.
She also made various changes ahead of the matchup. Pennington worked with a new strength-and-conditioning coach, a nutritionist and a new sports psychologist. Although the changes were necessary and positive, they hadn’t yet been battle-tested, so questions lingered as she walked to the Octagon in September.
When she got into the Octagon, she fought with purpose and secured a strong unanimous decision result over the streaking Kianzad. It wasn’t her best performance, but a necessary one given all the changes made ahead of the bout.
“It has been a rough few years for me, whether it’s been mentally, physically, emotionally, but pretty much everything – that whole package,” Pennington said. “When it comes to fighting, everything needs to line up, so I was graceful to myself in my last fight. It plays a huge part to finally get that stress off and to truly trust in everything. I feel like all my ducks are lined up, and it’s all about having fun at this point. I’ve really learned to trust in myself and everybody surrounding me again, and most importantly, trust in my body. That was a huge thing. Now that that’s there, it’s game on.”
In Chiasson, Pennington faces another up-and-coming bantamweight and the woman who beat Kianzad in their Ultimate Fighter finale tie in 2018. Since then, Chiasson dropped to 135 and went 4-1. Given the short-notice nature of the fight, Pennington and Chiasson are fighting at 145 pounds on December 18, but it still carries ramifications for the bantamweight Top 10.
Pennington understands Chiasson’s strengths – namely her aggression and physical frame. At 5-foot-9 with a 72-inch reach, Chiasson is often the larger and longer fighter, and she likes to press forward early and often. Pennington believes she’ll be athletically superior, though, and she expects her vast experience advantage to play a factor as well.
A win over Chiasson would mean three straight and almost certainly sets Pennington up for a Top 5 matchup next time out. She has her mind set on a title shot in 2022, and whether that comes against Peña or Nunes is beside the point. Pennington believes December 18 is a chance to spotlight the level she is at and has been at for a long time, and that’s the most important thing for the time being.
“There’s tiers to this game,” Pennington said. “I’ve been here for years on end, and when it comes to it, I just feel like I’m the better fighter, so I’m excited to go out and fight a fight and actually let everything go and just have fun.”