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Saturday, 09/15/2012, 03:27 pm

Exclusive|Phoenix Rising| Jessica Penne and the Heart of a Champion

*Photo courtesy of Tracy Lee of TracyLee.org/CombatLifeStyle.com

It isn’t very often in today’s society that an individual has an opportunity to become the first at something great.

Contrary to the beliefs of today’s younger generation, this is not due to a lack of opened windows. It is more of a shortage of individuals who are unwilling to get up off the couch and open those windows. Our younger generation would be wise to learn from Invicta FC 3 headliner Jessica Penne because not only is she opening windows, she is kicking doors down.

Currently ranked #2 in the atomweight division, Penne has an opportunity to become the inaugural champion of the Invicta Fighting Championships on October 6th against top ranked Japanese export Naho Sugiyama.

She wasn’t just given this tremendous honor out of the blue. Penne pushed herself to physical and mental limits, developed into the great talent she is today and earned the recognition and trust of her Invicta FC employers. If everyone had her mentality, drive, and focus our generation wouldn’t be the laughing stock that it has become.

On this edition of “Phoenix Rising”, I take a look at Penne’s past, present and future as she prepares to fight Sugiyama in just a few weeks.

A passionate athlete from the very beginning

Born in Newport Beach, California, Penne wasn’t the typical girl next door. As far as she can remember, Penne was playing multiple sports with as much passion as the guys, maybe even more so.

“I was always a tomboy throughout my childhood and was a very athletic girl. I definitely wasn’t a girly girl,” Penne told BJPenn.com exclusively.

“I played sports all the way through high school and I honestly got ruined from sports from playing them for so long. I played soccer and softball since I was seven years old and was also into gymnastics for a little bit,” Penne said.

“I tried to get on the wrestling team in high school but they wouldn’t allow girls to wrestle at my school, they told me I could be a stat girl.”

Ironically, that school is probably looking back wishing they allowed Penne to compete considering she is now one of the best female fighters in MMA. It just goes to show you that you can never judge a book by its cover. Penne wasn’t a “big girl” by any stretch of the imagination but her unbelievable competitive nature would have been a great asset to the team.

Becoming a fighter

Many MMA fighters got their start in a traditional style of martial arts but Penne was never one for katas and crane stances. However, the idea of punching, kicking and choking people out was definitely something that caught her attention.

A kickboxing class sparked a new passion for her and after being introduced to the various disciplines of MMA from the late Jeremy Williams, Penne was hooked.

“When I started training, I knew that I could compete but I just had no idea how far I could take it. After participating in a few grappling tournaments, my coach asked me if I wanted to fight and I didn’t really know what to expect but I was interested in it so I just went for it.”

On November 18th 2006, Penne stepped into the ring for the first time professionally against Sally Krumdiack and won the fight in the first round with a triangle choke.

“Winning my first professional fight was incredibly exciting and I never felt anything like that before. I just wanted to continue improving and I didn’t think about being the best or winning a belt because it wasn’t in the foreseeable future,” Penne said.

“There weren’t any organizations that were just for women or world championships for women [in my division] but I truly do love learning, competing and pushing myself so [getting that first win] was an exciting moment for me.”

Losing a mentor, rising above emotions to continue evolving as a warrior

Penne went on to win her next bout with a rear naked choke submission before tragedy struck. In May of 2007, Jeremy Williams pulled his car over to the side of Pacific Island Drive and shot himself at the age of 27. The sudden loss of a coach and mentor, who had become a significant part of her life, briefly halted Penne’s will to train and fight.

“It changed everything, it absolutely sucked and I lost my motivation to train for awhile.”

Williams was the owner of Apex Jiu-Jitsu and like many MMA gyms, it was more than a place to train, it was a family. When you lose your motivation, it takes a lot of soul searching to get it back but Penne quickly regained her drive and picked right back up where she left off.

She went on to win her next five fights and caught the attention of the fast-rising Bellator Fighting Championships.

With Penne, here is an athlete that is absolutely, positively 100% in this for the pure love of the sport. It isn’t about money or becoming a “superstar”, Penne fights to fight and to do so against the toughest opponents possible.

“I’ve never been driven by money, I never thought I could make a living [as an MMA fighter] and honestly I still cannot make a living off of it,” Penne said.

“I love [MMA] so much and it really has been such a positive influence in my life. This sport has completely changed me as a person to the point where I really can’t picture my life without it.”

First and only professional loss

In August of 2010, Bellator established it’s very first female tournament in the 115-lbs division. Penne was matched up with top ranked Zoila Gurgel, a fighter that cuts a significant amount of weight to make the division, in the first round.

Gurgel defeated Penne by unanimous decision but it was far from a dominant performance. Penne was simply outpointed but she held her own for fifteen minutes with a champion who has fought as high as three weight divisions above Penne’s current weight class.

“That fight [with Zoila Gurgel] was two years ago and I’m quite honestly annoyed that people keep pointing out that fight which is very irrelevant at this point in time. I’ve done a lot of good things before that fight and I’ve done a lot of good things after,” Penne said.

“I lost a decision to her, I came out out unscathed with a little blemish on my record so it’s annoying that people keep bringing it up. I look at it simply as a learning experience as I do with every other fight and I made a ton of improvements from it.”

Invicta FC is born, the ultimate platform for WMMA is established

Following the Gurgel bout, Penne quickly returned to her winning ways with a submission victory over Amy Davis before taking a year and a half off from competition. Her next fight would be the most significant of her career, a bout with Lisa Ellis on the premier event for Invicta FC.

Finally female fighters were given an entire organization to display their talents and Penne couldn’t have been more thrilled to receive the call.

“I had the pleasure of meeting [Invicta FC matchmaker] Janet Martin and [Invicta FC President] Shannon Knapp previously and I don’t usually get excited for a lot of things just because I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard people say “Oh, we’re going to have an all-women’s organization and it’s going to be great and we are going to have this, this and that” and it never came true,” Penne said.

“Once I met Janet though and realized that this was actually going to happen and that they really believed in all of us and wanted to give us a legit platform to perform on, I was ecstatic.”

Championship bound, Invicta FC 3 main event against Sugiyama

Penne finished Ellis in the third round of what turned out to be a very entertaining battle. Her standup was sharp, her ground game was absolutely stellar but most importantly you could see the heart of a champion emulating from Penne in that bout.

Clearly, Martin and Knapp noticed it as well as they brilliantly booked Penne in the headliner of their third event to determine the brand’s very first titleholder. Her opponent, Sugiyama, is an undefeated Japanese fighter that is currently ranked at the top of the atomweight division according to the unified rankings of WMMA.

Despite the hype of her opponent, Penne isn’t overly concerned about Sugiyama. She is confident that her coaches and training partners at King’s MMA, Reign Training Center, Checkmate BJJ, Innovative Results and Blackhouse MMA have her prepared for anything Sugiyama is going to throw at her.

“I haven’t brought in anyone different [for Sugiyama], I have the same coaches that I trust very much and they haven’t steered me wrong. They will help me prepare for whatever comes my way and for this fight, there’s not a whole lot of footage on Sugiyama and I like that better just because I’m not focusing that much on her, I’m focusing on myself and what I want to do.”

“It was a dream come true for me [to be part of the first Invicta FC card] and fighting for their first title is an even bigger dream and one that I never imagined coming true. I didn’t think any of this was a possibility.”

This stunning brunette went from being a girl that loves to compete to a great fighter that loves to fight. Her passion grows stronger and stronger under the tutelage of her instructors and teammates such as Rafael Cordeiro, UFC middleweight Mark Munoz, BJJ champion Lucas Leite, Corey Beasley and several others.

At Invicta FC 3 we are going to see a competitor fighting not to obtain a belt, not to secure the spotlight but to do what she loves to do and that is perform at the highest level against elite competition.

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