Raquel Pennington goes from 'rock bottom' to facing Amanda Nunes
UFC bantamweight contender Raquel "Rocky" Pennington (9-5) often takes her fiancée and fellow UFC star Tecia Torres to the Manitou Incline outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, a trail that gains 2,000 feet of elevation over one mile. Convincing Torres to take the climb is a feat in its own right, considering that she's not exactly a fan of the outdoors. She says she's learning, though.
Pennington, on the other hand, is not the least bit intimidated by the 2,744 steps that make up the trail. She sometimes dons a 40-pound weighted vest and takes off up the Incline. Step by step, she pushes her body up the climb, imposing her will, taking the steps quickly.
For the first time since beating Miesha Tate at UFC 205 in November 2016, Pennington is due back in the Octagon, this time for a title shot against Amanda Nunes (15-4) at UFC 224 in Nunes' home country of Brazil on Saturday. The circumstances are not ideal, but Pennington is used to pushing her limits and playing the cards in her hand, rather than waiting for perfect conditions.
She's learned the hard way. Pennington broke her back in a snowboarding accident when she was 18. After her fight with Tate, she needed surgery on her shoulder, wrist and mouth. Then, shortly after verbally agreeing to face Nunes -- a fight that was originally scheduled for UFC 219 -- Pennington flipped her ATV while hunting with her family and broke her left fibula.
"I learned a lot about myself as an individual during that time," she said in a phone interview. "It's hard to even truly explain. I was at rock bottom. Life was over for me. I couldn't get up from the mat, couldn't do what I loved."
Pennington, who grew up in Colorado Springs, described her journey into MMA as something that "started as a bit of a joke." As a child, she was interested in boxing; her childhood best friend was the daughter of a professional boxer, and Pennington would beat up on the bag hanging in her friend's basement. When she asked her parents if she could box, they said no.
"They told me that I was too pretty and my teeth were too nice," Pennington said.
Pennington played multiple sports growing up and harbored a desire to be a professional athlete. But her back injury derailed those plans. So she enrolled at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, pursued an education in premed and tried to put her life and her body back together.
As a way to rehab her way back into sports, she took kickboxing classes at a local gym, where the MMA bug ultimately bit her. She fought at the amateur level from 2009 to 2011 before going pro in 2012, fighting under the all-women Invicta promotion. It was through Invicta that Pennington met Torres.
Pennington's career took a turn when she was cast in "The Ultimate Fighter 18" in 2013 and picked by Tate for a matchup. Pennington drove with her mom (who eventually came around to support Pennington's burgeoning MMA career) through the night from Colorado Springs to Las Vegas for the opportunity to make the show.
"We drove for 13 hours and I slept for 30 minutes," Pennington said. "It was the longest day of my life."
The opportunity to fight Nunes -- which came in October 2017 -- was the culmination of her relentless pursuit for success in MMA, particularly in the face of physical setbacks. But then it was almost all taken away.
That same month, Pennington flipped her ATV. When the accident happened, she called Torres in a panic. Torres initially thought that something happened to Pennington's grandfather, but soon realized Pennington was hurt. She had just pulled her leg out from being pinned under the roll cage. "Call my mom, call my mom," she begged Torres through the phone.
Torres got in her car and sped through the mountains to Gunnison, Colorado, shaving a half hour off the normally three-hour drive. When she got there, Pennington was already in the hospital.
"It was just so sad," Torres said in a phone interview. "We're all in this sport for the same reason: to get that title fight and become No 1. She had it and it was taken from her."
Pennington lay in her hospital bed, disappointed with her situation. The lack of structure challenged her. She always thought of herself as a spontaneous person, but as a fighter, she also always had the routine of going to the gym. Now, she had to rest on the couch. No training or hiking or running or rough housing. She just had to sit still.
"I felt like I lost track of who I am because I couldn't be who I am," Pennington said.
But Pennington found a way to be grateful. The doctor had told her that she was lucky to have kept her leg at all. If she hadn't been wearing her boots, her leg probably would have shattered, and amputation would have been a strong possibility.
"Having a title shot and then having it taken away broke me," Pennington said. "I was done. But then having the doctor tell me that I lucked out -- after hearing that, I was like, 'I need to pull my head out of my butt.'"
Her upcoming fight with Nunes will not be easy. Nunes is looking to defend her title for the third time. She has the most victories in the UFC women's bantamweight division, and six of those eight victories have come by stoppage in the first round. The only fighter to take Nunes the distance in her UFC career has been Valentina Shevchenko, and she did it twice. A Pennington victory would certainly be an upset, but of course, she doesn't see it that way.
"When something is taken away and you get it back, it fuels the fire for me," Pennington said. "Nothing is going to stop me."
She's climbed too far to turn back now.