On paper, top MMA prospect Jessica Penne is a slayer of women. But there is a palpable disconnect between the 2/3 finishing rate, nearly unblemished professional record and recent major upset victory against Rena Kubatashe she boasts inside the cage and the quirky, sensitive personality she wears outside of it. As she prepares for a tilt this Saturday against top-ranked Lisa Ellis-Ward at the inaugural event of the all-women’s Invicta FC promotion, the touted up and comer is still decidedly a young woman with common insecurities trying to balance a job, professional athletic dreams and two dogs that weigh in at about her size.
“What? Hold on one second, please,” Penne stopped herself mid-sentence as she was describing the opportunity to fight for Invicta.
It takes some planning to get on the schedule of a fighter less than a week before a major bout. But, what Penne refers to as “puppy issues” find a way to take priority.
“I have a new puppy,” Penne explained. “She’s not house broken, yet.”
Penne is the proud owner of two pitbulls. The two and a half year old Monster was recently joined by the eleven week puppy, Chimera. And, while Penne describes them as “sweet” and “cuddly” they are big dogs.
“Monster is about 100 pounds and when the other grows up she’ll be about the same,” said Penne. “I always joke around that I have my weight class in dogs.”
Penne’s jokes are in no way exaggerated. The top prospect fights naturally at what’s known as the minimumweight or atomweight division. With a 105 pound limit, bouts in the weight class are so rare that it doesn’t have a uniform name in all commission rulebooks. The obscurity of her weight class has made finding opponents a chore for Penne, but this has been a problem for women in all divisions.
Read more on female weight class problems, how Invicta can stabilize them, and self-marketing after the jump.
“I don’t think a lot of women have a chance to fight at their natural weight class,” said Penne. “The great thing about Invicta is that they will actually establish the weight class so you don’t have to go up and down just to find an opponent.”
The atomweight smasher is no stranger to division-jumping in order to get a fight. Penne’s first bit of network television exposure came during the original Bellator FC women’s tournament broadcast on MTV 2. Penne moved up a division in order to face the much larger Zoila Gurgel, who went on to take the tournament. The loss to Gurgel remains the only tick Penne has in the L column. Still, it was a move she would make again.
“I took that fight because it was the biggest opportunity I had at that time,” Penne said. “I don’t regret it. It’s not like I got beat up. I lost because I was facing someone who was much bigger and stronger than me…. I am looking forward to fighting in my own weight class.”
Though women’s MMA has been on the receiving end of a big boom with the success of recently crowned Strikeforce 135 pound champion Ronda Rousey, individual female divisions remain on the fringe of mixed martial arts. Rousey was able to breathe new life into 135. And, before her, Gina Carano made 145 pounds the place to be for marketing a female bout.
Penne feels that 105, along with all other women’s divisions, doesn’t need a media darling so much as it needs a consistent figure head.
“I think [divisions] need champions, if that’s what your asking,” said Penne. “I think there needs to be a champion in each weight class. The champion sets the tone for the rest of the division. Everyone looks to her and is thinking about whose going to beat her. For a weight class to exist it needs a title.”
Given Invicta’s promise to hold three events this year and maintain their weight classes to build up standard divisions, Penne may be in contention for the first recognized atomweight title in MMA sooner rather than later. Her opponent, Ellis-Ward, is one of the only other well-known names in the weight class not currently tied up in another contract. The winner of the upcoming bout on Invicta is a logical choice to contend for a newly formed title.
Still, Penne is not banking anywhere near Carano levels of cash in her fighting career. She says she would love to be a full-time athlete, but acknowledges that is something that is not currently possible. Even just getting fights has involved her actively pushing her image into the public eye: a process she still feels uneasy with.
“I didn’t really do any marketing until the last maybe year,” Penne explained an increase in photos and interviews. “I noticed the girls that do it get fights with more consistency and get on the cards that I don’t get on. It’s something that’s necessary. I’m trying to be comfortable with it. I’m getting comfortable with it.”
Few would dispute Jessica Penne looks better on a promotional poster than many of her contemporaries. A quick glimpse at the pinup photo on her twitter profile may evoke the image of a creepy form of drooling fandom following her around. But it’s not the invasion of privacy that bothers her about self-marketing.
“Any time you put yourself out there, you open yourself up to negativity,” said Penne. “People are really mean and critical and judgmental.”
There was a real tone of lament in her voice as Penne tried to dismiss some of the “rotten things” people have said about her online. It was a statement that made clear a thin skin covering a gentle soul that just happens to be very good at punching people in the face.
Still, Penne sees some salvation from the problems of self-exposure in her new promotional home. She hopes Invicta’s lofty goals of building the talent pool of every women’s weight class to be comparable to a male-centered organization will solve the resultant problems that plague female fighters. More fights against more talent will also provide more opportunities for Penne to make an impression with her MMA skills.
Invicta FC One will broadcast live and for free via the promotion’s website this Saturday, April 28 at 8pm ET.