On Saturday night, newly-crowned Invicta FC atomweight champ Jessica Penne was beaming backstage at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. The 29-year-old’s six-year journey to the top had culminated with a slick submission victory over Naho “Sugi Rock” Sugiyama at Invicta FC 3.
Penne admits to feeling a sense of relief after finally achieving her goal of becoming a world champion and the number one fighter in her division, but she knows that this is only the beginning. As the reigning titleholder, Penne now has a big target on her back, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Paying Her Dues
Penne (10-1-0) is on top of the MMA world now, but things have not always been easy for the California native. Like most female competitors, Penne’s biggest struggle has been the constant challenge of finding fights. Early in her career, Penne often fought above her natural weight due to a lack of available opposition. Trainers needed to be compensated and bills wouldn’t pay themselves. Any fight was a welcome one as Penne quietly moved up the ranks with submission wins in three of her first four fights.
In November 2008, Penne captured a regional title in Colorado and that was enough to earn her a shot in the upstart Bellator Fighting Championships a few months later. Bellator officials were impressed by Penne’s quick victory in her promotional debut and invited her back to compete in the inaugural Bellator 115-pound women’s tournament in August 2010. Penne was matched up against eventual tournament champion Zoila Frausto Gurgel, a former bantamweight who was making the drop down to 115 pounds for the first time. Gurgel’s size and strength advantage proved to be too much for Penne, who dropped a competitive decision after three rounds.
Coming off of her first loss, Penne knew that a change had to be made in order for her to reach her full potential in the sport. Her walking weight was just above the 115-pound strawweight limit and that was too small to compete with other top contenders in the division who were beginning to make the move down from flyweight. Three months after the loss to Gurgel, Penne made her 105-pound atomweight debut against Muay Thai veteran Amy Davis in North Dakota. The result was a dominant first-round submission win for Penne, who appeared to be poised to make a run towards the top of the division.
The problem? Penne performed too well. She defeated Davis in such one-sided fashion that it suddenly became even more difficult to find fights. Months and months went by and Penne watched from the sidelines as her contemporaries received televised bouts at 115 and 135 pounds. Sure, she scored a high-profile victory over Japanese superstar Rena Kubota in a September 2011 shoot boxing match, but the North American audience had lost interest in Japanese combat sports and the win received little attention outside of the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Call That Changed Everything
Just when all hope appeared to be lost, Penne received a call to compete on the inaugural all-female Invicta Fighting Championships card on April 28, 2012 in Kansas City, Kansas. The event would be streamed worldwide and was to be led by former Strikeforce executive Shannon Knapp. Penne was matched up against one of her toughest opponents to date, Lisa Ellis, a skilled grappler with a wealth of experience. It was a perfect opportunity for Penne to showcase her rapidly-developing skills and a win would propel her into title contention for the first Invicta FC atomweight championship at a later date.
Penne broke Ellis’s nose with a vicious knee in the third round of a back-and-forth fight and ultimately emerged victorious via TKO after overwhelming Ellis with punches on the ground. The impressive win received widespread acclaim from fans, media and other fighters. It appeared that Penne was finally on the right track. Her years of hard work were paying off and she was eager to return to the cage as soon as possible. Her quest to become the best was almost complete.
When the Invicta FC 2 fight card was released and Penne’s name was not on it, she admits to feeling disappointed. Other Invicta FC 1 fighters had been brought back for the sophomore card, but Penne – whose performance in April was arguably the strongest of any of the 22 competitors – was not. At first, Penne was anxious and frustrated. She just wanted to fight. It didn’t matter whom her opponent would be. Anyone would do.
Penne’s feelings began to change when she received an invitation to attend the Invicta FC 2 event in person with the promise that a big announcement involving her next fight would be made. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all. Invicta FC had just announced a partnership with Japan’s all-female Jewels promotion, which had just crowned its first 106-pound champion in December.
Penne flew to Kansas City and appeared on the event’s live Internet stream to discuss her next fight. She would be a part of history as one half of the inaugural Invicta FC Atomweight Championship bout on October 6th. Her opponent, Naho Sugiyama, had just captured the Jewels title seven months earlier and had already vanquished all top challengers in Japan. She would pose a solid test for Penne and was the final fighter standing between Penne and the number one spot at 105 pounds.
A Champion At Last
Fast-forward two months and Penne is back in Kansas City. With mere days to go until her title fight with Sugiyama, Penne knows that she is well-prepared. She has managed to find some of Sugiyama’s fight footage to study and has surrounded herself with some of the top trainers and training partners in the United States, splitting time between Kings MMA, Reign Training Center, Checkmat BJJ and Black House MMA. As a result, Penne is one of the most well-rounded female fighters in the entire sport. She is ready. The time to realise her dream is now.
After making weight on Friday and taking care of last-minute interviews – an obligation that is gradually becoming easier for the shy fighter as she adjusts to the increased media attention – Penne gathers with her team to prepare for the biggest fight of her career. She has a height and strength advantage over the 5’1″ Sugiyama, who tips the scales at just 103.6 pounds. This proves to be a crucial factor.
Late on Saturday night, after 26 other female warriors have already left it all in the cage, Penne and Sugiyama make their entrances for their main event bout. The crowd at Memorial Hall is ready and their energy only increases as cage announcer Joe Martinez makes the final introductions. The top two atomweights in the world will face off and only one will be left standing with the stunning Invicta FC title belt around her waist.
Penne uses her jab to keep Sugiyama at bay early on as the Japanese standout throws leg kicks and tries to figure out a way to overcome Penne’s reach advantage. Penne eventually decides to take the fight to the mat, but she is unable to make much headway on the ground and has to settle for landing some short punches from Sugiyama’s half-guard. After five minutes, Penne is up 10-9, but Sugiyama is putting up a good fight. Nobody ever said this would be easy.
Round two begins and Penne mixes up her strikes nicely with punches and knees. She pulls down on Sugiyama’s head and drags her to the mat. Sugiyama winds up on top. Just when it looks like we will get to see some of Sugiyama’s formidable ground skills, Penne locks on a triangle choke from the bottom. Sugiyama is in trouble. She tries in vain to escape, but the cage is blocking her. She’s trapped. After a last-ditch effort to pull herself free, Sugiyama taps out for the first time in her career. An elated Penne gets to her feet and is soon presented with her shiny new title belt.
Six years in the making, Penne’s dream has at last come true.
Target On Her Back
Penne is all smiles backstage following her fight as she proudly shows off her title. She heads out for a well-deserved celebration with teammates and later returns to the fighter hotel for a good night’s sleep before making the trip back to California. By the time she catches up with MMARising.com on Monday evening, the magnitude of her title victory is gradually beginning to sink in.
“It went by pretty quickly and it doesn’t feel like it really happened,” Penne says. “It’s not like anything bigger than getting that [title] belt is going to come, so I’m just trying to enjoy it. It’s nice getting all of the kind words [from fans], but I know that those will start to fade out.”
The Invicta FC title already has a home on Penne’s bed with its own designated pillow. Penne plans to bring it along to each of her gyms this week to show it to training partners and to those who have been instrumental in her success in the sport. Master Rafael Cordeiro is out of the country for the upcoming UFC event in Brazil and Penne eagerly awaits his return so that he can share in this moment with her.
We discuss the title victory and Penne is happy with her performance. She stuck to her game plan and made sure that she did not over-exert herself. A single mistake can be the difference between victory and defeat in this all-too-unforgiving sport and Penne is keenly aware of this. She is also aware that she now has a big target on her back with veteran stars and bright young prospects all gunning for a shot at her title in the future. Gone are the days when Penne had to campaign for fights. Opponents will now come to her. All she has to do is hold on to the title.
“Looking forward into the future, I am extremely excited because I know now that I have a target on me and that I will get that [fight] consistency that I have always wanted. Hopefully there will be a lot more people who want to challenge [me],” Penne says with a laugh. “All that I’ve ever wanted to do is just to compete consistently and be in an organisation that cares about their athletes. I feel like I’m in a really good spot.”
Penne speaks highly of her experiences with Invicta FC and feels that the promotion is on the right track. She knows that the future can change without warning, as is the case with the embattled Strikeforce promotion right now, but Penne is optimistic. Invicta FC has already made plans to crown two new champions in early 2013. Barb Honchak and Vanessa Porto will face off for a flyweight title. Jewels champion Ayaka Hamasaki returns to face Carla Esparza for a strawweight belt. A potential television deal has also been rumoured. All of this suggests stability, which is something that Penne rarely had in her pre-Invicta fighting career.
When asked about her next fight, Penne is direct with her answer. She will fight anyone put in front of her – “all of them,” she says – and wants to fight again as soon as possible. The next Invicta FC event is tentatively scheduled for late January and Penne wants to be on it. She has played the waiting game before and knows that inactivity can adversely impact a fighter’s performance in the cage. As the reigning champion, Penne must be at the top of her game from here on out. There is too much at stake to be at any less than 100%.
As we finish talking, Penne politely asks if it would be okay if she sends out some notes of thanks to those who have helped her along the way. We pause for a moment while she retrieves a list. It is long.
Sponsors like Fight Twisted, Tri-Coasta MMA, OTM Fight Shop, Fighterhook, CNP Performance, VII A.D. Jewelry Art by Sevan Avakian, GBH MMA, RVCA, Vega and Thrive Foods, OC Fight Doc, Flo Master and Self Defined StreetMMAgear have made it possible for Penne to maintain a regular training schedule on her way to the title.
Her list of coaches and trainers is equally impressive. Mark Munoz at Reign, Rafael Cordeiro at Kings, Nathan Gable at Black House, Lucas Leite and Chris Franco at Checkmat, Corey Beasley at Innovative Results, Jason Parillo, Brendan Brazier and Danny Perez have all sculpted her into the fighter that she is today.
Last but certainly not least are Penne’s primary training partners, fellow Invicta FC fighter Kaiyana Rain and Tuff-N-Uff champion Jordan McDonald.
It is clear that Penne has an incredible support system around her, which is something that many others do not, and she wants to make sure that her inner circle is aware of how much they mean to her.
This morning, Penne received a gift from a member of that inner circle when she was awarded her BJJ brown belt by Professor Lucas Leite. With two new belts in four days, Penne has a lot to be proud of as she enters the next chapter of her career as the Invicta FC Atomweight Champion of the world.