Exclusive: Raquel Pennington talks Andrade fight, Pena injury and evolution as athlete

Image courtesy of MMAJunkie
Image courtesy of MMAJunkie

With UFC 171 just days away, all eyes are on Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler as they prepare to battle for the vacant welterweight strap, but one of the many promising bouts flying under the radar on Saturday pits TUF 18 standout Raquel Pennington against fellow up-and-comer Jessica Andrade.

Following her epic war with Jessamyn Duke and a hard-fought loss to eventual finalist Jessica Rakoczy, “Rocky” went on handily defeat Roxanne Modafferi at the TUF 18 finale in December. Now the Colorado native finds herself stepping in for an injured Julianna Pena in what is arguably the biggest fight of her career against Andrade.

ProMMANow got a chance to catch up with “Rocky” to discuss the fight with Andrade, her thoughts on Julianna’s injury and what this opportunity means to her career.

Questions from our own Kinch in bold.

Answers from Pennington italicized.

Thank you as always for taking the time to speak with me Raquel. Last time we spoke you mentioned that you wanted to take some time off and enjoy some relaxation following your win over Roxanne, how was the down time?

“Actually, I really didn’t get any of that time off that I was talking about. I went through my whole fight camp to prepare for the finale and my fight. Then I had about a week off before I had to fly out to Las Vegas to help Meisha Tate get ready for her fight with Ronda, so I stayed active the whole month of December. When I got back home I caught a cold for about a week and a half, I’m usually not the type of person to let a cold bring me down but this kicked my butt a little bit, so I got to rest for about a week. Then I started training again and I got the call.”

What kind of time frame where you anticipating for a return to action? When did you get the call from the UFC to step in for Julianna?

“We were looking at fights on either the London card in March or maybe April on the same card as Meisha, so we were just kind of looking around. My fight camp for Roxanne was pretty rough, I had a bunch of injuries that I had to fight through so my coach wasn’t in too big of a hurry. We felt March or April was a good time period so we were keeping in touch with the UFC, but with the women’s division there’s only so many of us fighting. I got the call right when I got to the gym and they were like, ‘Hey we want to offer you this fight, Julianna got injured,’ and I said alright.”

Were you the first person they offered this fight to? I’m guessing you had no hesitation you say yes.

“I’m gonna go with that. Like I said, the women’s division is so small right now that everyone is so hungry to get fights so it seemed like as soon as it happened Twitter went insane with Sarah Kaufman and Jessica Eye trying to get the fight. So when they said, ‘Hey do you want this fight?’ I was was happy.”

What is your opinion on the story of Julianna’s injury? Is it all hearsay or do you think Dana White was accurate with his description of what happened?

“I haven’t really got the full story, I’ve heard so many different stories. From what I understand it was just a blowout to her knee during grappling practice. That’s what seems to be coming out from the coaches and the coaching staff over there. I heard the rumor that it was because she was wearing her Ultimate Fighter stuff so they jumped her or somebody bullied her, but it’s hard to say what exactly happened if you weren’t there. So I just look at it as a really sad thing to happen to someone, it’s going to be a long road back and whether you’re a fighter or not, nobody wants that to happen to them. It’s sad that it happened, I’m glad I got the fight because of this situation but I wish Julianna the best of luck with everything.”

Is this type of alleged behavior something that is common in your experience? Do you think we eventually get to a point where women train with women exclusively?

“I don’t think that would ever happen for the fact that women are already a small group compared to the men. Even with great women to train with all over the world, you’re still not going to have enough women that are high quality training partners like you would find with men, so I don’t think that would happen. There is a difference when you have athletes that are professional training partners; you go through the proper warmups and the proper steps, you know when enough is enough and you don’t go overboard.”

Speaking of training, you have been a faithful member of Altitude MMA in your home town. I’m wondering if you will be looking to utilize the other facilities in your area as your career continues to progress?

“I actually travel and train at different places already. Denver is only about forty-five minutes from me and then I have a ton of connections there. There are girls that train at all the different gyms up in Denver that I do train with, thats when I get all my sparring in with females and I grapple with all the girls. I also like getting the different coaches perspective and rolling with other guys who are my weight. With Altitude, I have been there since I went pro and it’s one of the better gyms out here in Colorado Springs, we have great fighters that train there but the main reason it works for me is my coach Marc Fiore. Marc used to train Matt Hughes and he is out of Altitude, so I have a pretty legit coach being based in that gym and I have great athletes to train with who are around my weight. It works for me, I have everything I need and I am still in my hometown with my family, then I go to Denver a couple times a week. I’m in a good position.”

I know you mentioned going to help Meisha Tate prepare for Ronda Rousey, do you still have a good relationship with her and has she helped you get ready for Andrade?

“We still have a pretty good friendship, as far as The Ultimate Fighter goes, I think everybody in that situation built those relationships. All the girls in the sport, besides Meisha and Ronda, for the most part we all know it’s business in the cage and we keep our friendship on the outside. That’s just the way it goes, we could hang out one week and then have to fight each other the next, so we can put everything aside and do what we need to do for our profession. So the relationship with Meisha is still there, but I prefer to stay out here and Meisha is in Vegas and still on her downtime from the fight with Ronda. I like it here in Colorado Springs anyway, I have my own support system and the high altitude really works for me.”

What can you tell me about your opponent? She seems to be well rounded and on a tare lately, what do you think of this match-up?

“Just from watching her and watching her fights I can tell she is hungry for this. She’s pretty solid, she comes out strong and ready to do work. As far as me, I have always prepared to be well rounded and prepare for every aspect of the sport. I just want to be ready for whatever she brings my way and I think Jessica will definitely bring out the competitor in me. I am still trying to figure out how to fight to my full potential and I think it has a lot to do with who they put in front of me. Jessamyn brought out the best of me and I think Jessica will too, she is going to come right after me.”

This fight takes place right around your two-year mark since going pro in 2012. What can you tell me about this journey and how happy are you with how far your career has come thus far?

“I think my career is moving at a great pace, I think everything has come my way at the perfect time in my evolution as a fighter. It would be different if all of the sudden I went pro and I got put right into the UFC. I like the way everything is turning out because it’s given me a chance to grow as a person and as an athlete. The experience on TUF was great for me, learning how to fight in the UFC with the traveling and things like that, it was great for me to learn how to be away from my family and getting used to them not being there for my camp. Pretty much just learning to fend for myself and focus by myself. It was a good thing for me to actually see what other fighters go through and the emotions they go through. Just the way my career has progressed, from when I went pro, to the fights that I’ve had, to the challenges that I went through, being sick and still fighting through, from making crazy choices to thinking about what foot I need to put forward to achieve my dreams; it’s playing out in a perfect way.”

You have told me before that while your striking is what people first notice about your skill-set, you are actually more comfortable on the ground. How do you feel you match up against the Brazilian if the fight hits the canvas?

“I’m actually not worried, anything can happen in this sport and I’m not going to underestimate her in any shape or form, but when I hit the ground and I’m going against the guys, guys who are strong and have black belts and they are having a hard time submitting me, that’s my comfort zone. I’m still learning a lot with my standup but I feel like I have learned a lot about myself as a fighter in general. I feel like I’m a really well rounded fighter, I have the striking, when I really let go of my kicks- I have ridiculous kicks, it’s just all within me and the way I start. It’s kind of just my all-around mood I guess.”

Speaking of your kicks, when I watch you fight I always imagine how deadly your arsenal would be with more kicks. Should we expect to see you utilize more Muay Thai and kicking technique in this fight?

“It’s something I’m looking to utilize a lot more in every fight. It got to a point were I really started focusing on my hands and I forgot about my kicking, but I’ve always been a huge fan of kicking. For a while everyone was telling me that I needed to let my hands go and stop uses m kicks so much, my kicks would go so freaking fast that they were like punches and then all of a sudden I forgot about those and then everything was my hands. This fight camp I’ve been working on falling back into what I used to do, like when I was an amateur, just having fun with it. I’ve been finding the passion again and trying all kinds of crazy things, learning what it was like to just go and see what you can really do in certain positions and in the moment. So yea, I’ve been focusing on everything, including my Muay Thai.”

Andrade is currently ranked no. 9 and you are currently ranked 15th in the UFC bantamweight division. Do you feel a big win over Andrade will put you into the top 10 and get you closer to contender status? Or is that something you don’t pay much mind to leading up to a fight?

“At the end of the day it all matters to me, we all want to work our way to the top and have that chance to eventually fight for the title and that is definitely one of my dreams, I do want to be a world champion in the UFC and I’m the only one who can stop me. I look at it as everyone as a stepping stone and I need to continue to grow but I’m going into a fight I try not to think about the rankings. This fight is a great opportunity for me as far as rankings go, but even when I was on The Ultimate Fighter, I wasn’t telling myself that I need to win this fight to get into the semifinals. I just wanted to go out there and have fun and do what I do everyday and be able to preform, that is always the most important thing to me. Performing and having fun while I do it, when you do that, great things are going to come.”

Originally it looked like this fight was set to be the main event of the preliminary broadcast but now you are slated as he co-main of the prelims. Would you prefer to fight on FOX Sports 1 or the Pay-Per View? Does it really matter?

“For me it doesn’t really matter. Yea, it’s nice to be on Pay-Per View but sometimes it’s nice to get it over and done with. That way you don’t have the time to sit there and think about it, it’s kind of a lot, you sit there and go through all these emotions, that’s the part that I don’t like. That’s when I tell myself, ‘Why do I continue to put myself through this?’ The worst scenario for me before a fight is when I have way too much time to think. So I’m just happy that it’s finally happening, after this fight hopefully I get a little break again and keep moving forward.”

So it sounds to me like you would prefer to get out of the car, walk in the arena and fight, is that accurate?

“Not that soon (laughs). Maybe like three fights in, as long as somebody starts the card out, the crowd is going nuts, and maybe another fight happens, then I’d say I’m ready to go. At the same time it’s nice to let the crowd get all anxious and excited for the girl fights, that’s a fun feeling too, it just really depends on my mood.”

With the new fame and popularity as a fighter, any new sponsorships or partnerships that you’re excited about?

“One that I am actually really excited about is that I started working with Tiffany Graham, she’s a chiropractor for Maximized Living. We met at some of the local fights out here and she said she really wanted to work with me, she does a lot of work with the athletes at the Olympic Training Center like the wrestlers and the judo fighters, so it was a no-brainer. She knows what we put our bodies through as athletes on a daily basis and like I said, I was going through one injury after another in my camp for Roxanne and it was really frustrating for me. Yea, we are always going to have injuries but the the way I felt my body was breaking down had to the point of crying. I’m not one to cry either but it was just so frustrating going from one thing to another. So working with her, she’s actually a nutritionist too, she’s set me up on this plan that is just a better way of living.

“I’ve had such better energy, the way my eating has been going, it’s just phenomenal. Then figuring out all of my chiropractic issues, you’ve got to get to the source of things, so she did this thing on my nerves system. It’s kind of like an EKG but instead of your heart it’s on your nerves and without me even speaking, she was nailing every injury that I had from using that machine. I was like,’Whoa this is mind-blowing,’ and ever since then she has been working on me with specific workouts based on what she’s diagnosed me with and my injuries are literally going away. It’s been an amazing feeling because now I can actually train hard with nothing holding me back, I feel healthy all the time, I get great sleep, it’s just been phenomenal for me.”

What kind of changes to your diet have you found so beneficial?

“It was just small things honestly. For instance, I loved eating oatmeal in the morning and she told me I should just mix up the types of grains that are in oatmeal and instead of a red apple use a green apple. Really random and small changes, nutrition can get really boring and she has me switching things up to the point were I enjoy cooking again.”

One thing you’ve mentioned that you wanted to work on was getting your rhythm earlier in the fight. What kind of progress have you made there and would you say you were able to do so against Roxanne?

“That was my goal with Roxanne but with all the injuries I had, that was one fight where I knew I had to get the win and I really didn’t care how it went. That was my main focus and ever since then we have just been back to working on all the stuff I was before. When we have sparring days I’m just go go go, I feel like my training will always be harder then the fight will ever be, so it’s just pushing myself. I was like that in practice before though, we would start and have a feeling out process but when I was warm and we felt each other out we would start getting all crazy. Now when my coach says we’re sparring, I see that as a fight, the first round of sparring is going to be as hard as the third. I need things to be hard for me and it’s paying off.”

Back to the fight, how do you visualize this bout going down and how do you get your hand raised?

“There’s so many different ways I see this fight happening but I don’t see a decision and I definitely don’t see myself losing. I’ve always been one of those people that when I’m in a fight camp, the fight is the only thing on my mind. When I go to sleep I dream of the fight and there’s areas where I see a knockout or a submission, but I’m just excited to see what happens. Like I said, my main goal is go out there, have fun with it and just put on a show and just truly perform.”

What can all the “Rocky P” fans expect from you in 2014?

“They should just expect to see me, I’m constantly growing with the sport and every fight that comes, I’m always surprising myself. In training I keep surprising myself and continuing to grow and I have faith in myself, I’m going to be me. I’m going to there to perform and it’s always going to be exciting.”

Be sure to follow Raquel on Twitter here!

@KinchMMA

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