Raquel Pennington: From TUF to the Top?

In combat sports, contenders come in all forms. One of those of course is the prototypical rising star: an athlete climbing the ranks with some kind of awe-inspiring attribute that builds momentum and hype with each single outing. However, not everyone can be that way and frankly, not every contender can enter with vast buzz or excitement surrounding their name. On paper, Raquel Pennington is a rather unique contender in this sense. She’s been inactive and has a lacking resume but even still, there’s an underlying confidence in the admittedly sizable underdog challenger.

As champion, Amanda Nunes isn’t standing atop a division blessed with immense depth but in Pennington, she’ll meet a unique test. ‘Rocky’ first entered the UFC’s octagon as a part of the Ultimate Fighter. She joined the Season 18 cast with a modest pro record of 3-3, eventually getting eliminated in the semi-final, losing to the somewhat limited Jessica Rakoczy. Though her fight opposite Jessamyn Duke highlighted fighting instincts and a grit worth admiring, Pennington wasn't a talent that exactly captured the public’s imagination at first sight.

Nonetheless, the UFC needed numbers for their women’s bantamweight division and Pennington could be that if nothing else. In just her 2nd post TUF fight, Pennington returned to the loss column though, losing out on a close decision to Jessica Andrade in a fight that she simply wasn't active enough in. Before long, Pennington would be an emerging contender but I think it’s fair to say that at that moment in time, the perception surrounding her wasn't one of a top 5 fighter.

An exciting bulldog choke win over Ashlee Evans-Smith didn't really alter that feeling much but either way, the UFC needed an opponent for the debuting Holly Holm and fresh off a finish win, Pennington fit that role. Why? Because well she was good, but not too good as they say. On fight night though, the pre-fight predictions of a highlight reel headkick quickly vanished. Instead, Pennington fought her own fight and had genuine success, all whilst avoiding many of Holm’s best tools. In the end, she’d come out the split decision loser but her stock had raised…or Holm’s had dropped at least. One or the other.

Fortunately for Pennington, that performance would only grow in stature as Holm proved her worth, eventually knocking Ronda Rousey out to become the division’s champion. For many, Pennington had actually shown the real route to victory opposite Holm and after putting in a career-best performance to avenge her loss against Andrade, Pennington was suddenly becoming a contender. Wins over Bethe Correia and Elizabeth Phillips only furthered that, even if they didn't come in particularly memorable fashion. Either way, Pennington was now in position for a career-altering fight.

Opening the main card on the UFC’s first ever event in New York, Pennington fought her old Ultimate Fighter coach: former Bantamweight champion Miesha Tate. ‘Rocky’ looked more polished than ever, comfortably cruising to an excellent decision win. It’s fair to say that at that point in time, Pennington’s credibility had never been higher but fast forward 18 months later and she’s not fought since. Nonetheless, she finds herself now just days away from the biggest fight of her life: a title bout against the fearsome champion Amanda Nunes.

Considering everything we know, what kind of title contender really is Raquel Pennington? Well, first we have to be honest. She’s an inactive contender not blessed with tremendous physical assets or a history of elite success. On the other hand, she’s a fighter that in just three years, showed immense improvement that suggests we’ll likely see the best Pennington yet this Saturday night in Brazil. Best of all though, what makes Pennington interesting to me is her consistent success inside the octagon. She may have entered with an underwhelming record but has almost always exceeded expectations on the big stage, even avenging one of her two UFC losses.

It’s hard to really know how Pennington will matchup with Nunes and her status as a wide underdog is certainly understandable. What I would say though is that whilst she may not be the most hyped or feared fighter, Pennington is a very good one and more than that, one with a knack of thriving off a challenge, something that should serve her well at UFC 224.

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