SAN ANTONIO – The judge’s scorecards indicated Raquel Pennington secured her split-decision victory with her work on the ground against Irene Aldana in the third round.
But Pennington felt the tide turned before she even entered the octagon at UFC's Fight Night in San Antonio on Saturday.
For two years the Harrison High School graduate and lifelong Colorado Springs resident has battled injuries and health complications and simply wanted to feel like herself again. But as she walked into the AT&T Center, Pennington pulled her coaches aside to inform them she had overshot that goal. She actually felt better than ever.
“I was genuinely smiling,” she said. “I had zero nerves. It was the weirdest feeling. Normally I feel kind of grouchy, jittery and getting my breath under control.
“I just realized how truly blessed I am to have this opportunity and to have the talent to be where I’m at. So, I just wanted to embrace the moment and that’s exactly what I did.”
That sense of calm and confidence helped Pennington weather an early onslaught from Aldana, who had a 2-inch height advantage, a three-fight winning streak and stormed out at a frantic pace that put Pennington on defense.
Aldana swept the first round on the scorecards, but Pennington landed enough impactful shots that it wasn’t a complete waste. Pennington then won on two of the three scorecards in a second round that left Aldana bloodied. Then came the third round, where Pennington took the fight to the ground and spent a good portion of the 5 minutes using Aldana’s head as a speed bag with the side of her fist as she held the top position. She nearly took all the drama out of the decision by ending the fight with a choke hold, but Aldana escaped.
When the horn finally sounded, referee Frank Collazo raised Pennington’s hand in victory — a first for her in 32 months dating back to a win over Miesha Tate in November 2016.
The two losses Pennington suffered since then paled in comparison to the personal hardships she’s endured, and it was overcoming those that heightened the emotion on this night.
She broke her back in a snowboarding injury. She broke her leg. Injuries suffered in fights left her in surgery. After that came a thyroid issue that shot her weight from 135 to 170 despite her best efforts to control it. She even discovered she had a parasite in her intestines.
“I’ve just been climbing one mountain after the other and it felt like I just couldn’t catch a break,” she said, adding that her grandmother had been in a Colorado Springs hospital this past week after a broken hip and diabetic episode that nearly left her in a hospital. “I spent endless hours just crying and frustrated. I just wanted to be normal again.”
But Pennington’s body healed. A change in diet helped ween her off thyroid medication. And the parasite? She didn’t want to go into details, but it’s gone.
Nana was even released from the hospital before the fight.
“Everything that could have fell into place fell into place for me,” said Pennington, who was even surprised in San Antonio by her nephew on his third birthday.
Pennington credited her change in coaches for assisting in the victory. Aldana is known for her striking, but Pennington’s new striking coach Justin Houghton convinced her she could outstrike the Mexico native.
And she did.
“I said to her, you’ll know in your own heart,” said wrestling coach Jason Kutz, the mainstay in Pennington’s corner throughout her career, as he helped talk her through issues that left her at a career crossroads. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else says to you, you’ll know if we’re going to do it or not. And I’ll be here for you when you’re ready.”
Pennington was ready, all right. And she’s suddenly back in position as a key contender in the bantamweight division.
“There’s really no words for me right now,” Pennington said. “I’m just really proud of myself to get back there and prove some things to myself.”