(Photo courtesy of Michael Castillo)
By CagePotato contributor DL Richardson
It seems we expect female fighters to fall into one of a few archetypes, and we want to know what we’re dealing with as soon as we hear her name announced. “The Karate Hottie.” “Crazy Bitch.” “Beauty but the Beast.” “Cyborg.” But what happens when you meet a fighter who doesn’t fit neatly into these pre-formed notions? How do you reconcile the image of a fighter who dotes on her Staffordshire terrier and professes love for the movies Labyrinth and Stardust with the image of a professional kicker of asses and taker of names? Stalking could lead to some interesting revelations about a person’s habits and character, but it could also land you in traction. Easier route: call her and ask her a bunch of questions. Meet Jessica Pene, a participant in Bellator’s upcoming 115-pound women’s tournament who enjoys working with children, long walks on the beach, and subbing dudes forty pounds heavier than she is.
Ask Jessica Pene about her favorite fighter, and she’ll mention a handful of names. She expresses interest in “old school” fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, members of the new wave of MMA like Gegard Mousasi, and female division standouts like Megumi Fujii. One name, though, comes up repeatedly: “I love watching BJ Penn fight,” she says, perhaps unaware of the parallels between them.
Like Penn, Pene doesn’t have to fight to pay the bills. Born to a white collar family in southern California, Pene could have cruised through life, gotten a degree at a university and moved on to a cushy job. With her good looks and quiet charm, Jessica Pene could have made good money in advertising or public relations, and never once had to worry about making weight, defending a takedown, or getting punched in the face. Pene wakes and trains when most of us are still asleep, not because she needs to put food on the table, but because she is and always has been athletically inclined. Like Penn, she doesn’t compete because she needs a big payday. Jessica Pene fights because, deep down, she’s a fighter.
It’s 4 a.m., and Pene isn’t walking on the beach. She’s running. Her daily to-do list reads like the average keyboard warrior’s week. She’ll put in some hours as an intern, trying to polish off her BA in Communications from Cal State-Fullerton, then clock in as a boxing coach and BJJ instructor at LA Boxing in Lake Forest. Her own training takes place at Subfighter MMA and Joker’s MMA in California, but she’s known to travel and train with some of the best fighters on the planet. She spends entirely too much time in her car, and she hates traffic. No one crams this much into their schedule without some fire in their gut.
“I’ve always been a little tomboyish,” she says, “and I’ve always been interested in sports.” Pene was always active growing up, always on some kind of team: soccer, softball, swim team. “I tried to join the wrestling team in high school,” she says, “but they weren’t female-friendly at the time.”
It wasn’t until she’d graduated from high school that Pene became interested in combat sports. “I was twenty, twenty one, and I would watch these K-1 fights and I was really interested, I really wanted to do it. That’s when I sought out a gym to train at, but since I am shy, I was intimidated to find an actual ‘fight’ gym and go in there and say ‘yeah, I want to fight,’ so I just tested the waters and went in at a slow pace.”
While still attending classes at CSUF, Pene went into a nearby LA Boxing gym. “I used to live right by campus,” she says, “and they had some local-level fighters training [at the gym] there, and I thought, ‘ Maybe I’ll get in shape and find my way through this,’ and it really did work out that way. One of the coaches there took an interest in me, and through that I met my coach Jeremy [Williams], and started training in jiu jitsu and kickboxing, and I was hooked.”
Her training partners early on were exclusively male, and she continues to train with men to this day. “I’m like the gym’s little sister, they’re all very protective of me,” she says. They’re apparently not above some teasing, though: I ask about her fighter nickname, she tells me that “it’s not very intimidating, so I don’t use it.” Meaning she doesn’t want it to get out? “It will not get out,” she says, and Jess Pene, all five feet five inches of her, puts some bass in her voice to let me know she’s not kidding. I decide to change the subject.
When Pene made her professional debut in November of 2006, she met up with “Slick” Sally Krumdiack, who was 1-0 at the time. Pene sank an arm triangle in the first round to win her debut. Since that fight, Pene has piled up seven wins, and remains undefeated. Of her seven wins, she’s subbed four, and scored a TKO win over veteran Tammie Schneider at Bellator V. Pene recently made Heavy MMA’s ’Top 10 Female Strikers in MMA’ list, where writer Mitch Ciccarelli noted that “Pene has great timing and knows exactly when and when not to strike. She isn’t known for being a knockout artist but she hits harder than most females and her accuracy is nearly perfect.” Beyond that, Pene knows how to mix her attacks. She’s well-rounded, comfortable in all phases of a fight, and she’s demonstrated that she’s dangerous wherever the fight takes place.
Next month, Pene will take that undefeated record into Bellator’s cage for the women’s featherweight division tournament. I ask her if Bellator or Strikeforce were doing more to promote women’s MMA, and she laughs, “Bellator, of course! No, I think they’re tied, you know? Strikeforce is making a lot of effort to put together women’s fights, and so is Bellator. They’re both good, legit organizations, and they’re going after different weight classes, so I think it’s beneficial, it’s good across the board.”
That featherweight tournament features possibly the most impressive pool of talent ever assembled in women’s MMA, including ladies cutting down to 115 for the first time. Of the eight women in the brackets, only three — Pene, Megumi Fujii, and Lisa Ward — are natural featherweights; the other five have been more established at 125 pounds. “There are some bigger girls who fight at heavier weights who are making their first trip down to 115. They’re going to have to maintain that; hopefully they’re seeking out a nutritionist. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the cut affects them. I don’t have to worry about that, all I need to focus on is my training.”
What Pene doesn’t focus on is marketing herself in a certain way to draw attention. She’s ambivalent about the role of sex in women’s MMA, and she’s turned down promotional opportunities because of it. “I got approached to do a photo shoot/interview for [a magazine] and they wanted it to be like, ’get your hair done, your makeup,’ and make me look like just a girl, but I’m kind of apprehensive about that. I’ve seen some fighters do that kind of work, and people can react really negatively. But then Meisha Tate does it and everyone says, ’Oh, she’s so hot.’ I think there’s a fine line for female fighters, for female athletes in general; you have to be very careful in how you present yourself. On one hand, it can help, but you have to be careful about how you go about doing it. It could be ‘Oh, this is an attractive athlete,’ then, on the other hand, it’s ‘why is this girl trying so hard?’
When I mention a few female fighters who are known to have some spicier pictures on the web, Pene claims (not for the first time) that she stays off of forums and fight-related internet. Curious, she starts visiting a few websites while we talk. Five minutes later, while I’m asking about Strikeforce, she starts giggling. “Oh my goodness!” she says, “I see butt cheeks!” I can actually hear her blushing over the phone. “Oh my goodness! Wow! Sorry, I’m looking at nudie pictures!” When I follow up, asking if seeing a fighter use topless pictures or a famous last name to help draw interest affects Pene’s opinion of her colleagues, her answer is simple and sincere. “Look, anyone who trains, and gets in a cage and fights, deserves respect.”
I ask Pene for some predictions about the Bellator tourney, but she is predictably reserved. Despite my best efforts to encourage her, she’s hesitant to make ludicrously specific predictions. She sees Fujii and Jessica Aguilar making it to the semifinals. “I’m really interested to see the Daly-Ward fight. They both have really good wrestling, but Aisling [Daly] is larger. Lisa [Ward] is a legit fighter, though, so I’m very interested to see how that fight goes.” When I mention Zoila Frausto, who will meet Pene in the cage at Bellator XXV in Chicago, Pene doesn’t voice any concern for a similar size advantage. She also refuses to say that she’s identified a weakness in Frausto’s game: “Everyone can be beaten,” she says, as if that’s all she needs to say.
Maybe it is.