by Kyle Nagel on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm ET
Jessica Penne (8-1) had long been interested in combat sports. Aside from her high school softball and swimming careers, she even once hoped to wrestle, although there were no girls on the high school wrestling team.
When she was a few years out of high school, Penne wasn't going in any direction she liked. Nothing too bad, she said, but nothing she was serious about, either.
On a weekend when she was 22, she visited a high school friend who was living out of town. While she was there, some friends found a pair of boxing gloves in a garage.
"They said, 'Just give it a try, we'll hold some mitts for you,'" Penne told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "I had already really been wanting to do it, but it was kind of intimidating to go into a gym.
"But that's what got me to do it, that weekend."
When she returned, Penne found a gym and eventually entered in an MMA career. She will be part of a new venture when she takes on Lisa Ellis-Ward at Invicta Fighting Championships 1 on Saturday in Kansas City, Kan. The California native and resident will try to improve on her 8-1 record coming off a confidence-building victory in Japan.
Penne brings high-level experience of training at Reign Training Center, Kings MMA and Checkmat BJJ in California, but to get there she had to overcome the suicide of her first coach, which led to her changing gyms. She went on to win her first seven fights and make two Bellator appearances.
Her resume makes her an attractive addition for Invicta, which is North America's first all-pro, all-female MMA organization since Fatal Femmes Fighting in 2007 and 2008. There are 11 fights on the first card, headlined by a featherweight bout between Marloes "Rumina" Coenen and Romy Ruyssen.
Penne grew up in Orange County, Calif., in a family with varied backgrounds. Her mother was born in Germany and adopted there by a military family. She moved to the U.S. at an early age.
Penne's father is the first generation of his Italian family born in the U.S. Some of his family members remain in his family's originating area of Turino, Italy.
By 6 years old, Penne was involved in sports. She began in gymnastics, then moved to softball and soccer not long after. She continued with sports into high school, where she joined the softball and swimming teams. Meanwhile, she had an interest in wrestling, but there were no girls on the high school team. She decided not to expend the energy to fight it.
It was her experience as a swimmer that would later help her adapt to the training style of MMA.
"It really is a lot like swimming," Penne said. "You train together and work hard as a team in practice, but then you compete individually. I was interested is trying grappling or kickboxing or combat sports, I just needed to find out how to try."
Then Penne ended up visiting her friend and going through an impromptu session with boxing gloves. The incident made her feel more confident about going to a gym and starting some classes, which would later give her the direction she was looking for.
"I wasn't doing any hardcore drugs, nothing crazy, but I didn't really have anything going for me either," she said. "This has all just brought a lot of positivity in my life."
Looking to compete
Penne knew she still wanted to be competitive, but she didn't know how long that would take. She was 22 when she signed up at Apex Jiu-Jitsu, where she met her first coach, Jeremy Williams.
Before long, someone in the gym asked her if she ever thought about fighting Muay Thai, but they needed a fighter for an upcoming event. She agreed.
"It was way too soon," she laughed. "It was just a few months after I started. I won, but it was just an untechnical brawl. But I think it was a good experience."
And it led to more. She signed up for a few jiu-jitsu tournaments, but the format of waiting sometimes-long periods between fights didn't seem as interesting. By November 2006, she accepted her first professional MMA fight, and it began her career.
But, there was an early incident that caused distress. On May 5, 2007, Williams – her coach at Apex – committed suicide. The team members tried to move on and keep training as a team, but it was too difficult.
"It was just devastating," Penne said. "It just wasn't the same after that, so I think we all needed to move on."
Penne found other successful training partners, and she kept winning. She had already compiled her 8-1 MMA record when, in September, she received a short-notice invitation to travel to Japan for a shoot-boxing match. She faced two-time Girls S-Cup champion Rena Kubota, whom she called the "darling of the promotion," and left with a confidence-building victory.
"I woke up the day after I got back, and it was like, 'Was that a dream?'" Penne said. "I left on a Wednesday, got there Thursday, weighed in Friday, fought Saturday and came home Sunday. It was a good win for me."
She's hoping to use that momentum in Saturday night's bout against fellow Bellator veteran Ellis-Ward. It's considered a significant opportunity for both Penne, her fellow fighters on the card and women's MMA overall.
"I think everyone is proud to be part of it," she said. "We're hoping it's the start of a new opportunity."
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel is the lead features writer for MMAjunkie.com. His weekly "Fight Path" column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.
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rob7 on Apr 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm ET
That girl is as cute as Andrew Luck.
Deanoske on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:32 pm ET
7string on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm ET
rocklobster on Apr 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm ET
I hope your being sarcastic.....
GrandpaP4P on Apr 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm ET
Stalin on Apr 26, 2012 at 10:13 pm ET