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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 224’s Raquel Pennington

The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran, Raquel Pennington, will battle with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s Bantamweight strap-hanger, Amanda Nunes, this Saturday (May 12, 2018) at UFC 224 inside Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

An impressive amateur career (7-1) led to Pennington facing rather tough competition early in her professional mixed martial arts (MMA) career. She picked up some early losses as a result, but Pennington built up experience against high-level competition quickly and eventually turned the corner. She’s won five of her last six bouts, with the sole loss coming as a split-decision to Holly Holm. Pennington’s title shot is an odd situation. She rather clearly earned a title shot by defeating Miesha Tate, but she also hasn’t fought in about 18 months. The end result is Pennington being forgotten until this fight arrived, resulting in her status as a major underdog.

Regardless, let’s take a closer look at her skill set:

Striking

Pennington is an interesting striker. She does most of her work with her hands, and she clearly shows strong fundamentals. There isn’t a ton of flash to her game, but “Rocky” has quick hands thrown in strong combinations, and she generally does a very good job of getting back to a defensively sound position after firing.

Pennington is an active boxer at range. One thing to note about Pennington’s striking is that she’s very much a gamer. After being hit or getting the worse of an exchange, Pennington will surge forward and fire back almost every time. That mentality can be countered, but it also allows Pennington to dictate the flow of the fight and rack up volume.

In her last bout with Tate, Pennington’s boxing has never looked better. Tate tried to work combinations to the head and body to set up her wrestling, but Pennington’s hand speed allowed her to land counter shots before Tate’s hands returned to her face.

On the whole, Pennington likes to close distance into the clinch, where her dirty boxing, elbows, and knees allow her to wear down opponents. Opposite Tate, however, Pennington focused more on maintaining the distance early on, using a sharp jab to snap Tate’s head back repeatedly. Before long, Tate stopped trying so hard to close the distance or resorted to pulling guard, largely because Pennington’s jab was so effective.

One of the big factors behind Pennington’s success is straight up toughness. That comes into play with her aforementioned habit of refusing to let her opponent score free shots, but it plays a big role in the clinch. She’s has some great techniques in the phone booth range, but there have also been moments of pure guts. For example, at one point in her bout with Tate, “Cupcake” secured a double-collar tie and began throwing knees. In classic Fabio Maldonado fashion, Pennington ignored all that and began throwing hard body shots with both hands.

Tate abandoned the position.

Outside of such examples of grit, Pennington tends to use strong head position to control tie ups. Driving her forehead into her foe’s chin, Pennington will control a wrist with one hand and whack away with the other. Given the chance, Pennington will also move onto the double-collar tie, where a potent mix of knees to the body and short, chopping elbows allow her to dominate close range exchanges (GIF).

Pennington generally thrives in brawls, either in the pocket or closer range. However, she is a somewhat restricted striker who rarely kicks, making range battles more difficult for her. Although she did find some success opposite Holly Holm, there were periods of the fight where Pennington simply couldn’t connect with her hands.

Wrestling

Pennington does not have a wrestling background, but she possesses solid technique and surprising physical strength. Miesha Tate may not have been in prime form, but Pennington did manage to out-wrestle her consistently for 15 minutes, which is a solid feather in her cap.

Offensively, Pennington’s go-to takedown is the good ol’ double leg, and it comes in one of two situations. Commonly, Pennington will suddenly drop down into a double leg along the fence after teeing off with some shots. Unlike many non-wrestlers, Pennington keeps good posture and stays on her feet while grinding for the shot along the fence. In addition, Pennington does well with her reactive double leg. The concept of changing levels and running through an advancing opponent is simple and very effective. Plus, Pennington does a great job firing on the break if her shot fails, something she did repeatedly opposite Holm (GIF).

Pennington has come a long way in terms of defensive wrestling. In the clinch, she’s a very difficult fighter to control or takedown, in large part due to tenacity. “Rocky” will fight for underhooks and grind head position like a veteran. When her opponent drops down, Pennington does a nice job of either securing an underhook or breaking her foe’s posture by putting pressure on the back of the neck. In terms of defensive wrestling weaknesses, Pennington does seem to struggle with her balance when opponent’s convert to single leg takedowns. Part of this is due to her habit of holding onto the guillotine, which is a great submission, but bad single leg defense.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Three of Pennington’s professional wins landed via tapout, as well as five on her amateur record and one more on TUF. Pennington is always fishing for the neck, and she tends to take advantage of small openings to strangle foes. For example, in this week’s technique highlight, we examined her rather rare bulldog choke submission.

More frequently, Pennington hunts for the guillotine choke. Lately, she’s been making use of the 10-finger guillotine. Unlike the high elbow guillotine — the most common advanced form, which cuts off both sides of the neck and traps the head in the armpit — the 10-finger choke traps the head underneath the chest. From this position, Pennington drives the bone of her thumbs up into the windpipe, resulting in a very painful submission. Last time out, Pennington very nearly countered one of Tate’s takedowns with the 10-finger guillotine, but the long-time veteran was able to kick off the fence and escape

Conclusion

Pennington is incredibly overlooked, and it’s true that she doesn’t have one standout skill that can really threaten the champion. At the same time, Pennington is insanely tough and well-conditioned. The potential for her to survive late in the fight, push the pace and make Nunes’ life difficult is definitely there. Grit wins championships as often as skill or athleticism.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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