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Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes talk made Raquel Pennington's 'blood boil,' still no chip on her shoulder

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RIO DE JANEIRO – As she prepares to fight for a title in what will also be her first UFC headliner, bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington is in a good spot. But it took a rough road – and somewhat of a last-minute scare to get there.

Pennington (9-5 MMA, 6-2 UFC) was first in talks to meet champion Amanda Nunes (15-4 MMA, 8-1 UFC) last October. The bantamweight title bout, originally discussed for UFC 219, was already set to end a year-long layoff for the would-be title challenger, who’d been dealing with injuries.

But then an accident led to a broken leg. And Pennington, who hadn’t done less than three fights in one year since the beginning of her pro MMA career, was faced with even more waiting after surgeries on her shoulder, wrist and mouth.

For someone who hadn’t met the infamous injury bug before, it was certainly a rough introduction.

“It was extremely hard for me, given the fact that I’d never had surgeries,” Pennington said Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro after a press conference to promote the upcoming UFC 224. “I’ve never had injuries like that. It was kind of one of those things, to where I was having right shoulder surgery, I thought that I could do something with my left arm. And doc was like, ‘Nope.’ And it was just – I had right wrist surgery, and I was like, ‘Well, I can still do everything with my legs and my left side.’ Doc said no.

“So it was just – everything that I had in mind and how ambitious I was, I was shut down with it. And to actually be taken away from what I’m completely used to and having to sit down and do nothing? It was a huge struggle for me. I went through my emotional rollercoaster. Luckily, I had Tecia (Torres, fellow UFC contender and fiancee) there to really support me and keep my spirits up. I have a very supportive family. But it was just – it was a tough year for me.”

Still, Pennington kept her head up. While her body needed rest, she kept her mind strong. “Rocky” may have been inactive in the octagon, but she remained in the gym, coaching Torres and other female fighters. She simply never stopped being around the sport.

“I don’t feel like I ever slept,” Pennington said.

Pennington was also optimistic as to what awaited her. Riding a four-fight winning streak, capped off by a major unanimous-decision win over former bantamweight champ Miesha Tate, Pennington believed her “stock was very high” and was “very confident” that, as soon as she returned, the opportunity to fight for the title would be hers.

She was ultimately right as she’ll take on Nunes in the May 12 pay-per-view headliner from Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena. But, for a while there, the title affair looked more like a love triangle. After beating ex-champ Holly Holm to defend her 145-pound title for the first time, Cris Cyborg started being targeted by Nunes and her camp. Despite some initial reluctance, Cyborg eventually acquiesced. And suddenly the super fight seemed like a very real possibility.

While social media made Pennington aware of the “very frustrating” conversation about the champ-vs.-champ showdown, she isn’t the type of person to talk (expletive). Whatever must happen, she believes, will happen. So she rode the wave.

But when UFC president Dana White went as far as toying with the idea of scrapping her title fight to favor Cyborg’s, that changed.

“I do have to admit: When we were in negotiations for the fight with me and Amanda, and I felt we should have previously had our contract …” Pennington said. “Like, the week prior to Cyborg last fighting. Neither one of us received our contract, but then it was like, all of a sudden we went into talks that the fight was going to be scrapped. That, I did take action.

“I took screenshots of Dana’s comments being said and everything else, and I sent them to the matchmakers and everybody in the UFC and I was like, ‘Can somebody tell me what’s happening? Because this is a bunch of bull(expletive), honestly.’ I feel like it was something that – we were in talks, we should have had our contract, things should have been signed, it shouldn’t have been something to wait for Cyborg to fight, then we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

When the contract did come, it was exciting. But then Pennington was slapped with the next question.

How does she feel that maybe her fight with Nunes is only happening because Cyborg doesn’t want to fight in May?

Raquel Pennington in her last fight against Miesha Tate at UFC 205. (USA TODAY Sports)

“The whole thing, it just – it makes my blood boil,” Pennington said. “It pisses me off. I’m going to say it again: This is an opportunity that I deserved. And this is the fight that does make sense.

“Me and Amanda are both 135-ers, and I am the No. 1 contender, so that’s what makes sense.”

Pennington is not lacking on motivation for this one. Not only does she get to compete for her first UFC title, she’ll have a chance to prove herself in hostile territory – for the first time, too, since Pennington has never competed outside of the U.S.

But does coming in as an underdog make for added motivation?

“In a way, yes,” Pennington said. “My hunger and my drive – I’ve always been a very humble person. I’m just grateful for being able to have such a strong body and the opportunity and the will and everything to be on this stage. That’s one thing that it kind of – it pushes me, and I like to challenge myself and constantly grow. I’ve been an underdog my entire career.

“It takes the pressure off of me, but then on the same token, going through ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and everything, you’ve got to kind of learn to play with different emotions, being taken out of your comfort zone, stuff like that. I’m not going to walk to the octagon with a chip on my shoulder. I don’t feel like that gets people anywhere. But I definitely do have the confidence behind me, and I’m just going to go out there and have fun.”

To hear more from Pennington, check out the video above.

And for more on UFC 224, visit the UFC Rumors section of the site.



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