Raquel Pennington returns from career-threatening ATV accident 'on a mission'

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Raquel Pennington interacts with media during the UFC press conference inside Barclays Center on April 6, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. (Getty)

The pain Raquel Pennington felt in her left leg was excruciating. As her mother, Rose, and wife, UFC fighter Tecia Torres, took turns driving her down a windy mountain road in tiny Pitkin, Colorado, to bring her home to Colorado Springs after an ATV accident while hunting, every bump in the road shot shockwaves through her leg.

It wasn’t long before Pennington, who has demonstrated an unusually high pain tolerance, could take it no longer.

“The drive to Colorado Springs from where we were at is about five hours,” said Pennington, who fights Amanda Nunes on Saturday in the main event of UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the women’s bantamweight title. “When my mom and Tecia ended up coming up the mountain to pick me up to take me home, I was actually so freaked out to drive through the mountains with either one of them driving that I yelled at them the entire time.

“It was a terrible trip. I was trying to lay in the back seat and just stay calm, but I couldn’t. It was making me nauseous. I actually made them pull over and I drove home with a broken leg because I refused to let anyone drive me. It took us eight hours to get home.”

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Pennington earned her title shot at UFC 205 in New York with a surprisingly dominant victory over Miesha Tate, a friend who had been her coach on Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Tate was never in the fight, as she absorbed a brutal beating from Pennington and announced her retirement in the ring after it ended.

She wasn’t fully healthy before the Tate fight, but she proved her toughness by dominating one of the greatest female fighters while significantly injured.

About two months after her career-defining win over Tate, she went in for right shoulder surgery. Baseball pitchers are out of action for 18-24 months with the kind of damage that Pennington needed to have repaired.

She had rotator cuff damage and a torn labrum, as well as a completely torn biceps. As she was healing from that, she had to go in for wrist surgery to repair a torn tendon and remove a cyst.

All of that predated her accident that not only threatened to end her MMA career, but also put her ability to walk normally at risk.

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Pitkin is a small town in the heart of Colorado that encompasses about a quarter square mile, with a population of 66. At an elevation of 9,206 feet, it’s about 4,000 feet higher than Denver.

There is nothing else notable about this rural town in Gunnison County other than it nearly became the site of the end of Pennington’s mixed martial arts career.

On Oct. 23, 2017, Pennington and a bunch of her family members went to Pitkin to go elk hunting. It was a tradition they’d long followed.

They decided to come down to get lunch, and Pennington was a passenger in an all-terrain vehicle driven by her cousin. Snow was falling, and it was a beautiful visual in a pristine part of the world.

But disaster soon struck.

“We were coming down for some lunch, and it was snowing, and as we went to turn a corner, I don’t even know what happened, to be honest with you,” Pennington said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Everything happened so fast.”

The ATV rolled, toward Pennington’s side, as it turned. There was no door to keep her in and she jumped out, holding her hunting rifle between her legs. She had a pocket knife on one hip and a pistol in a holster on another.

“After everything was said and done, I recall that the roll cage smashed my left leg,” she said. “My cousin who was driving fell on top of me. I had another cousin in the back seat and he jumped out and they lifted it.”

It was bad, about as bad as she could have expected, but she would soon find out it could have been worse. She broke her left leg. The pocket knife penetrated her skin at her hip. Her pistol cut her. Her calf was dented in from the impact, and she described it as looking like a half pipe from snowboarding.

The pain was horrific, but she was in many ways fortunate.

“I was wearing heavy duty hunting boots that went pretty high up [my leg],” she said. “The doc said that saved most of my leg. Right where the boots ended is where I ended up breaking my leg. I was just a hair away from the main nerve [sciatic] in my leg. That would have caused drop foot.

“And that’s not to mention the doctor said that the way everything happened it was likely that I could have shattered multiple places in my leg where it couldn’t have been fixed, and I would have been at a high risk of amputation. … So despite everything that happened, I guess I kind of lucked out.”

She said she has an unusually high pain tolerance, even for a fighter, but said this was the kind of pain she’d never felt before.

She began to think her career might have ended in those mountains.

“It takes a lot for me to feel any type of pain,” Pennington said. “It’s hard for me to say I’m hurt. My coaches will ask me, ‘Are you actually injured, or does something just hurt?’ I usually don’t know. But when the accident happened, I felt I’d blown out my entire knee. I had a lot of clothes on and so it was hard to feel everything, but there was this burning sensation and pain all the way up into my hip.

“I was worried about my knee, and the way it felt, I thought I’d probably shattered my whole ankle and it felt like the bone in my lower leg was coming out of my skin.”

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It’s been eight months since the accident and Pennington is going to challenge for the world championship. She was plenty strong physically before, but the shoulder surgery has given her, she believes, 30 percent more strength.

But it took a while for some mental scars to heal. Pennington said for years she questioned her sexuality and was never comfortable as the person she was.

She had a boyfriend, but there was little passion in the relationship, even though they got along wonderfully.

“I felt more like we were bros, you know?” she said. “That’s kind of how this relationship seemed to me. We got along really well and had fun together, and my family adored him. But something wasn’t right.”

She came to realize that she was a lesbian and came out to her friends and people she was comfortable with. They accepted her for who she is.

Her family, though, was a different story. She discussed her sexuality on an episode of “The Ultimate Fighter” and it nearly ended her relationship with her mother, with whom she’d been very close, and many of her other family members.

“I told my friends and I felt accepted there, and I slowly started coming out to my family,” she said. “That was the rough part. I was comfortable with my friends and they accepted me for who I am. A lot of my family members started jumping on board, which is right around when I went on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ At that point, I decided to truly be me.

“I was already taken outside of my comfort zone. I finally realized I could talk about whatever I wanted. I could be who I wanted to be, who I really was. At that time, there was somebody who was going through a struggle and they asked me if I was comfortable talking about my situation.”

She thought about it and decided that she was. This was a necessary step for her in becoming the person she really was and not a character trying to be who she thought others wanted her to be.

So she opened up on an episode of TUF.

“My Mom said, ‘You disrespected your grandparents, and you did this and you did that,’ ” Pennington said. “I asked her, ‘How did I disrespect anything?’ If anything, I respected myself. I showed pride in being who I am and I feel that was something I had to do for myself.”

Her family soon accepted her and hard feelings were melted away. She received inspiring letters from people who told her their stories.

Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington face off during the UFC press conference inside Barclays Center on April 6, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. (Getty)

It all helped mold Pennington into the fighter she has become. In Nunes, she faces a champion who has been magnificent, who has won six fights in a row including victories over Tate, Ronda Rousey, Shayna Baszler, Sara McMann and two over Valentina Shevchenko.

Nunes is a 10-1 favorite to defeat Pennington, who has never quite gotten the credit she deserved. She lost a split decision to Holly Holm in Holm’s UFC debut, two bouts before Holm shocked the world by upsetting Rousey.

The narrative after the Holm-Pennington fight wasn’t that Pennington had pushed Holm to the limit, but that Holm had performed below expectations.

Pennington has heard it all, but she believes she’ll get the last laugh when the title belt is wrapped around her waist.

“I’m on a mission,” she said. “Some people felt I would never be in this situation. I had a lot of physical things to deal with, and there are always those doubts about whether you’ll recover or be the same. But you know what? I’m better now physically than I ever was. I’m happy. I love my life and I love the person I am. Everything has come together and if anyone still doubts me, it’s not going to be for too much longer.”

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