All it took was a quick glance at the ladies who showed up to try out for season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter earlier this year to realize that one of the favorites not just to get on the show but to win the tournament to crown the UFC’s first female flyweight champion was DeAnna Bennett.
Owner of a win over UFC contender Julianna Pena and a member of the Invicta FC roster for three years who won her first four bouts in the promotion before a move to strawweight resulted in a trio of defeats, the 32-year-old from Utah was clearly one of the better flyweights in the game. So she was confident of her chances to earn a spot in the tournament. Sort of.
“I was being optimistic like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make it on the show,’” Bennett recalled. “But then I had that voice in the back of my head that was just like, ‘Maybe if you won your last few fights it would be a sure thing.’”
“My internal voice is very mean to me.”
It’s that self-effacing humor and personality that makes Bennett a natural when it comes to star potential in the sport. But when your name is called, you still have to fight and perform, and in the last couple years, she didn’t get the results she wanted, and it raised questions from those around her.
“Obviously my last few fights didn’t quite go the way I wanted them to,” she said. “I had the liver kick from (Livia Renata) Souza and a couple split decisions, and it sucks that it shows that way on my record because that’s what happens when you leave it to the judges. I know I wasn’t my best mentally going into the Roxanne (Modafferi) fight, but I still felt like I put up a good showing in that fight and I personally thought I won that one and I definitely thought I won this last one in March (against Jodie Esquibel). So I had people telling me, ‘You lost a few in a row, you’re gonna retire, right?’”
She wasn’t. She couldn’t. Not after putting in all these years of training and fighting, hoping for a chance to get into the UFC. But Bennett was too small for bantamweight and too big for strawweight, the two division’s the UFC had for the ladies. So she took a shot at 115 pounds, and it wasn’t the answer.
“I was killing myself to make 115, and it was miserable and I never should have done it,” she said. So what now? A start was going into fighting full-time late last year. It was a risky move, one that didn’t produce a celebration, but a whole new set of questions that she had to figure out answers to in a hurry.
“I just had to make a decision because it was holding me back from my training, just from pure exhaustion and spreading myself too thin with everything,” she said. “I finally said, ‘I’m just going to do it and go for it. I’m not in the UFC yet, but I’m gonna work for it and do everything I can to get there.’
“It was a little stressful at first because it’s hard to make money off just fighting, especially if you’re not in the UFC,” Bennett continues. “So to make that decision, I’m like, ‘I need enough money to feed my dog and to get to the gym. If I can’t eat, then we’ll see what happens. Thankfully, it worked out.”
The close split decision loss to Esquibel would follow this life-changing move, but when it was announced that the UFC was introducing the flyweight division through The Ultimate Fighter, things began to turn around for Bennett.
“I had so many years in fighting of things not going well, my personal life was kinda crap, and it all affected me. I had this opportunity for The Ultimate Fighter and I saw it as a sign that things were going to go better, especially when they announced that it was for the 125-pound weight class and the title.”
Bennett made the show. On tonight’s episode, she fights for the first time against Karine Gevorgyan. From here, it remains to be seen if Bennett gets to where she wants to go. It’s a good bet to not count her out though, because while her mother would like to see her in another line of work, she’s also given her a fighting spirit that so many fighters of Argentinean descent have. So don’t mistake Bennett’s kindness for weakness.
“I love competing and I have that fierceness when I need it,” she said. “I’m not gonna be mean outside of there, I’m kind of a giant goofball. But when it comes down to fighting, I have my game face and I definitely think it’s in the blood. My mom’s not a fighter, but she’s got that feistiness too.”
So no retirement then?
“This is the start of things turning around,” Bennett said. “This is my life and this is my opportunity. What matters is doing what makes me happy and then following my dreams and doing everything possible to reach my goals. You can throw whatever at me and I’m gonna keep going forward and I’m gonna keep fighting, and I love it.”