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Raquel Pennington on UFC 184 co-main event slot: ‘I deserve to be there’

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

By now it's no secret that UFC 184 will go down as the first UFC pay-per-view to feature women in both the headlining and co-headlining slots. While that may not have been the original plan, injuries ultimately took their toll on the card, leaving the quartet of Ronda Rousey, Cat Zingano, Holly Holm, and Raquel Pennington to shoulder a majority of the promotion for the event.

Though critics have been quick to point out that one of those four fighters is not like the others.

Rousey is of course the UFC's reigning bantamweight champion and a natural star in her own right, while both Zingano and Holm are undefeated killers who bring their own brand of intrigue into the weekend -- Zingano for her remarkable comeback story and Holm for her celebrated boxing background and highly anticipated UFC debut. Pennington, however, is in many ways the outlier.

A 26-year-old semi-finalist on ‘The Ultimate Fighter 18', Pennington carries just a 2-1 record over her brief UFC tenure and currently sits outside the promotion's media-generated top-10 rankings. She's largely unknown outside of hardcore circles, and for that reason, could easily be seen as the UFC's version of a stepping stone opponent for Holm -- someone who Holm can look good against on her road to the 135-pound title.

Though while that seems to be the prevailing feeling from those outside of Pennington's circle, Pennington herself refuses to buy into Holm's hype.

"I kinda try to just put everything off when it comes to it," she recently said. "The same thing I did with ‘The Ultimate Fighter.' Everybody made it so hyped, my season, us being the first women in the house. And if you put that pressure on yourself, it kinda plays a part.

"So when it comes to it, I feel like regardless of if I'm the co-main event due to Holly's hype train and stuff, I feel like my hard work has actually paid off and I deserve to be there. I'm not your fighter that goes out and does everything I need to in the media phase, but I mean, I sit here and I feel like my hard work is slowly paying off."

While unforeseen circumstances led to Pennington's UFC 184 co-main event slot, there's no doubting that her most recent performance inside the Octagon helped ease the decision. Originally slated to fight Holm last December at UFC 181, Pennington instead fought late-replacement Ashlee Evans-Smith and put on her most dazzling display yet, battering Evans-Smith before choking the newcomer out with a nasty bulldog choke in the waning seconds of the opening round.

For her reward, Pennington got a second crack at ruining Holm's UFC debut. It may be a different day, but it's the same face, same opponent -- only this time around, Pennington has the added confidence of the Evans-Smith win, plus the knowledge that, in the fight game, everything happens for a reason.

"I took myself to a whole new level as a fighter and as a person (at UFC 181)," Pennington said.

"It's only made me progress that much more and prepared me to become that better of a fighter, and be even more prepared for the fight that I'm going into next week."