UFC lightweight Luis Pena was already dealing with major changes in his life when he received a message that would turn most people’s worlds upside down.
To say that Pena — known affectionately as “The Violent Bob Ross” — has had a unique upbringing, would be an understatement. He was born in Naples, Italy, a result of his biological mother being in the Navy, but raised in Arkansas primarily by his adopted mother Rose and stepfather David Dunbar. Pena’s adopted father, Luis Pena Sr., divorced Rose when Luis was three years old.
It was David who fostered Pena’s love of wrestling, despite knowing little about the sport himself. David would record Pena’s matches, and watch and study as much wrestling as he could to tutor his stepson, which eventually led to Pena winning an Arkansas state title and transitioning into the sport of MMA.
For a variety of reasons, Pena stood out immediately when he was announced as a cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 27; he was a giant lightweight at 6-foot-3, standing even taller with his bushy afro, and carried with him an instantly memorable nickname. His first fight on the show was a success as he advanced to the tournament semifinals with a unanimous decision win over Jose Martinez Jr.
A foot injury knocked Pena out of the competition, but in his official UFC debut in July, he picked up right where he left off and then some, needing less than a round to submit Richie Smullen. Pena worked closely with coach Daniel Cormier during the season and afterwards it only made sense for the 25-year-old to make a permanent move to the UFC champion’s American Kickboxing Academy camp in San Jose, Calif.
Pena was in the middle of moving from St. Louis to California when he received a notification from Ancestry.com telling him that he had a new DNA match. Pena was given an AncestryDNA kit as a Christmas present and up until recently, it had mostly been helpful in helping him track down distant relatives and figuring out his diverse background (in an interview with MMA Fighting’s Chuck Mindenhall this past May, Pena traced his lineage back to Cameroon, Benin Togo, Mexico, the Caribbean, Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Native American Apache).
But this notification carried a lot more significance.
“Normally, when you get a DNA match it’s just a fifth cousin or something like that, so I wasn’t really thinking anything of it,” Pena told MMA Fighting. “But I clicked on the e-mail and I followed the link and it brings up this person and I’m going through all of the information and there’s a couple of things that kept catching my eye like the fact that me and this person share all the DNA markers that I really can’t — I don’t know where they come from. I can’t pin them down. The fact that this person, when you look at your DNA match, they give you an estimated relationship, like how you guys would be related.
“And this one said: child/parent.”
Pena didn’t act on this revelation right away. He couldn’t. While he had always been interested in meeting his biological father (name withheld upon request), it wasn’t as if he had been actively working to track the man down and he had more immediate concerns at the moment. But during the drive out out west, Pena’s biological father reached out to him.
“About a day after us exchanging questions, we realized it wasn’t a fluke, that this was my dad and I was his son,” said Pena. “The crazy thing was he had no clue I even existed until the whole AncestryDNA thing, so he was never looking for me. It was crazy to me.”
As it turns out, Pena’s biological grandmother actually lives in St. Louis, a quirky coincidence that he discovered only after moving away. Pena did arrange to meet his biological father there during a return to his old stomping grounds, and he shared a picture of the occasion on social media.
But before they met face-to-face, there was an initial feeling out process, one that involved dad having to learn that his biological son was actually on the path to MMA fame and glory. Pena recalls the series of messages that led to him explaining that he was a UFC fighter.
“That’s actually one of the funniest things about our meeting,” said Pena. “So we’re talking and I’ve finally gotten to this point where I don’t really tell people that I do MMA or I’m in the UFC at all, anymore, I just kind of let them find out, figure it out, and let them ask questions about it. But we’re talking and we’re having as normal a conversation between two people that are meeting each other in that situation can have, and out of nowhere he’s like, ‘Wait, you’re not the Luis Pena that’s in the UFC are you?’
“‘What do you mean?’
“‘I just google’d your name to see if anything came up and all I can see is pictures of this dude with a red afro.’
From there, Pena says the conversation was similar to most of the others that he’s had with friends and family about why he fights, and whether he’s afraid of getting hurt, and what it’s like to be “semi-famous”. By the end, it was clear to Pena that he had another supporter.
In fact, the two have kept in touch, just as Pena has with Rose and David, and Luis Sr. He’d previously reached out to his biological mother (years ago, on a lark, Pena just looked her name up on Facebook and made contact) and he expects to see her and his brother and sister more often now that her work as a master chief in the Navy has led her to move to Sacramento, which is not far from Pena’s new residence in Gilroy, Calif.
She won’t be at his upcoming fight at UFC Denver, though Pena’s stepfather will. In fact, David has only missed one of Pena’s pro bouts, and Pena stressed that “I wouldn’t be in the UFC without him in my life.” His adopted parents will also be there and he hopes that his newly discovered biological one can make the trip as well.
If that happens, it will be a family affair that Pena couldn’t possibly have imagined taking place before now.
“That’s one of the coolest things. He’s planning on being there for this fight with Trizano,” Pena said, when asked if his biological father is planning to start attending his fights. “If I can get my biological mom out to one of them, I’d have, like literally five parents in the crowd. I’d have my biological mom, my biological dad, my adopted dad, my adopted mom, and then my adopted mom’s second husband, my stepdad.”
Pena fights TUF 27 winner Mike Trizano at UFC Fight Night 139 on Nov. 10 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.