Here’s guessing Bob Ross, the tranquil painter of the 1980s who created little nirvanas with his brush on PBS, would have never found such serenity in the Octagon. Yet his cult status 30 years later is strong enough that a certain fighter — known spoofily yet reverently as the “Violent Bob Ross” — has emerged as a kind of posthumous devil on his shoulder. Luis Pena is a 24-year old, 6-foot-3 lightweight currently showcasing himself on this season’s The Ultimate Fighter. He has the afro and the beard, but he also has a certain…aplomb?…when dealing with his considerable occupational hazards.
Kind of like Ross.
Pena says the gentle approach has always been there, ever since he wrestled his way to a state title back at Little Rock Central High in Arkansas. As for the look, well, he’s just a hippie that stumbled onto a look — like one does a good pizza joint when in a new town.
“It’s funny, like two years ago I decided I was going to stop cutting my hair out of the blue,” Pena says. “It had nothing to do with fighting, and nothing to do with looking like Bob Ross, I just decided I’m not going to cut my hair and see what I look like. Then out of nowhere, I was fighting on FloCombat — it was actually the last fight before I got into the house — and they tweeted out a picture, and one of the fans tweeted out, ‘when did Bob Ross’s son start fighting?’ And that’s where the name came from.”
By his own estimation, the red-headed Pena is half African — 30 percent Cameroonian, 20 percent Benin Togo — an eighth Mexican, an eighth of Caribbean descent, a sixteenth Italian, a sixteenth German, a sixteenth Irish and a sixteenth Apache. As an orphan born in Italy, he didn’t know, so he recently went to Ancestry.com and did the DNA thing to get the specifics. If he didn’t end up claiming Ross as his spiritual doppelgänger, he might have been dubbed the “Violent Grady,’ after Grady from Sanford and Son, or the “Violent Ezra Pound,” who has a similar uprush of hair.
So that’s one thing Pena knows about himself, that there’s a lot going on in his bloodline.
The other thing he now knows that the rest of us don’t is how far he’s come, having already navigated the six-week TUF gauntlet that is still barely unfolding in the present on FS1. Here is where the tenses get confused when talking about a fighter who has the look and attitude of an up-and-comer, yet lives behind a television embargo. There’s a buzz that may (or may not) go on buzzing, but it’s an optimistic buzz — the kind that you learn to pay attention to when new crops of fighters come out.
And there really is a certain joy of fighting when you watch Pena compete.
“Obviously everyone sees the resemblance I have to [Bob Ross], but a lot of people tell me I’m almost kind of reminiscent of him in my fighting style because I stay so calm and collective in the cage under all that pressure,” he says, knowing full well he has the greatest nickname this side of the Ozarks.
We saw it on Wednesday, when — as a representative of Team Daniel Cormier — Pena fought Jose Martinez Jr. in the quarterfinals of TUF Undefeated. He took Martinez’s best shot early, then coolly began working his knees, high kicks and push kicks into every area of Martinez’s frame from the belt line up. Once Martinez began to slow down, and the marks began to form on his face from the reprimands he was receiving, the fight turned in Pena’s favor. It wasn’t masterful, but it was a promising showing for a young guy who is just now emerging.
“It was the best performance of my career so far,” Pena says, even if at the end of the episode it was teased that he may have suffered a season-jeopardizing leg injury. (Dun-dun-DUN).
As with any kind of phenomena in which we begin to see resemblances that we want to see, Pena has slowly began to resemble a gonzo incarnation of Bob Ross more and more — the way pets begin to resemble their owners. For one thing Pena, like Ross, is an animal lover. He currently lives with his girlfriend (a burlesque dancer) on an animal sanctuary in Hillsboro, Missouri. A freaking animal sanctuary. There was a shot on Wednesday’s episode of TUF 28 where a couple of horses show up at the front door of his house, as if they had stopped by to gossip or borrow a cup of sugar.
It’s uncanny, really, his shared affinity for woodland creatures. Ross used to raise and occasionally bring on as guest stars to The Joy of Painting the squirrels in his life, sometimes feeding them via baby bottles. Pena posted a video of him feeding a raccoon on his Instagram, and shaking the rodent’s hand afterwards.
“I have one of those Bob Ross Funko Pop! vinyl dolls,” Pena says, as if drawing a line to his spiritual akin. “The one where he’s with a raccoon.”
Yet Pena likes to use his canvas in a different way. Like many others, he’s a dreamer who ended up finding his way into a cage for a living. Pena’s ultimate goal early on was to wrestle his way into the Games — to work the Juco ranks, earn a Division I scholarship, win a national title at that level, and then hit the ground running towards an Olympic title.
“It didn’t work out that way,” he says with a laugh.
Instead he dropped out of college, took a few amateur fights and, on the advice of his high school coach, Shawn Hickey, went to visit an MMA gym in St. Charles, Missouri which would eventually serve as his home.
“I want to say I was like 6-0, 7-0 as an amateur, and bounced around gyms in Arkansas for a little while and I kind of outgrew where I was at,” he says. “My high school coach said he saw the potential in me, and he told me his best friend from college, Mike Rogers, had this MMA gym that had produced a bunch of UFC fighters. It was the first gym that Tyron Woodley trained at. So I was like, obviously this is the place I need to go. My coach and I went up to St. Charles, and I stayed two weeks — I even took a fight in Tuff-N-Uff at that time in Vegas.”
After that two-week period, everyone had grown fond enough of Pena to ask him back permanently. Rogers told him to grab all his earthly belongings and relocate to Missouri.
“So that’s what I did, I packed up my entire life into my car and I drove six hours up to St. Charles MMA to live in the gym,” Pena says. “For a little while I was living on the couch in the locker room. And then Mike finally gave me an area in the back that’s about the size of a decent walk-in closet, and that’s the space I was living in for about a year-and-a-half. From my seventh amateur fight to my second professional fight, I was living in that closet.”
He lived in that closet until he was almost 24 years old — up until last year — and it was while living there that he began to let his hair grow, along with his doubts, his abilities, and his ever-returning faith that it was all heading somewhere.
“There are definitely days where I’d wake up and think, what the hell am I doing with my life?” he says. “You wake up and you just hate life. It’s hard. Especially when I was amateur. That was the worst, because I’m waking up, I’m fighting damn near every other week — if not every week — but at the end of the day I’m getting nothing out of it. Those were some trying times, but I’ve always been really mentally tough and able to stick things through.
“Once I made the switch to the professional ranks, it kind of re-lit a fire under me. That with the bonus of getting paid every time? That made life that much easier.”
As it has been for hundreds of others over the last dozen years, it was TUF that provided Pena a platform to introduce himself to the world at large. It didn’t take long for him to stand out in the new crop of reality-based fighters; a string bean from Arkansas sporting an afro and a weirdly specific nickname tends to stick out, especially when they live with barn animals in real life.
“It’s surprising,” he says. “I was talking to my girlfriend at the time, and she had just started getting into MMA because of me. She stumbled onto TUF through this app she has, a DirecTV app, and so she binge-watched almost the entire series, and she asked me, ‘would you ever do ‘The Ultimate Fighter?’ And I was like, ‘Hell no!’ But I ended up seeing the flier for TUF Undefeated as I was getting ready for a professional boxing match in Little Rock, and I knew right then and there this is my shot to start the path to a title.”
What does “The Violent Bob Ross,” who is officially 4-0, want to do in MMA? Where does Pena see himself after The Ultimate Fighter Undefeated Finale, which happens on July 6, a day after his 25th birthday?
“I’d like to be in title contention in the next three years,” he says. “I feel like my fighting style, my personality, the route I’ve taken — I think that’s a very attainable goal.”
A dreamer? Maybe. But he’s just filling in the details in the picture for now. Adding a few wins, some exposure, maybe a nice blue sky. Why not add a happy little title out there on the horizon, just out of his current grasp? A happy little place that he can make off to on his violent trek through the lightweight ranks. Broad strokes, but beautiful ones.
“I’ve been looking at the lightweight division for a while — as well as the featherweight division, because under the right circumstances I believe I could probably cut down to 145 as well — and I don’t see a lot of guys bringing to the table what I bring to the table, people with the complete package,” he says. “I hate to make comparisons, but I feel as though you don’t see a lot of guys like me. I feel like I’m the closest thing to like Jon Jones or Anderson Silva or Israel Adesanya in the lighter weight classes.”
Pena’s on his way, and you can see he paints himself in good company.