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Jessica Penne has six days to reach $40,000 GoFundMe goal for USADA arbitration

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Jessica Penne
Jessica Penne
Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com

Jessica Penne has less than one week to raise enough funds for arbitration in her second USADA case.

The onetime UFC strawweight title challenger has asked for the public’s help to raise $40,000 so she can fight a second anti-doping case, which stems from a positive drug test that canceled her return this past April.

Penne, 37, has until Feb. 10 to decide whether she’ll take her case to arbitration, and the GoFundMe money will cover legal fees. At the time of this writing, she’s raised $7,430.

If she can’t raise enough money, Butler said Penne is likely to receive a four-year ban – the standard suspension for many second-time offenders – and effectively will be retired from the sport. They said they will refuse to accept any sanction proposed by USADA.

”We’re not going to get bullied into a situation like she was the first time around,” Penne’s manager, Brian Butler, told MMA Fighting. “This is how USADA’s trying to play it. We just want to make sure everybody knows it’s not black and white.”

Penne said her relationship with the anti-doping agency soured during the adjudication of her first case, and she’s not optimistic she’ll be able to resolve the second one without an independent arbitrator’s review.

”This time, they’ve acknowledged that this isn’t an anti-doping dosage, and we’ve gone through months and months of testing and going back and forth,” she said. “But I just really feel like they want to make an example of me.”

Penne was training for a fight against Jodie Esquibel at a UFC event in Florida – which had been rescheduled from February when she sprained her ankle on the day of the fight – when an out-of-competition drug test came back positive for stanozolol, a banned steroid. She said the level of the drug in her system was at the “picogram” level, and the test that led to her positive came four days after a separate test came back clean, indicating she’d taken a contaminated product.

Penne provided to USADA results from a third-party laboratory, Korva, that she’d hired to test medications she’d taken. On May 9, the lab released a result – forwarded to MMA Fighting by Butler – that found stanozolol in a “sealed/unopened box labeled Aftera.” Aftera contains levonorgestrel, which is commonly known as “the morning after pill.”

Butler said they subsequently tracked down additional doses and forwarded them to USADA for testing, but a WADA-accredited lab used by the agency couldn’t find the banned steroid.

Penne believes USADA reps had made up their mind she was a cheater from the outset. When she met with a pair of reps to discuss her case, she said they were more interested in getting her to inform on her teammates than consider mitigating circumstances.

”It was basically to try and get me to admit to knowing other fighters that cheat and rat out other fighters who cheat, because they told me they were going to throw the book at me,” she said. “They said, ‘Listen, you’re going to get four years, and unless you tell us who the real cheaters are, then we can’t help you.’”

Penne is not the first fighter to accuse USADA of using strong-arm tactics during the results management process. Ex-heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum said he turned down an offer to inform on other fighters, though others like light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and middleweight contender Paulo Costa have reportedly provided “substantial assistance” to reduce their suspensions.

Citing the possibility of pending arbitration, USADA’s PR rep Adam Woullard declined to address Penne’s case. But in a previous statement released after a lengthy post where the fighter revealed her potential retirement, the agency said there were “factual inaccuracies and unfounded allegations in her statement, including that she has been forced out of UFC.”

”In fact, she has exercised her right to contest her case before an independent arbitrator, per a request USADA received after she released her public statement. Under the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, all athletes have the right to present the facts and circumstances during a full evidentiary hearing. We look forward to the opportunity to present the facts and evidence through this process.”

Penne said there were also issues with her first USADA case. She said she was forced into accepting an 18-month suspension for disclosing her use of DHEA, a banned over-the-counter supplement she said was recommended by her doctor to deal with hormonal imbalances that caused, among other things, severe panic attacks during training.

At the time, USADA released a statement that said Penne had failed an out-of-competition drug test in March 2017, coming up positive for an anabolic androgenic steroid of exogenous origin later determined to be DHEA. USADA noted Penne wasn’t able to obtain a retroactive therapeutic-use exemption, but reduced her suspension to 18 months from two years because the DHEA was recommended by her doctor.

While waiting for the resolution of her cases, Penne said she’s taken on a variety of odd jobs to keep her afloat, including driving for Lyft and teaching private MMA sessions, as well as serving as a commentator for CFFC.

Penne said she’ll likely transition to teaching, coaching and commentary if she receives a four-year ban. She noted she’s not able to corner many of her teammates given her pending case.

”I love this sport so much, and it’s given so much to me, and I want to give back to it,” she said. “I just have to love and give back to it in a different way.”

Penne, who in 2015 fought Joanna Jędrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight title, said she no longer experiences the panic attacks that sidelined her career. After much “self-work” and consultations with mental health professionals and an endocrinologist, she’s confident she could “put my best foot forward.”

In the meantime, she wants the public to know USADA is abusing its power and keeping her from what she loves most.

”This is not just happening to me,” she said. “It’s happening to a lot of people, and people are scared to speak about it.”