Seeing Luis Pena’s performance at The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale, it’s not difficult to project how well he might have done in the season’s lightweight tournament.
“Violent Bob Ross,” as he’s become universally known, got a second chance to show why he was one of the most hyped fighter coming into the TUF 27 house, dispatching fellow Team Cormier fighter Richie Smullens inside of a round with a first-round guillotine choke submission on last Friday’s finale card in Las Vegas. The bout took place on the preliminaries rather than on the main card, where Pena would have been if he’d made it to the tournament championship bout.
But Pena’s run on the show was cut short by a foot injury he suffered after winning his quarterfinal fight against Jose Martinez Jr. That meant instead of preparing for two more potential opponents, Pena was relegated to the role of an observer and navigating the house on a pair of crutches.
When the show was over, Pena continued to work with his coach Daniel Cormier at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. Pena was set up in nearby, Santa Rosa, but Cormier eventually had Pena spend a month in San Jose to prepare for his UFC debut and the results spoke for themselves.
Pena is so confident in his abilities that he’s certain he’d be holding the TUF trophy right now and sitting on a six-figure contract if it had been him in the finals. The actual finalists, Mike Trizano and Joe Giannetti — the latter of whom Pena credits with teaching him the guillotine technique that he used to beat Smullens — engaged in a listless three-round contest that Trizano won by split decision, and Pena told MMA Fighting he’s confident he could beat either man.
“Without a doubt,” said Pena. “No offense to either one of them, but that would have been me in there and I knew no matter which one of them I would have fought, I would have come up with the win, in my opinion.”
It was Pena who walked out of the finale with a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus, and afterwards he and Trizano both said in their post-fight scrums that they’d be interested in a future meeting. The gears are already in motion according to Pena, though it’s not certain that UFC officials will be interested in booking the two lightweight up-and-comers against one another.
“I actually did get to talk to Mike for a quick second as he was coming back,” said Pena. “We saw each other at the hotel after the fights and we pretty much both agreed on it then and there, and then my manager has been pushing for it. I think they’ve already started talking to (UFC matchmaker) Sean Shelby about maybe setting that up for here in the future.”
Even though it means one man will have to lose the 0 on their record, Pena thinks a fight between him and Trizano is a smart one to make and said a future fight between them is “inevitable.”
Once his business with Trizano is settled, the 6-foot-3 Pena sees himself eventually competing at another weight class once, and not the one you would expect. Pena, 25, has never had difficulty making weight and has already spoken to his coaches about a move down to 145.
Should he manage to make that cut, he’s interested in meeting another young fighter building up a cult following: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley.
“I don’t know too much about the roster right now as a whole, but I could see if they wanted to — and I don’t know how it would happen — but if Sean O’Malley and I met at 145, I think that would be a fun fight.”
It’s easy to imagine a bout between Pena and O’Malley drawing eyeballs given their big personalities and even bigger hair. They’re both known for being as exciting in the cage as they are laid back outside of it, and the latter trait is one reason why Pena’s “Violent Bob Ross” gimmick has been so effective.
Pena doesn’t want to rely on his resemblance to the serene painter to keep his name out there, but since the comparison grew organically out of him simply wanting to let his hair out, he’s perfectly fine with the association for as long as it lasts. Especially if it helps him to broadcast the message of positivity and unity that is so important to him, as exhibited by the World Flag mouth guard he wore last Friday.
“I have a sponsor, IronJaw Custom MouthGuards, and they actually made me, like a Purple Rain mouth guard because I’m a real big Prince fan,” said Pena. “It says ‘Violent Bob Ross’ in the Purple Rain font in gold lettering on a purple mouth guard and it’s actually got a picture on it of me throwing a flying knee on someone from — I think it was my last fight before the house.
“They saw the World Flag and they were like, ‘Dude, we want to make you a mouth guard like that.’ They took the mold and sent it out to me and I’ve just been using it ever since.”
The next step for Pena is to figure out his training situation. He has a home waiting for him at AKA and a move to California has crossed his mind, but he also wants to stay loyal to his gym in St. Charles, Mo. Getting to train with Cormier during the light heavyweight champion’s journey to becoming a dual-title holder at UFC 226 was invaluable, as was his time on what could be one of the final seasons of TUF.
Asked if he’d rather have taken a more direct route to the UFC, Pena answered that he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I truly enjoyed my experience on The Ultimate Fighter,” said Pena. “That’s to say I feel like I came out as one of the more breakout guys from this season, but I enjoyed everything about the experience. I really enjoyed my short time training on the show because there weren’t any distractions at all, all I had to focus on was training and getting ready for the fights. When that happened, I realized just how much I could accomplish if I could find a way to do that in some regard at home. So in that respect, it really, really helped me there.
“But the thing people don’t really think about when it comes to The Ultimate Fighter versus the Contender Series is when you’re on the Contender Series, that’s one night. That’s one night and that’s the only night people talk about you for as long as this is, where as when you’re on The Ultimate Fighter, you have 12 weeks to get prepared for all of the attention and the media and all the stuff that comes with being a UFC fighter before you ever become a true UFC fighter.”