The Real World is MTV’s landmark reality show, widely credited with launching the entire reality television genre as it is known today. In 1992, the world was introduced to characters like Becky, Andre and Eric, none of which any average person could pick out of a lineup today, but the legacy that was left behind is forever imprinted on brains and televisions globally.

The onset of reality television has led to mixed results. While there are a small handful of respectable shows out there, the genre has become so convoluted and unrealistic that there are now scripts, acts, programming interference and false personas plastered throughout the scene. The Ultimate Fighter franchise has sort of fallen in the middle.

In 2005, Zuffa LLC, parent company of the UFC, decided to take a stab at reality television with the first season of TUF. The show changed the landscape of professional MMA. However, over the 21 domestic and international seasons of the show, fans have seen just as much junk as they have gold.

Pennington (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Pennington (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Along with legends of the sport like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Rashad Evans, Diego Sanchez and Nate Diaz, fans have had to endure appearances by guys like Junie Browning and Julian Lane, who put on sophomoric performances at best.

The most recent season of TUF set precedents on many levels. Not only was it the first season to showcase two female coaches, but it was also the first time fans got to see women competing on the platform. There was surprisingly little drama between the fighters, with coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate stealing the show in that department, but the season had its moments. Two of the male contestants failed to make weight after less-than-honorable efforts, one guy repeatedly tried to hit on Rousey and some of the girls had the usual catty, behind-the-back moments, but nothing worse than expected.

Even in this relatively mild environment, one female stood out as the most serious, down-to-earth and mentally tough fighter in the house.

“I think the fact that everything I’ve always heard about myself, like the compliments or the confidence that everyone else has in me—like my team and my family and friends around here—a whole group of people that didn’t even know me said the same thing,” Raquel “Rocky” Pennington said in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “And, on top of that, [UFC President] Dana White telling me different things, it all just kind of boosted my confidence as a fighter and as a person.”

Pennington came into TUF 18 sporting mixed results as a pro and a very successful run as an amateur. The 25-year-old Colorado native entered the show after a 3-3 pro run that included notable wins over fellow TUF contestant Sarah Moras, Kim Couture and Raquel Pa’aluhi, and her last two losses coming on the Invicta FC stage to the world’s No. 1 women’s bantamweight contender Cat Zingano and No. 2 flyweight contender Leslie Smith. Going into the show, many people considered Pennington to be a diamond in the rough, and she didn’t disappoint, though the experience had its ups and downs.

“It was definitely challenging, just because of the time frames that it was given in,” explained Pennington. “It made it hard to take injuries and different things like that, trying to heal and prepare for another fight.

“I think it’s the short time period, but at the same time, I wouldn’t really say anything bad about it. It all had positive aspects for me, as far as being able to have the challenge and go through different things like that. To be taken out of my comfort zone and what I’m used to here and all of a sudden having to do something totally different around a whole different group of people, and just kind of focusing for yourself.”

In her fight to get into the house, Pennington faced Tonya Evinger, who she managed to choke out in the second round. Between pro and amateur competition, this has been her primary method of stoppage. In her elimination-round fight, the Coloradan took on fellow Invicta alum Jessamyn Duke in an epic battle that the judges unanimously gave to Pennington, sending her to a semifinal match-up with Jessica Rakoczy.

Pennington’s fight with Rakoczy was a bit out of persona for the fighter, with Rakoczy dictating the action and winning on the judges’ scorecards. This is a theme that Pennington has learned that she needs to address, and she felt it reared its ugly head in the season finale.

With Pennington putting on such a fantastic performance against Duke, it took very little effort on behalf of the Zuffa brass to bring her back for The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale to face off against fellow Team Tate teammate and longtime veteran Roxanne Modafferi. After three rounds, Rocky stole the show, and all three scorecards, earning her first victory in the Octagon.

“I wasn’t really happy with my performance in the fight, overall,” admitted Pennington. “I feel like I could’ve performed a lot better. One thing that I kind of had an issue with—Miesha Tate even pointed it out—is that I have a lot of potential, and it will be like my opponent is fighting at 100 percent and I fight to their level and their pace. That’s one thing that frustrated me, but to be in front of that huge crowd and everything, I guess I’m satisfied with that performance, and I got the win like I was supposed to. I’m still young enough in the sport that all I can do is go up from here.”

Pennington (L) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Pennington (L) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

And go up, she most certainly will. Pennington won when it mattered most, and she has learned a lot of lessons that she will be able to carry forward as she grows into her career. The best part is that all of this came without taking on some trash-talking reality-show persona. Not all fighters can seem to wrap their heads around that. Evinger was recently quoted talking some trash about Pennington, but Rocky doesn’t care to get involved.

“You know, I’m not a trash-talker,” said Pennington. “There’s always going to be different opinions in this sport. That’s just the way it kind of goes. I think every athlete is going to feel a certain way when it comes to their performances or different things, but in the end, when you step into that cage, it’s a 50/50 chance, and you have to show up on your A-game. You have to be able to perform and get that W in order to progress in your career. That’s exactly what I did. I don’t think either one of us put on the best of our performances, given the fact of what the opportunity stood for. But I don’t really care if she wants to fight again [or] if she doesn’t want to fight again. It doesn’t matter to me.

“This is the beginning of my career and I just want everybody to see the real athlete that I really am and the type of fighter that I can be. That’s my goal. I’m achieving goals every time I step into that cage, and my next goal after TUF was to get into the UFC. Now that I’ve accomplished that, my next goal is to put on another highlight performance and work my way toward being the world champion.”

The last six months have been quite the whirlwind for Pennington, so she’s not planning on getting back into the cage until March or April 2014. With a little rest and relaxation on her mind, the young professional has been taking some advantage of her break, but doesn’t plan to stay out of the gym too long.

“I’ve been spending some family time. We celebrated a late Thanksgiving,” said Pennington. “I went to Kansas City for the Invicta Fighting Championships to support the women out there. I’ve just been kind of hanging out and getting things done. This weekend, I’m going to go snowboarding and to the hot springs, just to do some of the things I enjoy, have a little bit of my life back outside of the gym. Then, I’m going to go out to Las Vegas to do some training with Ricky Lundell.”

Family, fun and…training? For an Octagon newcomer, Pennington truly has the mindset of a pro, and she definitely belongs where she is. Family and friends are necessary to maintain that work-life balance, but to get to the top of the heap, she always has to keep improvement in the front of her mind.

“The women’s division is still growing and everything, and eventually I want to get in there and pretty much fight everybody. I’m just going to work my way to the top, and I’ve always taken every fight that’s been thrown my way, so it doesn’t really matter to me. Overall, I want to take on the whole women’s division, so whoever they put in front of me next will just be another stepping stone.”

Pennington would like to thank her team at Altitude MMA, her coach Marc Fiore, and her cousin Tommy and Gabe Ballejos, who are her other coaches. She also wants to thank all her family, friends and the fans who stand behind her. The fighter would also like to thank her sponsors and doctors, Zon Gear, Integrated Lab Technologies, MMA Jam, Don Bost of Action Potential Physical Therapy, Dr. Alex Constantinides and David Lauritzen. Follow Raquel on Twitter: @RockyPMMA

Top Photo: Raquel Pennington (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)