The sport of mixed martial arts is still young and historic moments can happen with regularity.

However, it’s rare that a fighter can stake a claim to the accomplishments of 30-year-old Californian Jessica Penne.

First came her 2009 bout with Tammie Schneider at Bellator 5, the first women’s bout held by the promotion. That firmly cemented her place in history, but Penne was just getting started. Late in 2012, the atomweight became the first champion of all-women’s promotion Invicta Fighting Championships.

“I feel very fortunate about where I’m at and to participate in the sport that I fight in,” the 105-pound champion told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Penne (L) throws a jab (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Penne captured the belt with a second-round triangle choke submission of previously top-ranked Japanese fighter Naho Sugiyama at Invicta FC 3. The win, the 10th of Penne’s career, marked the culmination of years of training and sacrifice.

“It was an amazing feeling, a dream come true,” she declared. “It was a great way to end the fight, and I’m proud of myself.”

As a natural atomweight, Penne’s journey to the top of the division did not come easily. Like many female fighters, she competed outside of her natural weight class for a lengthy portion of her career. Now, with Invicta giving female fighters of all weights a place to showcase their talents, the submission ace is thrilled to have a home.

“It’s great to go in on an even playing field,” Penne explained. “I always felt like I was the smaller person in the cage. It’s not that I did poorly at 115 [pounds], it’s just that I was hoping that weight class would become more popular and I would have more options to fight. With Invicta, I don’t have to worry about that anymore, fortunately.”

The drop to 105 pounds actually came after the first—and only—loss of Penne’s career at Bellator 25. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt found herself on the wrong side of the scorecards against Zoila Gurgel and quickly cut the additional 10 pounds, defeating Amy Davis just three months later. Then she hit a wall, going 18 months between MMA bouts and going so far as competing in Shootboxing in Japan to hold her over.

“When I went down to 105 pounds, it was a decision I wanted to make, but I knew that there wasn’t a whole lot of competition in the States,” revealed Penne of the trying time prior to Invicta. “I knew that it was going to be difficult. I really wanted to compete, but there weren’t any fights at 105. Nobody was really doing anything in women’s MMA. Most of the females were fighting for a spot on the one [women’s] fight per card.”

Now, when Penne steps into the Invicta cage for a third time on April 5, she not only carries the title of champion, but also headliner for the second straight event. It’s a testament to not only how far Invicta has come, but also the hard work and perseverance of Penne.

Penne (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“In the last year, they’ve done great things and made big strides for the sport and athletes,” said Penne. “Women’s MMA is becoming more accepted and everyone is getting more opportunities because of Invicta.”

While it would be easy for Penne to get lost in the added attention coming her way as the promotion’s first champion, the fighter credits her coaches and training partners at Reign Training Center, King’s MMA and Checkmat BJJ for her keeping her head where it’s supposed to be heading into her first title defense.

“I really don’t pay attention to a whole lot that is going on; I focus on myself,” she admitted. “I stay focused on my training until it’s over.”

Penne’s challenger, Michelle Waterson, earned a crack at the belt after narrowly edging Lacey Schuckman on the same card where Penne captured the belt. While the pair share a common opponent in Alicia Gumm—whom Penne defeated and Waterson lost to—the champion isn’t reading too far into Waterson’s past performances.

“I look at the person that I’m fighting as if I’m fighting the best version of them,” stated Penne. “Anything they did or any tendencies they had in previous fights, they’re going to work hard to change those and strengthen their good qualities.”

So what does Penne think about the Jackson’s MMA product known as “The Karate Hottie”?

“She’s a tough girl with a lot of tools,” said Penne. “She comes from a good camp. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”

If history holds true for Penne, a successful title defense against Waterson would bring her another challenge later this year, as well as yet another accomplishment on her ever-growing fight resume.

Jessica would like to thank Thrive Foods, Vega One, RVCA Apparel, her coach Corey Beasley at Innovative Results, Chris Franco and Lucas Leite at Checkmat BJJ, Mark Munoz at Reign Training Center, Master Rafael Cordeiro at King’s MMA and Nathan Gable at Blackhouse MMA. Follow Penne on Twitter: @JessicaPenne

Top Photo: Jessica Penne (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)