Jessica Penne is at the end of her rope. Once upon a time Penne (12-5) was a highly touted strawweight, and challenger to then-champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk. However, she has not been seen inside the octagon since UFC Nashville in 2017, in a losing effort against Danielle Taylor.
Since then, Penne, now 36-years old, has been dealing with a nightmarish struggle against USADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that oversees the UFC’s Anti-Doping Policy. In 2017, while using medication under the direction of her physician, Penne tested positive for a banned substance. The following year, USADA handed down an 18-month suspension for that incident, giving six months off given Penne’s doctor had directed her to take the medication.
While expected to return to action last year, Penne had to withdraw from a bout with Jodie Esquibel at UFC Phoenix just hours before the event due to a sprained ankle.
Now, it appears she’s run afoul of USADA again — and says the organization has essentially tried to bully her into accepting a four-year ban from the sport, which would effectively end her fighting career.
On Instagram, Penne wrote the following statement, suggesting that her career very well could be over.
To all my fans,
I am not even sure how to start this or go about addressing this to everyone… I am heart broken and defeated. USADA has effectively bullied and forced me into retiring from MMA. About 3 years ago I was advised by my doctor to start an over the counter medication that would balance out my extremely deficient hormone levels. I followed the rules to the best of my knowledge and even had prescribed medications rejected when I was informed they violated the stipulations of USADA. With USADA being new to me and most everyone in the UFC at the time, my naivety thought that having a doctors note/recommendation for a simple “over the counter product” would be safe to take… turns out it wasn’t and I was banned from fighting for 18 months… I was upset because I did not knowingly break the rules but I took ownership, kept my mouth shut and served my sentence. During this time I was repeatedly tested and I was clean on everything. This incident was a wake up call which made me hyper paranoid about everything I put in my body because the stigma of being thought of as a cheater is humiliating and something that goes deep to my core beliefs that I couldn’t be tied to. I went broke during this time and embarrassingly had to do anything I could to make ends meet… I drove for Lyft, taught privates and anything I could do to get by. Finally when I had served the sanction, all I wanted to do was get back to fighting. I was booked to fight in February of 2019 when I suffered a sprained ankle warming up the day of the fight… I couldn’t believe this happened, I felt like I was cursed. The UFC was gracious enough to rebook me in April but as you may or may not remember I was pulled from that fight. The reason I was pulled was because of an extremely low level of stanozolol was found in my system (picogram levels)… My heart sank… after everything I had gone through by complying and staying quite (sic) just to get my shot back, this happened… I had been tested so many times and had even tested clean days before this actual test was given… I knew this had to be a mistake or some form of contamination. What we thought was going to be an easy determination of cause, turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster and ended in disaster.
I spent thousands of dollars I didn’t have testing medications and supplements (most of which were 3rd party certified that the UFC PI gave me). The lab I tested my supplements at (Korvalabs in California) actually found the banned substance that USADA was trying to pin on me. I was overjoyed with happiness thinking that my name would be cleared and I could return to fighting. However, that was not enough for USADA… and even with those test results AND all their evidence showing that the levels found in me were so small that it was clear to everyone that it was not a “performance enhancing dose,” USADA took it upon themselves to find new samples and retest everything at a lab in Utah… Weeks went by and after lots of confusion and arguing, USADA comes back and says their test results negated my tests results and they were handing me my second violation, which comes with a 4 year suspension. At my age there is no way I can comeback in 4 years… at this point I am lost and defeated.
Donna Marcolini and Jeff Novitzky who are in charge of the athlete health and performance for the UFC, and who handle all the dealings with USADA, have believed in me and my case since day 1. They have supported me and have spent endless hours on my case to prove I did not do anything knowingly and intentionally to cheat. During this 3 year period I’ve been sidelined, USADA has had to reform some of their rules which legally gave me a sliver of hope because under these new rules, my “first offense” should be wiped away with the knowledge and proof of the doctors advice and compliance I showed to try and follow the rules. It was very clear I didn’t knowingly take a banned substance… there is a paper trail to prove it and I never hid the fact I took it… as a matter of fact the only reason they caught it is because I wrote it down and informed them of it.
After the so called second offense, I was subject to multiple interrogations during at which my emotional state of crying and utter disbelief caused me to come across to Nadia (the USADA agent) as “not peasant.” She showed zero understanding to my emotional state and I believe she was simply on a witch hunt to my show relevance to her job. When she couldn’t pin me for how this “non performance enhancing dose” got in my system, she essentially told me I was screwed and they would sanction the full 4 years on me unless I ratted out other fighters or coaches that I knew were using PED’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs)… My mind was blown. At this point I lost all hope and respect for the USADA program. I am all for a clean sport and the idea of USADA, but to threaten and end a non cheaters career because they aren’t good enough to find real cheaters on their own is mind blowing.
I have fought this with everything I have and Donna and Jeff have exhausted every resource they have to prove my innocence… USADA is now acting like the “High Sparrows” in Game of Thrones and operating in a capacity where they feel untouchable and know 90% of the athletes can’t afford to properly defend themselves. As a final insult to all of this, Nadia and USADA have requested that I sign a letter agreeing to their career ending terms and sanctions against me. I am here today to tell you that my management team and I did NOT and will not ever agree to sign this sanction they are imposing. I AM INNOCENT! I don’t know where I go from there… at this point USADA has held me from making a career and income for the last 3 years and I am ashamed to say I am broke, defeated and heart broken. I have been advised by Jeff and Donna that I have one last shot to try and get back and that is to hire a lawyer and fight USADA head on in court but that could cost upwards of 30-40K. My manager has advised me that he is going to start a Go Fund Me account to see if we can raise the money needed to fight but I am not holding my hopes high. I hope with all my heart that you all believe in me and know I would never cheat… I loved this sport and gave my life to it.
Penne’s comments echo those of fighters like Josh Barnett, who took his case with USADA to arbitration and was found innocent of any intentional cheating in doing so. Barnett, however, lost well over a year of his career, and thousands of dollars if not more in the process.
In recent times, fighters like Jon Jones and Sean O’Malley have received relatively lenient sentences, even for repeated offenses, regarding low levels of banned substances found in their systems.
Cageside Press has reached out to USADA for comment, who have advised that they “hope to have a statement” regarding the matter soon.
Update: USADA has released its response regarding Penne’s statement. “Given Jessica Penne’s public statement, we can confirm her positive test for stanozolol. However, there are many 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.”