by R. Pete Hatcher
There are many words that come to mind when describing a mixed martial arts fighter. Gritty, tough, fearless, dedicated, even passionate are a few that come to mind. Refreshing isn’t usually one of them, but that’s how I felt after talking to Brandon “The Janitor” Pennington. His personality, point of view and desire to infuse positivity into everyone around him is infectious. He has an attitude and outlook on life that very few people possess, especially considering he hasn’t hit the quarter-century mark.
When I asked Brandon to tell me about himself, he began with “I’m a pretty simple guy.” After listening to his story, I would agree. He goes to work, goes to the gym, wakes up and repeats. He’s got a full-time job and trains as much as possible when he’s not working. At times, he does two a days, training before and after work. It’s a daily grind.
But that’s the sport of mixed martial arts. It is a grind. And if you’re going to stay in it, you must embrace that grind. You have to find something bigger than yourself to stay with it. Even the toughest and most gifted athletes tire from mental and physical demands. It takes a unique individual with an incredible amount of perseverance. Someone who knows how to overcome adverse conditions before and after the bell rings.
Brandon Pennington has been overcoming adversity his whole life. At four months old a severe asthmatic attack nearly took him away from this world. The asthma and respiratory illnesses stayed with him throughout his childhood. He just wasn’t a healthy kid. He didn’t have much confidence in himself. He didn’t come from an affluent family. Add these up and you have an easy target for bullies. Brandon found himself being pushed around and as a result, getting into trouble.
Things were tough all over. Brandon’s parents were divorced, leaving his mother as the disciplinarian and provider for three boys. As if working two jobs wasn’t enough, she was fighting her own battle against Cancer.
The turning point came for Brandon when he discovered the father of his good friend at church, owned a MMA gym. Brandon had seen the UFC and became an instant fan of Chuck “The Ice Man” Liddell. He wanted to begin training immediately, but knew his family couldn’t afford the membership. So, he begged his friend’s dad to let him train. Persistence finally paid off when the owner made a deal with Brandon. He could start training as long as he cleaned the gym 3-4 times a week. And with that, The Janitor was born.
Pennington mopped-up as an amateur fighter, with an official 10-2 record. He found himself inside the cage not long after his sweet sixteenth. By age eighteen he was 3-1 and by age twenty he had accumulated 12 wins and only 2 losses (counting non-sanctioned fights not listed). I asked him “What was your toughest fight during your amateur career?” He replied with “Jesse Herzog” and continued to say he felt a lot of pressure leading up to that match. The real battle was inside his head. He beat himself and lost a split decision. Then, without hardly taking a breath he added “I learned a lot about myself. I learned about heart and digging deep. I had to remind myself why I do MMA.”
That was the perfect segue to ask about his why. Brandon said he wants “to overcome adverse situations” and is always training for them. He wants to be a positive role model and influence those around him. He wants to inspire anyone he comes in contact with to be their best self. Training and competing in mixed martial arts gives him these opportunities.
In a sport filled with competitors wanting to be a champion and make it to the UFC, hearing this first was very uplifting. But, that’s Brandon. He’s doesn’t see fighting as his legacy, but who he inspires along the way and his positive influence on them. This made me wonder, who had modeled this for Brandon?
None other than his current boxing coach and friend, Reggie Barnett, Jr. Brandon said that when no one else believed in him, Reggie did. He saw Brandon’s work ethic in how hard he trained. Reggie instilled confidence in Brandon, something he never had as a child. Their relationship developed into one of mutual admiration. They recognize each other’s actions and the energy they possess. The same positivity Brandon exudes, is seen in Reggie and how he transfers that to all of his students.
This doesn’t mean that Brandon doesn’t want to be successful in the cage. At one point, he too wanted to be a world champion. After a terrific amateur career he set his sights on the professional ranks, but it wasn’t the clean sweep he desired. After a rough 0-2 start, he stepped away to pursue professional boxing and punched his way to one victory and one defeat. At that time, Brandon had been away from MMA for eighteen months until he heard that American Fight League was bringing a professional event to Norfolk. He knew that may be his only chance to fight in front of his home town. Brandon got back to his roots and made the most of that opportunity with his first Pro MMA victory in August 2017.
As fate would have it, Brandon will once again fight in his home town. He will enter the cage this Saturday night at Spartyka Fight League 32 in the Ted Constant Convocation Center. He’s facing a very game opponent in Mitch Aguiar, who will be making his professional debut with a spectacular 11-1 amateur record. I asked Brandon for his thoughts on Aguiar and he replied “Lots of respect for him and what he’s done for our country.” Brandon showed a sincere appreciation for Mitch’s service in the United States Navy. Then he added, “But, he’s still a man. I will finish him in under 2 rounds.” Pennington doesn’t believe Aguiar has the skill set to stay with him. He doesn’t think Aguiar has the technical striking, grappling, or cardio to hang with him. The Janitor said he “will mentally break him.” He takes a lot of pride in the training camp for this fight. He’s proud of the hard work and preparation. He says he’s ready for Aguiar or whoever is put in front of him. He has truly pushed himself for his next fight, no matter the opponent.
As we were wrapping up the interview, I asked something I already knew, “Who’s the most influential person in your life?” Without hesitation he replied, “My mom. She’s always been there for me, no matter what.” He recognized the model of hard work she has set for him. He was aware and appreciative of the sacrifices she has made. In addition to raising the family and working multiple jobs, she won her fight with cancer. This was very inspiring to Brandon and one of the reasons he’s a fighter. He said he “owes his mom his career” and much more.
The last thing I asked was for Brandon to provide any closing thoughts, something I hadn’t asked or if there was anything else he wanted to cover. As if the interview wasn’t inspiring already, he added “The martial arts community needs to come together. The community is constantly at odds, ripping each other apart verbally. At the end of the day, we won’t be fighting each other forever. We will advance to bigger things. We need to get behind each other and support each other.”
My reply started with “I couldn’t agree more.” After we shared our thoughts on the MMA landscape, Brandon continued with “For people that want to make something of themselves, become something. Apply yourself and be the best person you can be. Look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day, be proud and confident. Be humble, believe in yourself and keep working to get 1% better every day. Life is about being happy and doing the things you love to do.”
I didn’t know Brandon “The Janitor” Pennington before our time together. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed our conversation. In a world where entitlement and expectations are rampant, it was refreshing to hear his good values, positive attitude and willingness to help others. I hope this interview finds you well.
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