There is a strong sense of momentum surrounding St Charles MMA exponent Luis Antonio Pena, a 6’3, 4-0 lightweight with a striking look and a superbly diverse skill set. It doesn’t hurt that Pena knows how to market himself. Follow him on Twitter (@YoungMetro501) and the first thing you’ll see is a .gif of a spectacular double flying knee KO from his kickboxing debut back January of this year, as well as an increasing number of interviews and articles from an incredibly articulate young fighter with a huge upside.
At 24 years old, Pena looks to have everything required from a future star; and yet, speaking to Luis it’s clear that the reason everything appears to be coming together so nicely is because of two simple attributes: sheer hard work, and an indomitable strength of will.
Pena’s first taste of success in combat sports came during his high school years. “I was a State Champion and All-American wrestler in my senior year at high school in 2012, as well as being All-State every year I wrestled. I did wrestle for a year in college, but just wasn’t feeling school anymore,” Pena told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “Since then, I’ve gained a 7-1 amateur boxing record (including a St Louis Golden Gloves Middleweight title), and have gone 2-0 in amateur kickboxing. I’m also 1-0 as a pro kickboxer, and an 0-2 pro boxing record against opposition with a combined record of 15-0.”
Further to those credentials, Pena has also earned himself a 5-2 amateur MMA record, clear evidence of his desire to improve each aspect of his game organically. What better way to learn to fight than by fighting?
This present journey began “about four years ago,” when Luis opted out of his schooling in order to take a year off, get a job, and start coaching wrestling at his old high school. “I was just trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life, and about that time one of my biggest rivals from my high school wrestling days hit me up and told me he’d been training at this MMA gym, and that his buddy had a fight lined up against a wrestler. He thought I’d be perfect to help him get ready for it so I went to go check it out, and that’s how it’s been ever since!”
“After some personal differences with my first gym I moved to another gym in Little Rock for a short time, before my old high school wrestling coach, Shawn Hickey, told me he saw potential in me. He said that if I was going to really fulfil that potential I had to go somewhere to find better opportunities, and he told me about his friend Mike Rogers the head coach at Saint Charles MMA. We went down there with the intent of staying for, like, two weeks to see if I liked it and how everyone else liked me being there, and we just hit it off so well I went back home, packed everything I owned into a car and moved into the gym at Saint Charles! I lived there for about a year and a half, scraping my way to going pro.”
Not an easy journey, then, for a fighter literally chasing his dreams – but now those nomadic days look like paying off for an athlete who cites the likes of Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Nick Diaz as his personal favourites. Watching Pena compete in MMA, there’s definitely some semblance of similarity between those aforementioned fighters and Pena’s own aggressive, often times unorthodox style. While Pena admits he wasn’t sure at first if he was “cut out of for it”, his time spent at St Charles MMA has evidently made those ambitions concrete.
As with the most committed students of the game, Pena’s amateur career has really paved the way for his future. We asked Luis about his memories from his pre-professional tenure: “Man there’s so many,” he says. “I spent two years as an amateur fighter amassing close to thirty fights across three different styles [MMA, boxing and kickboxing]. I’d have to say my biggest memories are collective; the ones I have from my time spent living in the gym there at Saint Charles. Like Jose Aldo, I was literally living in the gym I trained at. I’d wake up at 5am to lift, then go back to bed, wake up for morning Jiu Jitsu, then get ready for all the afternoon and night classes. Then there were days where I would go and bust my ass and work a hard labor job all day, then get back home to the gym and get straight into five hours of hard training, or the days where I woke up and my goal for the day was to just find enough to eat to make it through training. Those are the memories that I’ll keep dear to me when I’m finally at the top.”
It’s not the highlight reel finishes, then, that mean the most to Luis Antonio Pena. As alluded to towards the beginning of this article, Pena’s successes have been born of sheer hard work and willpower. It takes a different kind of dedication to live where you work and train; it takes even more to live there when you’re not getting paid a professional wage to be there! But these were obstacles and events Pena has taken in his stride, and that he has allowed to shape who he is. When he eventually turned pro, it was a big, big deal.
“It was everything I’d been working for and then some!” Luis told The MMA Vanguard. “Towards the end of your amateur run it starts to get hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, but man, if you stick with it, it all pays off!” Pena adds: “I can’t explain the feeling of separating a man from his consciousness in front of a thousand people and then going and collecting a check for troubles!”
For all the hard work and dedication, then, Pena’s story is also one of gratification. Speaking to Luis, watching him at weigh ins and face offs, and listening to his interviews, it’s clear that Pena revels in succeeding in the prize fighting game. In Missouri, even his staredowns have proven noteworthy. The kind of fighter that believes the job begins the second he signs a contract, Pena has been known to be on-point every step of the way. If there’s an opening for a mental advantage, this guy will take it, whether it’s fight night, or a week ahead of time. If there’s the opportunity to make a statement and look awesome doing it, in or out of the cage, well, he’ll take that too.
The finish to his professional debut, a first round knock out win over Chris Petty, was a moment Pena clearly savoured; and with good reason. Petty, for his part, had stunned Luis Antonio Pena a 24 second submission in the amateur ranks back in December 2015. After a pair of wins over James Cowen and Evan Elder, and that momentous decision to finally turn pro, Pena found himself re-matched with the now 1-1 pro fighter. Not only was this an opportunity to avenge that prior defeat, the fact that chance would come in Luis’ long-awaited pro debut made it imperative that he succeed.
He did. Beautifully.
A one-two combination, a straight left following up from a right jab, landed square on the button. Petty crumbled, while Pena completed his first outing with a walk away KO at 4:22. Arms out wide, Pena embraced the adulation of the Family Arena in St Charles, Missouri, laying down a strong marker that night, September 09, 2016.
Three months later, Pena would get a call from Shamrock FC, and Illinois native Brandon Schehl, a powerful former high school wrestler, would await him. Pena, his face a perfect picture of malign intent, strode forward, landed a good early combination, and showed off both his confidence and propensity for the unorthodox with an early flying knee. Schehl, to his credit, caught the knee, and immediately looked for a single leg takedown. With active takedown defence, Pena positioned himself so the pair landed in a keylock position, his body beyond the immediate control of Schehl and temporarily out of danger. An ensuing scramble saw both men flirt with the opportunity to gain dominant positions, but the set piece ultimately ended as something of a stalemate. Back to the feet, Schehl did want to give the much taller, rangier fighter space, diving on a single leg attempt the moment he lost a front facelock.
Pena, again fighting the takedown and landing good elbows against the cage, would find himself tripped, but again able to position himself away from immediate danger. Measured and controlled, Pena defended superbly, managed to get his back to the fence, and hurt Schehl with an elbow as he fished for a double leg. A couple more elbows later, and having dropped his level even further to avoid them, Schehl completed the takedown. Again, though, Pena was shifting his body position the entire time, and this time completed the transition he had been threatening throughout; he manoeuvred his body to the side, seamlessly folded Schehl up and took his back. Completing the move with an arm-in body triangle, Pena was able to threaten with a rear naked choke, before landing some good ground and pound. It was a bad position for Schehl, but in Pena’s haste to isolate an arm and move to yet another submission attempt, Schehl was about to scoot out and get back to his feet.
It was a great grappling exchange, and proved Pena had little to fear from his opponent on the mat. Mental advantage: Pena. On the feet, Pena was at his dynamic, unpredictable best. A spinning back fist narrowly missed against the cage, before Schehl looked to take things back to ground, only to wind up caught in a web of limbs and getting busted open more of those nasty elbows from Pena. Schehl, however, would not give up, achieved another largely fruitless takedown, before Pena showed again showed his excellent counter wrestling. With thirty seconds or so left on the clock in round one, Pena turned the tables, landed a knee coming out of a separation, and continued to apply pressure until the horn.
It was all action stuff, and as Schehl was visibly tired in his corner as a result, Pena was pacing back and forth and ready to go! Smelling blood and wanting to work from range early, Pena immediately advanced at the start of round two, got in Schehl’s face, threw long punches and a front kick to the chest, and even a cleverly disguised switch kick as he sought to make the most of the situation. Schehl, to his credit, was having none of it. Sticking to his tactics, Schehl attempted to gain the advantage via another takedown, though ultimately it would prove a mistake. Pena out-grappled Schehl, manufactured a full mount, landed good ground and pound, accepted an invitation to take the back, and eventually finished via rear naked choke.
It was a superb display of virtually all facets of the game, with Pena excelling in all of them. A further four months later, and the 2-0 Pena would be pitted against 3-0 Bosnian stand out Damir Ferhatbegovic. Nicknamed the ‘Bosnian Barn Cat’, Damir had amassed seven successive wins across both the amateur and pro ranks, and was a staple of the Valor Fights promotion in which he had never lost.
Step forward Luis Antonio Pena. Coming in with his usual aggressive style, Pena looked for everything from one-two combinations to flying knees early on, only for a slip to temporarily derail his momentum. A scramble allowed Damir the chance to threaten with a guillotine, but when it became clear Pena wasn’t going to tap, he let it go. With separation, Pena did what Pena does best; bamboozled Damir from ever-evolving angles and awkward timing, using his height and reach to great effect, and limiting the Bosnian to one off wild haymakers. Damir, however, would grow into the fight and begin to land some combinations of his own. Gaining success as he began to calculate the best ways to close the distance, Damir appeared to have Pena in trouble towards the end of round one, as some good punching combinations against the cage looked to snap Pena’s head back a couple of times. Still, if it hurt Pena, it didn’t show. Pena stayed right where he was: staring right down the barrel at his opponent.
Round two started in much the same way, a fresh-looking Pena right in the face of Damir, absorbing the power packed in the strikes of his opponent, and beginning to put together more and better combinations of his own. Changing levels, Pena completed a takedown, but with Damir defending well, the pair achieved separation. This time, Damir would look for a takedown, and while the two would hit the mat, Pena was, once again, proving too difficult to control. Reversing positions, Pena took the back of Damir and landed some good shots, before embroiling him even deeper in his impressive ground game. Good elbows from top position softened Damir up, and a beautiful transition from mount to a triangle finished the deal. Damir tapped at 4:47 of round two, and Pena had further illustrated what was becoming more and more clear with every fight; Luis Pena is an outstanding athlete with legitimate skills, and he finishes fights.
Kobe Wall, a 4-0 German with four successive submission victories to his credit, was equally unable to solve the Luis Pena riddle live on FloCombat. A Valor Fighting Lightweight Championship bout, Wall was able to take Pena into deeper waters than ever before in his pro career, lasting out until 1:40 of round three, before pulling off the win via kimura submission. It was, by all accounts, an outstanding performance from Pena, who looked dominant throughout and was able to display, once again, the true extent of his range of skills. What’s more, he achieved the finish despite suffering a concussion late in round two!
Again, talking to Luis Antonio Pena, though, it isn’t his skills that he earmarks as being his most important attribute. Just as he gave a nod to his sheer work ethic in getting to where he is today, he points to his poise when asked about his key to success: “Just my overall composure from fight to fight,” Luis told The MMA Vanguard. “You’ve seen the same stone cold killer enter the cage every time, he’s just added some new tools to his bag every time also.”
So what does Luis think of the momentum he’s gaining, and some of the praise that has gone his way? “It means a lot to be honest, I’ve been putting in nothing but hard work since I started, I’ve had the ability to test myself and prove to myself that I can hang with the best, and I deserve to be among the best. Now that I’m finally starting to get everybody else on board and talking it feels great, to be honest, it feels like a recognition of the sacrifices I’ve made to get where I’m at and where I want to go. I feel I can go as far as I want to in this sport, and I want the number one spot. I want to do things nobody’s ever thought about, and I will, it’s just a matter of time.”
What’s next for Luis Antonio Pena? Oh, you know, just “The world and everything in it.”
From what The MMA Vanguard has seen so far, that could very well be the outcome. If you haven’t heard of Pena before this article, we recommend checking him out right now; he has a big, big future, and should continue to put on outstanding performances!