Reggie Peña’s friends had warned him about the kind of fight he was getting himself into, but it wasn’t until the bell sounded for the end of the first round that he realized that he was fighting for more than just a paycheck: he was fighting to survive.
UFC veteran John Salter had thrashed Peña in the opening frame of their bout at XFC 18, leaving the Tampa transplant’s face a bloody and swollen mass. John Prisco, XFC's matchmaker and promoter, looked on in astonishment from the front row: Peña was a stalwart in the Florida based MMA organization, and he had a legitimate, and respected, reputation for being a destroyer inside the cage. But on this night in 2012, Peña became the victim of the kind of punishment he was more comfortable dishing out.
“Everyone was counting me out [in the lead-up to the fight],” Peña told me during our conversation. "I didn't even know who the hell John Salter was. But, when the night grew closer, I did my homework and found out he was in the UFC and that, you know, he was a tough wrestler. Everyone was just writing me off. I had my old buddies tell me, 'This guy's tough you know. Oh he's the real deal.' I kind of had a chip on my shoulder.”
Peña slumped onto his stool in the corner after the first round. From the perspective of Prisco and the crowd in attendance — stunned at what they were witnessing — the popular fighter was all but finished. This was the narrative that was playing out. But, for the warrior from the Bronx, a different narrative was happening, one of fortitude and gritty redemption.
"I give him respect, all the respect to this day. I tell you he kicked my ass. And you know, I had a hard time. I couldn't quit. I was like, 'I'm not giving up.' You know, I've always had that mental toughness. And I wasn't going to quit. I wasn't going to allow him to break me,” he said.
The late Corey Hill, also a UFC veteran, and Peña’s manager Patrick Reynolds, were screaming at him in the corner between rounds.
"He tired himself out! He tired himself out, Reggie! You got this! You got to stay focused!”
"I knew that I had to finish the fight,” Reggie told me. “Or, you know, at least take care of that second round. If it went three [rounds], I had to make it interesting in the third.”
The next moment is one that Peña’s XFC promoter and friend, John Prisco, will never forget.
"Reggie got beat up like I never saw a fighter get beat up," Prisco said. "The only question was is the ref was going to stop the fight. And Reggie survived. And going to his stool between rounds, he looked at me, his face all swollen, his eyes swollen shut. He looked at me... and he winked."
Like a moment out of a Hollywood film production, Reggie -- despite the pummeling he had just endured -- already envisioned the checkmate maneuver. Salter had tired himself out, and "the wink" to Prisco was simply his way of conveying his plan of action
"I was pretty much... I was just saying, you know, 'It's my turn.' That was it. Now it's my turn," he said.
In a thrilling display of heart and determination, Reggie “The Regulator” Peña, the man known in some Floridian circles as “The Toughest Man in Tampa,” bounded out of his corner, rejuvenated and focused.
It’s difficult to determine what exactly went through John Salter’s mind for the next 36 seconds. Peña turned the action on his opponent, smothering, dominating, and then finishing the gamey Salter with a guillotine choke in the opening moments of the second round.
“To this day, it's one of the highlights of my career,” Peña said in reflection. "I mean, just going through that war first round and surviving and finding it within myself to dig deep and come back and respond to all the naysayers and everyone who doubted. Just to come back -- it was so exhilarating. It is definitely one of the biggest moments my career."
Reggie is no stranger to fighting. One of ten children — he, the only male — Peña had a scrappy upbringing that saw him stand up continuously to confrontation. He attributes this tough-as-nails demeanor to his mother.
"We grew up in the Bronx, in New York," he said. "My parents were tough on me, right from an early age. I used to get beat up, and my mom didn't take no crap, so she made sure I grew up tough. She would always tell me, ‘Never back down from anyone, and if I find out you got punked out, you're gonna answer to me when you get home.' That kind of helped me later on in my career.
After he and his family moved to Florida, Peña joined the Spring Hill Florida wrestling club at age 11. Later, he joined his high school wrestling team, and it was his love of grappling that would propel him into the sport of MMA.
"I had the itch after high school, and just got into jiu-jitsu. The rest is history — MMA, you know, and I’ve been knocking people out ever since," he said.
In 2005, Peña became a pro fighter, and his first test would see him face-off against the ultra competitive Ben Saunders. The wrestling standout wasn’t prepared for his first foray into the dynamic sport of mixed martial arts.
"I was just a green, green wrestler. I didn't know a whole lot, but went in there and took the fight. I got my ass kicked, but I battled back. I learned on the job training,” he said.
Three of Reggie’s first five fights went by way of loss, but it was a learning experience for him. At the time, there was little, if any, structure to the amateur component of MMA. Reggie had been thrown in the deep end with the sharks, and if he could find his way to shore, he’d prove himself a worthy purveyor of the budding sport.
At the tail end of 2007, Peña found himself going toe-to-toe with Julio Cruz at Cage Fights 6. In the very first round, and in under two minutes, he dispatched his opponent with a TKO. The result would signal the start of a violent streak of four consecutive victories for Peña, who had finally found his footing within the cage. Save for one contest, all of the wins came by way of KO or TKO. He was quickly gaining a reputation as a dangerous man with dynamite sticks for hands. It was also clear that a fight with Peña meant you were willing to engage in a war of attrition.
"I don't want to be known as that guy who just takes people down, lays on them for three rounds or five rounds, whatever it may be,” Peña said. "I come to fight. I want everyone to know that I come to fight. In the past, it's been to my detriment at times: My coaches tell me, ‘Quit blocking punches with your face!’ I've improved in that area. I'm always coming forward, looking to finish the fight. I never want to leave it in judges’ hands."
As his career progressed, Peña began utilizing more submissions in his endgame, evolving into the kind of performer that excels in this sport. Even with his approach varying and becoming more technical in nature, Peña maintained the warrior mentality cultivated in his youth.
It was at this point in our conversation that Reggie stopped to briefly wax philosophical. He evoked the Roman gladiators of yonder and juxtaposed those brutal Coliseum death matches with contemporary attitudes towards team sports and other athletics: you “play” basketball for instance, he pointed out.
"You can't play fighting,” he said.
In August, 2015, after a decade in the professional ranks of the sport, and after finishing three opponents consecutively, Peña had to take a break. His body was succumbing to the effects of the fight game, but more specifically, his tore his ACL.
"It couldn't have come at a worse time. I was on a roll there. I had won about three in a row. I think it hurt me. I believe I should be at the next level for the UFC or Bellator. So, I feel I should definitely be in there, you know, and I probably would have been had it not been for all those layoffs,” he said.
After a two-year layoff, Peña is finally back, and in his estimation, he’s in better shape than ever. ("It feels amazing to be healthy, to be healthy again and go out there. It feels great.") At V3Fights 61, “The Toughest Man in Tampa” will attempt to make it four-in-a-row against Reshaun Spencer. The fight, which serves as the co-main event of the evening, is an interesting one for fight fans as it’s positioned as a litmus test for one of the scrappiest and gutsiest performers in all of MMA.
You might think that Peña, a known “killer" inside the cage always looking for a finish, might take this bout a bit more cautiously than most. He is coming off a two-year layoff due to injury. He is almost 35-years old and looking for a shot at the UFC in the latter part of his career. It would probably behoove him to do the Mayweather stick-and-move routine, eschewing the opportunity to get hit while still inflicting damage.
But, that kind of tactic wouldn't be true to who “The Regulator” is.
"I mean, you know, I’ve got to finish the fight. Take him out. I mean, that's the game plan."