On a recent morning on the 4th floor of the Globe Dye Works building in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood, DeAnna Bennett was pinned against a chain-link fence with someone’s knee on her shoulder. She was gasping for air, and dripping with sweat.
She was in her happy place.
“This is my home,” she said. “It’s sweaty and I look like I crawled out of a sewer, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Bennet, 38, has been a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter for 10 years. For the last few months she has been training at the Marquez MMA gym in the former textile factory to get ready for the biggest fight of her career — the flyweight world championship.
On Friday evening, April 21, she will face off against current champ Liz Carmouche inside a fighting cage in Hawaii. Both fight for the promoter Bellator.
The New Jersey resident says the Philadelphia gym is key to her championship training.
“I was living in Brick, in the shore area, and my coach brought me down here because I needed some new training partners,” Bennett said. “I was like, ‘I love it here. When can I go back?’”
She is now with the Marquez fighting team every day, sometimes twice a day. Bennett says the guys at Marquez — they are mostly guys, by far — push her past what she might expect from Carmouche.
“We want to make sure the rounds in here are harder than what you have in the cage,” she said. “If I leave practice and I’m barely breaking a sweat, something is wrong. I want to be so incredibly exhausted that I can’t lift my arms up.”
Philadelphia has produced more than its fair share of MMA champions, including fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Paul Felder, and Sean Brady. Even one of the current candidates campaigning for an at-large seat at City Council, Sam Oropeza, is a former professional MMA fighter.
There are a few Philadelphia women rising in professional MMA, including fighters like Criszaida Adames and Jamie Colleen Miller, but it’s rare for a woman from Philly to bring home a championship belt.
Bennett did not grow up a natural fighter. She comes from the Bay Area in California, where her father was a police officer in San Jose and a fan of the fights. He used to watch Strikeforce MMA (now defunct) at the San Jose Arena (now the SAP Center) and would come home beaming.
“He would always be, like, ‘I think you would be really good at this,’” Bennett recalled her father saying. “I was, like, ‘No, thanks. I don’t want to get punched in the face. That sounds stupid.’”
Bennett went to college at Utah Valley University, near Salt Lake City, and took a kickboxing course to satisfy a physical education requirement. Behind her back, her friends signed her up for an introductory exhibition fight.
Again, Bennett balked.
“They said, ‘We’re doing smoker fights. Do you want to do one?’ And I was, like, ‘No, I don’t,’” Bennett recalled. “They said, ‘Well, that really sucks because we signed you up for it.’”
“But the second I got into that cage I’m, like, ‘Oh, I love this. This is fun.’”
At that time — in the late 2000s, in Utah — women’s MMA fighting was so sparse that Bennett had a hard time finding other serious fighters. She said she was pushed to go pro prematurely because there was too little talent in the amateur ranks.
“People coming up now, they have ten-plus amateur fights to be ready to fight in the pros,” she said. “I had two amateur fights. I couldn’t get fights because there weren’t that many females around.”
Right after Bennett turned pro in 2012 with the Invicta promoter, a different promoter — Bellator — dissolved its entire women’s division and released all its fighters from their contracts. The next year it started to build back a women’s division, and in 2020 Bennett switched to Bellator.
“I think the women’s divisions at Bellator are there to stay. It sounds like they’re going to be adding some more,” said Bennet, who is seeing a lot of women in Philly rising in the sport. “Hopefully I get the belt and it paves the way for more females to get there.”
In a sport known for competitors trash-talking one another, Bennett won’t. She says she can’t, that she is not good at insulting other women so she doesn’t try. During face-off photo sessions before fights, when competitors are expected to grimace menacingly at each other, Bennett said she can’t help but giggle.
As for Bennet’s competition in Hawaii, she has a lot of respect for Liz Carmouche, who previously beat Bennett in 2020 in a fight where Bennett tore her hamstring almost completely from her pelvic bone. That respect will be shown on Friday by giving Carmouche everything she has.
“I was at her last fight and she came out there to make a point. I hope more than anything that she comes out with that same tenacity in this fight,” she said. “If she does that, that means she respects me as a competitor. I respect her, so I’m going to give her my hardest fight and I hope she gives me the same back.”
“Combat sports is a really weird thing,” Bennett added. “We beat each other up, we choke each other, literally leave black eyes and hurt stuff, and then it’s, like, ‘Oh, I love you, I love you. This is so great. Thank you so much.’”
Bennett’s rise toward the championship has inspired others to take up MMA. The Marquez gym is in a former factory compound that is now repurposed as a hive of artist and commercial spaces. When Marquez opened less than a year ago on the 4th floor of Globe Dye Works, many of the other tenants took notice.
Stacey Lee Webber, an artist on the first floor, said she and fellow Globe Dye tenant Jen Weckerle, co-founder of Weckerly’s Ice Cream, had never before wanted to fight but started taking MMA classes out of curiosity.
“I knew UFC existed and MMA was a sport. I grew up with sports, but I’m from the midwest — so it’s basketball, softball, football,” Webber said. “It seems like it’s just getting more and more popular right now.”
Webber said having a gym upstairs from where she lives and works makes it convenient to get in her exercise, particularly since her close friend owns an ice cream company, but she was also inspired by watching people like Bennett.
“She’s doing this thing that’s so rare for a woman,” she said. “She’s also feminine at the same time, but aggressive on another level. All the different layers that she can have is fascinating to me.”
Weber started to go out to exhibition bouts in South Philadelphia to watch the Marquez fighters fight. It’s reciprocal: she said some of those fighters have come downstairs to her studio to buy art.
Weber recently auctioned off one of her signature pieces — a $100 bill embroidered by hand to make the portrait of Ben Franklin appear to wear a ski mask and a “215” on his collar — to raise money to help Bennett fly her coaching entourage to Hawaii for the championship fight.
“Honestly, I don’t even have an answer to that. I’m so incredibly grateful,” said Bennett, who once briefly enrolled in art school and still occasionally paints. “Everybody that comes into the gym, even the ones that aren’t the fighters, just the normal people that are here just to work out, even they’re part of the family.”
Friday night’s fight will air as part of the Bellator 294 main card on Showtime, which starts at 10 p.m.
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