The last moments of B.J. Penn in the Octagon, where he had legendary battles over the years, saw him tip-toeing across the mat while a much quicker Frankie Edgar brutalized him with a barrage of punches. The Hawaiian left the sport with his head down. It was an unworthy end to his career but after a performance like that, barely anyone wanted to see Penn compete ever again.
Eighteen months later, “The Prodigy” was determined to change the last impression of him in the Octagon and publicly announced his return. When you think about it, his decision fits what he has done the rest of his career perfectly. Against all reason, he jumped up weight classes, survived three rounds with a heavyweight version of Lyoto Machida back in K-1 and never feared losing a fight as long as he gave his all and entertained the audience.
Despite having 10 defeats on his record, many fans and fellow fighters consider Penn as one of the greatest of all time. In fact, he is the anti-thesis to the common Boxing approach. No tune-up fights, no hand-picked opponents, no endless shenanigans.
That is probably why he recently took a shot at the current generation of UFC fighters who often talk about their financial demands in public. “I’ll tell you this, I’m not the guy to go out there and say ‘oh give me this money fight, give me that money fight,’” Penn told FOX Sports. “I look at all these guys doing that and I’m like 'why don’t you go knock out a 100 guys and become the money fight yourself?'“
Penn made himself a star because of his attitude and willingness to fight anyone in any weight class. Most of the time, he went into the cage or ring, fought top-tier opponents, beat them up and licked their blood afterwards as part of his post-fight ritual.
All of these memories aside, Penn’s intention to return to the Octagon raised eyebrows, and rightfully so, considering how his last fight went and the fact he's pushing 40. Joining the Jackson Wink Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was Penn’s way of showing that he is willing to make changes. Often enough during his career, he was accused of surrounding himself with yes-men who, for instance, would not stop him from going into a fight with Frankie Edgar and using a completely ineffective stance, basically allowing him to run into an inevitable knockout loss.
Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn, however, have certainly not been afraid of telling him the honest truth. And both are apparently still convinced that Penn could make a successful return, despite his physical demise and the losses he suffered before retiring.
Initially, Penn was supposed to fight UFC veteran Dennis Siver in a featherweight bout at UFC 199 last June. The 37-year-old German would have been a perfect opponent. He has a lot of mileage on his body and is not as explosive as he once was. But an injury Siver suffered in training led to the cancelation of the fight. The next planned opponent for Penn was Cole Miller, again a beatable fighter. Yet this time, Penn himself was removed from the card on May 23, 2016, after he was flagged for the use of a medically-administered IV during a non-fight period, which is not allowed anymore under the USADA regime.
The odyssey leading up to his return fight was not over at this point. The UFC scheduled a bout between Penn and Ricardo Lamas to headline UFC Fight Night 97 in Pasay City, Philippines. However, on October 4, 11 days before the show, Penn pulled out of the fight citing an injury. In turn, the promotion announced that they had to cancel the event entirely.
After Siver and Miller, Lamas would already have been a step-up for Penn. But the real shocker came a few weeks later, when his new opponent was revealed. It is none other than hot prospect Yair Rodriguez, an exciting kicking machine from Mexico, who is undefeated in the UFC and has also trained at the Jackson Wink Academy for quite a while. Record-wise, Rodriguez is not at Lamas’ level, but the quickness and agility of the 24-year-old could be too much for Penn, unless the veteran has jumped into a fountain of youth.
There are several other questions surrounding his return. Has he changed his style compared to his fight against Edgar? Does the BJJ black belt apply a more grappling-heavy approach against an elite striker like Rodriguez? And how does Penn handle the weight cut down to 145 pounds at the age of 38, when he fought at 155 and 170 for most of his career? The UFC Fight Night event on January 15 in Phoenix, Arizona, will bring answers.
All B.J. Penn wants is to put on his MMA shorts, stand opposite another man and throw down when the bell rings. When he was introduced into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015, he felt noticeably uncomfortable. He did not seem ready to receive his retirement watch; he was so used to being one of the baddest men on the planet that he is willing to come back knowing that he might be embarrassed by a much younger opponent once again. It is his philosophy of fighting.