It's The Return of the- Oh Wait, No Way, You're Kidding?
It's a hard thing for an athlete to walk away from a sport. It's even harder when that athlete was so dominant in the sport that they are considered one of the best ever. We've seen it all the time across different sports, and we've seen it many a time in the UFC. Sometimes, they get out on a win and have their legacy completely intact, like Georges St Pierre. Other times, the call has to be made for them, like when Dana White got Chuck Liddell to retire following a number of knockout losses. So, where does Sunday's headliner, BJ Penn, lay on that spectrum?
BJ Penn has the nickname "The Prodigy", and if you've followed his career, it's easy to see why. The nickname was first attained due to the unbelievable proficiency Penn displayed in the martial art of Brazilian Jujitsu, or BJJ. BJ began training in BJJ in 1997, and by 2000 BJ had his BJJ black belt. Still following? In 2001, he made his debut in the UFC (yep, that long ago) and displayed impressive striking power to complement his elite ground game. In the build up to his upcoming fight with Yair Rodriguez, I decided to watch his career from the beginning on UFC Fight Pass. It's truly astounding to watch this little Hawaiian guy come in and absolutely destroy his opponents in the first round- while I've seen him as the defending lightweight champion in 2009. I didn't have near the amount of access to UFC as I do now. Seeing him choke out Matt Hughes was something else, and I've just watched him lose a split decision to a young GSP.
And therein lies a lot of the appeal of BJ Penn. The guy is a mad bastard. The likes of Matt Hughes and GSP were much bigger and stronger than Penn, but he didn't care. He popularised the phrase "Just Scrap", meaning no excuses, no backing down, just go to war. He even fought former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida once! I think Penn's MMA record would be a lot better if he picked fights with people his own size. While it's an admirable trait to attempt such things, MMA has weight classes for a reason. Most of the time, the really skilled bigger guy will beat the really skilled smaller guy. There would also be less concern about this comeback that BJ is now attempting to make.
At least, at this point, BJ Penn seems to recognise that going above his weight class posed problems. He's winless in his last four fights, and three of those were welterweights. So now, he's going for the 145lb featherweight division. He was unsuccessful in his 145 debut against Frankie Edgar, but Edgar appears to be Penn's kryptonite. He's the only lightweight fighter to hand Penn a loss in his entire career besides Jens Pulver way back in BJ's 4th career fight. The cause for concern is that in the featherweight debut of Penn, he did very little. He adopted a strange upright stance that made takedowns incredibly easy for the decorated wrestler Edgar. He also seemed to lack the trademark aggression that brought him world titles and a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame.
As an aside, I met BJ Penn just prior to that 2014 fight with Frankie Edgar. It was a brief meet and greet with a picture at the UFC Gym in Sydney, but in that interaction he was so friendly, he made direct eye contact as he shook my hand and asked how I was, and he seemed to genuinely care. Was a little bit hard to process that this is the same dude I first watched blast Caol Uno back in 2001/2002. The same guy that chokes people and licks blood off his gloves. On that day, a total class act.
I don't know what's going on with my right arm either. Awkward.
A lot is made of a "motivated BJ". And while that might sound like something a really great girlfriend gives you, the mental state of BJ Penn has been a very serious factor in his fights. As crazy and aggressive as he is in his highlight reel, in recent years especially he has seemed to lack that fire in his fights. And honestly, it is that issue of motivation that makes me believe in BJ at this time. Penn has been attempting to make this comeback for a full year now. He's had 3 fights booked this year, but had them fall through due to injury, personal issues, legal issues- just a shit storm of issues. The fact that he hasn't been deterred from making this comeback gives me hope.
Another factor is that BJ Penn has reunited with his boxing coach Jason Parillo, who was a part of Penn's team back when he was a monster ruling the 155lb division in 2008-2009. Parillo has publicly shown dissatisfaction with the attempted striking style of Penn in his last fight, and I would hope they've corrected those issues over quite a long time period. Penn has been at least tentatively booked for 3 fights, so one would think that's involved training camps (most definitely in the Lamas fight, which was broken late). If Penn's mind is right and his technique is on point, this comeback could work for him.
It's important, though, to remember that there are two people in this fight. BJ Penn might be battling his own issues, but most importantly, he's battling Yair Rodriguez. Yair is part of the new generation of MMA fighters. While in the past, fighters had a base discipline- wrestling, jujitsu, kickboxing- and built MMA skills around that. Now, fighters like Yair are learning MMA as a singular discipline, meaning all the transitions between striking and grappling are more natural. In Yair's case, this allows for a very fluid, flashy and dangerous striking style. He does have submission skills as well, winning a fight via triangle choke on TUF: Latin America. BJ Penn certainly has his work cut out for him.
One thing we have seen in this new breed of fighters is a tendency to be fantastic on offense, but wilt under the pressure of more experienced fighters. Sage Northcutt and Paige Vanzant come to mind as recent examples. Rodriguez has a number of decision victories to his credit, but none over a fighter the calibre of BJ Penn when he's on form. The last time I was super impressed with Penn inside the cage was his UFC 137 fight with Nick Diaz. I wonder if Rodriguez can handle a dog fight like Penn vs. Diaz was?
I don't think a win or loss here necessarily dictates whether Penn's done or not. It's Penn's performance. Penn looked good against Jon Fitch over 2 rounds before getting blanketed in the 3rd to cause a draw. He looked good in losing a great scrap to Nick Diaz. If the younger, highly talented Yair Rodriguez beats Penn in a close competitive contest, more power to him. Just as long as Yair doesn't blast Penn in the first minute. BJ Penn is too much of a legend, one of MMA's all time greats, to be used as a gatekeeper or stepping stone. I'll be watching this weekend, and hoping, at least one more time, that BJ Penn can turn back the clock.