What will it take for former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion B.J. Penn to return to competitive mixed martial arts? Is it a fight in Hawaii? Would it be a rematch against Nick Diaz? Maybe a big paycheck?
It could be all or none of those things. The right offer matters, of course, but most important is timing. Or stated differently, time off. Time for things to change.
If there's anything that becomes immediately clear in a conversation with Penn, he just isn't in a part of his life where returning to competitive fighting interests him enough to make the commitment. "I'm not really excited to jump into a training camp right now," Penn told Ariel Helwani yesterday on The MMA Hour.
That isn't to say he's totally disinterested. After all, he's at least willing to entertain offers even if they ultimately don't move him into action. "Me and Dana sat down," Penn explained. "Dana said, 'I'm seeing a lot of stuff. You're saying you don't want to fight anymore.' Me and him just kind of talked and did a couple of hypotheticals back and forth and that was it. I know Dana wants me to fight again."
"I'm enjoying training right now," Penn said. "You never know what the future holds. If Dana puts something together like 'hey, you want to do this?' You never know. You never know what could happen."
It isn't just White that wants Penn to fight again. Legions of MMA fans are hopeful 'The Prodigy' won't retire, especially while many of his supporters believe he's still got the capacity to compete.
"I don't know. I do get pumped up about it when I go different places and people are like ‘come on! You gotta fight again! You gotta fight again!" But it's a lot of work."
It appears more than anything, 'a lot of work' is what's holding Penn back. After years and years the grind, the routine and uphill climb of training camp, the process is not as easy to be a part of as it once was. The toll on the body, the time away from family. Who wants that when you've accomplished so much, you're wealthy and you've got an infant daughter? Penn readily admits he thinks he still has what it takes to compete against the elite, but getting up for a training camp day after day just isn't appealing right now.
"I guess being a competitor, you always have that itch. But what it is is...it's tough," Penn said with a laugh. "The training camps are tough, going through that. I've been with the UFC for ten years going through different things. All the different personalities you gotta deal with. I still look at some of the guys up there and of course being a competitor 'You know, I could beat that guy or I could do well with that guy.' It's just a tough question."
Interestingly, though, Penn confirmed reports that Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez was offered to him and that he ultimately turned the fight down. "It was right after the Nick Diaz fight," Penn acknowledged.
"[White] offered a fight against Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce. We sat down and we thought about it for a little while. We talked back and forth. It was kind of one of those things where I guess at the end of the day we thought about it a thousand different ways and we were like 'Is that downgrading yourself fighting in Strikeforce? If you win the Strikeforce title are people going to say you did it because you couldn't win the UFC title?'"
"At the end of the day, it just didn't make sense to us," Penn said.
Penn noted it wasn't Melendez as an opponent he objected to ("If you decide you're going to be a fighter, you shouldn't have a problem fighting anyone"), but he just couldn't rationalize competing under a banner outside of the UFC. If it doesn't move the needle or add to his legacy, it's hard to move forward.
In the wake of a serious thrashing at the hands of Nick Diaz at UFC 137, the two-division champion also confessed he's worried about departing the sport in an unceremonious exit. "That is definitely on my mind," admitted Penn. "I don't want to stick around and whether it's a lack of reflexes or a lack of motivation, whichever it may be. You end up getting laid out a few times that could've been avoided."
"I would think that's on a lot of fighters' minds, but some people just do it anyway. They like the money or the attention. It's one or the other or both. We've seen that happen over the years to some of the greatest fighters of all time. That's definitely on my mind. Certain athletes like Randy Couture, they never needed the reflexes. They could've stayed around. I look at a boxer like Floyd Mayweather and think he's all reflexes. Once his reflexes go, it's probably time for him to maybe step out."
As for Penn's future, there's no guarantee it could go any direction save for the one it's one now. To return to MMA, he'd need the right monetary offer against the right opponent at a time when he is willing to put himself through the rigors of training. It would all have to mean something and the day where it could may never come. Or maybe it will. For admirers of Penn, it's frustrating to live in limbo, but he simply doesn't know if and when he'll ever change his mind. Until something acts as a catalyst for change, he's content to enjoy his life away from professional competition.
Yet, that doesn't mean Penn doesn't miss it or doesn't want more. He still dreams and dreams big when it comes to accomplishing goals in the sport. A fire still burns within the Hawaiian fighter.
After all, Penn told Helwani he still has unfinished business in the Octagon.
"You have dreams and aspirations to what you can accomplish. You never know what's going to be reality at the end of the day. No, I don't feel like I've done enough. I'd love to become a world champion again. I'm sure every fighter out there, that's all they think about all the time."
"I'd love to - without a doubt - be a world champion again," Penn said.