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B.J. Penn's quest to regain lost stature steals 'Road to the Octagon' show

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

During Sunday's "Road to the Octagon" special on FOX, you immediately get hit with the phrase, "The greatest fight card ever on network television."

It's a bold statement. But on paper, the fifth installment of UFC on FOX on Saturday night in Seattle does look to be the deepest. You can never predict a fight show. Some of the best on paper disappoint. Sometimes shows that looks like a throwaway ends up like a blow away. And it's certainly possible that one of the televised fights may disappoint, but it's almost inconceivable this lineup could flop when it comes to action.

In many ways, the show is almost the perfect network television card for a promotion that still puts its biggest events on pay-per-view. The four fights all promise fireworks. There is a lightweight championship fight with Ben Henderson defending his title against Nate Diaz that may not do big numbers if it was on pay-per-view, but features two men who have had a combined nine best fight bonuses in their respective careers.

Besides Diaz in his quest to be champion, two other fights, Alexander Gustafsson and Rory MacDonald have the chance on a major stage to stamp their names as future superstars when they face two of the best fighters of the past decade in Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and B.J. Penn, will also take place.

Besides the lineup, there are a few other differences between this and the two most recent events that did the lowest ratings ever for MMA on network television. The most obvious is the season. This show brings the power of the NFL as a promotional tool. Nothing is going to bring as many young male sports fans to the table, the target group to be potential MMA fans. In addition, the network has a promotion called "Fight Week on Fox." Every night in prime time airing clips of their regular shows with some form of combustible elements, all targeting Saturday night.

Although it is not the main event, nor even listed as the No. 2 fight, the most compelling narrative of the show features arguably the biggest name fighter to compete on a FOX show to date in Penn. Even with his struggles the past few years, Penn is a probable Hall of Famer in the sport as one of two men to win UFC titles in two different weight classes, and he's the biggest lightweight star of all-time.

Penn's theme of the fight is regaining something lost. Years ago, many people talked of Penn in the category of Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture and maybe one or two others as one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.

"When you talk about the greatest fighters of all-time, you never hear my name anymore and I'm sick of it," said Penn. "I want to get back to the glory days."

But Penn, who turns 34 five days after the fight, comes in with a 16-8-2 record, and just one win in his last five outings. That's not quite as bad as it sounds. Due to the nature of being a headliner in UFC, Penn hasn't had anything resembling an easy fight in years, and the vast majority of his fights have been against men significantly bigger than he is.

But he also makes things harder on himself by still being in denial of why we now have weight classes.

Penn is not even a big lightweight by today's standards. Still, he was a former welterweight champion and moved up again after losing twice to Frankie Edgar, whose speed and stamina presented a stylistic issue that Penn wasn't able to overcome. But today, Edgar is no longer champion. Penn could walk back into the lightweight ranks, and just based on legacy and his name, be a few wins away from a title opportunity.

Few feel at this stage of the game he can be a top contender as a welterweight. Still, he asked to fight MacDonald, more than a decade younger, and a big enough welterweight that he has problems making the cut to 170. MacDonald also sports a 13-1 record, and is nearly a 3-to-1 favorite.

"It's about skill and technique," Penn insisted on a lesson he was taught as fact as a kid learning jiu-jitsu that is no longer a fact at the upper echelon of the sport.

But Penn grew up getting into his share of fights, both in and out of competition, with people much bigger than he was, and at that time based on pure talent, usually coming out on top.

"Of course the best athletes are at the top," Penn said. "He (MacDonald) thinks it's about size and strength. Martial arts is all about the small man beating the big men."

Worse, he hears people saying how MacDonald, at 23, is the sport's new prodigy. The word "prodigy," in MMA, for more than a decade, brings the instantaneous thought of Penn's name, and it hurts him to see it on someone else.

"It's hard to call him a prodigy because he has no technique," said Penn. "He's a bulldozer prodigy. I'm a cobra prodigy."

"B.J. was a prodigy before, but Rory is on the way up, and B.J. is going to be on the way down," said Penn's biggest career rival Georges St-Pierre.

The dichotomy presented is this. MacDonald is a quiet guy, who started training to fight as a young kid, made the move from British Columbia across country to Montreal, to train with Canada's best fighters at the Tristar gym. His life for years has consisted of training and fighting. He noted, as a difference, he's got no family distractions or drama.

Penn remains in the same environment in Hilo that he's spent his whole life in, with family near. As you see his daughter's fourth birthday party during the FOX special, it's very clear that as much as Penn craves the stature everyone expected him to have, it can no longer be his all-encompassing dream or his biggest priority.

While his daughter was running around in the background, he got emotional during the interview thinking about how the first four years of her life were over, and he missed a year of it in total by being away for eight different trainings camps. He's also 3-4-1 during that period.

"All I want is to be known as the greatest," he said. "Five years ago, if you talked about who is the greatest, my name would be in the conversation. At 24, I was the best lightweight in the world. At 25, I was the best lightweight and the best welterweight in the world."

MacDonald, while not facing anywhere near the same level of competition, has run through everyone with the exception of a hiccup against top contender Carlos Condit. And he was throwing Condit around for two rounds at the age of 20 before losing the fight in the third.

MacDonald said that he used to have fighting heroes growing up, insinuating Penn would have at one time been on the list. But no more.

"He's just another fighter on the way to losing," said MacDonald.

The obvious advantage of this show being on FOX, even airing on a Sunday afternoon, is that three times as many eyeballs will likely see it as if it was on FX, and probably 30 or more times as if it was on Fuel.

The presentation was based on giving equal time to the big three fights, even if it was the Penn fight that stole the show.

Because of being 6-foot-5, and a good striker, some feel Gustafsson is the strongest potential matchup at light heavyweight for Jon Jones. The Rua fight is a great test, because Jones' size and length resulted in a one-sided beating for the former light heavyweight king.

"I want to be the top of the food chain, otherwise I can do something else if I'm not," he said. "I'm not happy to be No. 2."

Most shows of this nature, when it comes to boxing, show the training side and the lifestyle side of rich, famous celebrity-like fighters.

With headliners Henderson and Diaz, while it was shown the humble beginnings each came from, growing up largely without a father and a mother who struggled to earn enough money to feed the family. But there's hardly the aura or trappings of wealth for two men who have similar beginnings in life but very different attitudes.

Henderson is shown often surrounded by his mother, Song Henderson, while in Seattle doing promotional work for the show. His mother watches a DVD of the night Benson won the lightweight title every morning. She grew up in South Korea, came to the U.S. without knowing the language and when his father disappeared, she had to make things work, and made her living owning a small convenience store. Just standing in the background without saying a word, she has a camera presence that makes her almost impossible not to like. He got his work ethic from her.
And in a roundabout way, Henderson's value structure came by learning what not to do from his long-gone father.

"A lot of the decisions he took, I didn't want to make," said Benson Henderson. "I never tasted alcohol. I never smoked cigarettes. I never smoked weed. And I never took any drugs."

But Diaz, a nickname almost synonymous with weed in fighting circles because of brother Nick, trains every bit as hard, and is also very disciplined, eating largely a vegan diet before his fights.

Unlike most in the sport, Diaz didn't choose his path. He was Nick's younger brother, and got drafted into being a sparring partner while a young teenager. In joining with Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields as four guys who grew up together in the sport, Nate was always the young kid of the Scrap pack, while the other three became international stars. But has a chance to become the first of the crew to obtain UFC gold.

"It was kind of a given," Diaz said about getting into the sport. "It wasn't like I got into it because it was a trendy thing like most of these people who sign up to fight. I never signed up for fighting, you know what I'm saying."