Long before there was ‘Sea Level Cain' or ‘TRT Vitor,' there was ‘Motivated B.J. Penn.'
While most MMA memes are self-explanatory, the idea of Motivated Penn was always a bit more abstract. The B.J. Penn who ripped grown men to shreds then lapped up the blood of his enemies? That was motivated Penn. That was the same Penn who became a two-division UFC champion, the genuine MMA terror who excelled in every discipline of the game. Whereas, the B.J. Penn who got the bejesus beaten out of him into not one, but two retirements? Well, simply put, that was the unmotivated Penn.
The nickname became somewhat of a catch-all for fans to jokingly dismiss a bad performance. It didn't help that towards the end of Penn's run, there were plenty of bad performances to dismiss.
Of course, Penn never actually lacked the motivation to not get his face smashed in. The 37-year-old Hall of Famer, who is once again staring down the barrel of another comeback, is clear about that. But still, there grew to be some truth to the nickname, because in retrospect, Penn realizes that he never truly put himself in the best position to succeed -- which is exactly why Penn sought out Greg Jackson, to help squeeze the last few drops from an already legendary career before it was too late.
"You know what? When I first got here, I'll be the first to tell you, I wasn't freaking doing hot," Penn said Monday on The MMA Hour from Albuquerque's Jackson-Winkeljohn Gym. "I was freaking getting taken down left and right, grounded and pounded. I was getting beat up on my feet, kicked, punched. But you know what? Man, Greg Jackson, that guy is the real (deal). You can see all of the other great trainers that he has, but me and him, somehow we clicked, man. Me and this guy clicked. We always did."
Penn first arrived in Albuquerque in January. At the time, he was 18 months retired and still stewing about the dismal decline that ended his career.
Penn's last fight, an embarrassing 2014 loss at the hands of Frankie Edgar, left zero doubt in the minds of many that the former UFC champion was a shot fighter. Penn knew the only way the MMA world would sign off on another comeback is if he left the cozy confines of Hawaii for outside help, and so he texted Jackson. So far, the marriage has proven to be a good fit.
"The first thing when I got here, [Jackson] goes, ‘B.J., this is the fun part. You're excited. Everything.' This is in January," Penn said. "And then he goes, ‘if you're going to do something no one else has ever done, you've gotta do something no one else ever did. Watch the paint dry in the hotel room. Sit there and just look at the wall, and just let thoughts replay over in your head thousands and thousands of times about what's going on, about everything.
"He's constantly preparing me for the next day. That's what I love about being here. And believe me, six months? I've never been to Albuquerque before. But you know what, I'm getting used to it. I'm definitely getting used to it. But, by the time this fight goes, I'll have six months with Greg Jackson, I'll feel a lot more confident. I was rushing in there. I was just trying to get my feet wet. It's been a while. But you know what, right now I'm ready."
Penn is expected to face Dennis Siver in a featherweight tilt on June 4 at UFC 199, though for now, the date is uncertain.
On Monday, the Hilo Police Department launched a second-degree sexual assault investigation into Penn stemming from allegations made by the girlfriend of a former employee of his website. The UFC previously launched its own internal investigation into the incident and found no substantiation for the allegations, paving the way for Penn to fight in the summer. Time will tell whether the Hilo Police Department lands on the same conclusion.
In the meantime, Penn is readying for one last run in the Octagon, and his goal is the same it always has been: win gold. As for the difference between this comeback and the last? Penn is resolute.
"Now, I think it's that I'm believing I'm prepared," Penn said. "All I know is that when I got to the gym, there's all these young kids and they're all so good. You don't know who you're even sparring with, and they're throwing at me, and you block one move and then they throw these spinning freakin' 20 different moves you've never seen in your life. I have to wake up and kind of realize, oh sh*t, sh*t did change, and this and this.
"But still, the foundation works. That's what me and Greg always talk about. ‘But the foundation always works, B.J.' He always wants to remind me of the structure. The structure of what's going on will always be the same. They'll always put new paint on it, whatever, but everything will always be the same."
Penn has already heard the calls of those of doubt what he is attempting to do. He isn't surprised when they come from fans who have already endured the heartache of watching a living legend repeatedly beaten into a gory pulp. But when the objections come from his fellow fighters, the same group who have gone through the same ups and downs and strove toward the same dreams as him? That's when Penn takes exception.
"I'll tell you what, there's a lot of people who don't want me to come back," Penn said. "Because if I come back with Greg Jackson, and I come back and get the belt, that's the worst thing they ever wanted to happen. They're just praying, please f**king stay retired. Please, when you come back, please look like sh*t. Please, because it doesn't fit with my world view of you coming back and being the champ right now. But you go and look at all these other guys and they're fighting everyday and they're still getting knocked out in the first round. No one ever knows what's going to happen in a fight, but you ever see me f**king get wiped out like f**king some of these guys get wiped out?
"They're even saying, ‘B.J. shouldn't come back,' and I'm like, you shouldn't even have started. You shouldn't even have started, buddy. You know what I mean? It's like, you're never going to get anywhere. Why'd you even start if you're going to sit there and tell me to not come back. I want to be so blunt they can smoke the truth, the same way they want to do that to me."
And so B.J. Penn is back, because that is what B.J. Penn does. Fighting is part of him, for better or worse.
So if the UFC wanted a motivated Penn, a version of Penn that walks among champions like Jon Jones and Holly Holm every day in practice, then that is exactly what it is going to get -- because the way Penn tells it, it's been a long, long time since he felt the way he does right now.
"I always say, I remember one time when I really, really wanted to fight," Penn said. "Like, f this, nobody in the whole world is going to beat me. (It) was the first time I ever beat Matt Hughes. That long ago. Maybe something died after that, but that's impossible because this is all we love to do. But, the motivation? I'm never motivated to get my ass kicked. I'm only motivated to beat somebody up. It's just, I don't know if it's just the motivation. Maybe it's prepared? Maybe the word they should use instead of Motivated Penn is Prepared Penn."