Now that B.J. Penn finally has a date and a name, the wheels are slowing rolling into motion for his return.
The former two-division UFC champion, who last year was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, is scheduled to fight Dennis Siver on June 4 at UFC 199. The news marks the end of an 18-month retirement for Penn and the beginning of one last hurrah towards UFC gold under the guidance of head coach Greg Jackson. And if Monday was any indication, Penn couldn't be more excited.
"The way everything worked out, I don't know what made me pick up that phone," Penn said on The MMA Hour. "I called Rich (Chou) from Bellator. I called the matchmaker of Bellator, and I was like, ‘Rich, what's Greg Jackson's number?' He just gave me the number. I texted him and he texted me back right away, and I think he knew already where I was. He knew. I mean, this is our honor. This is our honor. I want to come back. I want to make a living. Of course, I want to make a living. But this is our honor. This is our f**king honor, and I wouldn't want anybody else but Greg Jackson behind me. Nobody is going to out-crazy me and f**king Greg Jackson."
Nearly three months have passed since Penn announced his intentions to return to the sport. However, the ride has been anything but easy.
Penn initially hoped to return in March at UFC 197. Those plans were scrapped once allegations of sexual assault against Penn arose from a former employee of the fighter's website, however an independent investigation launched by the UFC found no substantiation for the claims, paving the way for Penn to ultimately be reinstated.
"It put me on the backburner for a little while," Penn said. "That definitely hurt my heart. I've got kids, I've got two baby daughters, and of course something like that is going to hurt your heart. People know who I am and what you see is what you get with me. I'm just a family man, I've got two kids, and you know, that's it. I wish I could get into more, but I'm sure my lawyers wouldn't appreciate that.
"I'm just very glad that the UFC did their investigation with an outside company, and I'm just very glad it's done. That's as much as I can say. I'm very glad it's done. I'm very disappointed in how everything happened between me and my former employee. But besides that, I'm very glad that I get a chance to get back in the Octagon."
For the 37-year-old Penn, that journey back to prominence begins this summer against Siver.
While Siver is a game opponent, he also represents a steep departure from the level of fighter Penn is used to facing. The Russian-German kickboxer has won just one of his last five bouts, and is the amazingly the only UFC opponent Penn has faced since 2002 to have not vied for a championship inside the Octagon.
"He's just a guy, and a tough guy at that," Penn said. "That's what Dennis represents for us right now.
"In no way is this an easy fight. In no way. Dennis Siver, he's a tough guy. They feel that this is a fight they want me to fight coming back first. I feel comfortable with their decision. [Jackson] hasn't steered me wrong and I've been saying it, man -- Greg Jackson's got my back. He's never let me slip, because if I slip, then I'm slipping, right?"
Of course, it is no secret that despite the mountain of accolades Penn has accumulated throughout his decorated career, his recent résumé isn't much prettier than his opponent's.
In his heyday, Penn was considered to be one of the pound-for-pound most talented fighters in the sport. The fact that Penn has legitimate claim to being called the greatest lightweight to ever compete, despite his late-career struggles, is just evidence of how extraordinary his rise was. But the truth still stands: Penn has won just once over his last seven contests, and has been beaten badly in his last three, culminating in the bloody 2014 loss to Frankie Edgar that sent Penn into a second retirement.
"F**k, [my record] said I haven't won a fight since 2010? Is that f**king true? Man, I've got to get on the f**king horse," Penn said, laughing. "I swear I've been winning a lot of fights in the gym, and maybe even some kind of self-defense, but you know what? Freaking, I've got to get a professional victory. I can't believe that, because training in the gym, I feel fine. I wish you could put Greg Jackson on the phone to blow my own horn and say, ‘hey, this mother**ker, he's on it. He's doing some good stuff.' But we'll have to let it play out."
One thing Penn does have going for him is that once he returns, he will return to a vastly different UFC than the one he left in 2014.
Gone are the days of wild west regulation, where failing a drug test was more akin to failing an IQ test than many would like to admit. Instead, the organization's partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has ushered in a new era of testing scrutiny, and Penn is happy to see it.
"I'm very excited with USADA in," Penn said. "They've got no IVs. I think this is my chance, man. I think this is my f**king chance, right here. This is my best chance, right now. I'm going to make a comeback. USADA era. No IV. Never used an IV. Never used PEDs. Now is the time. Now is the freaking time."
Penn knows his goals will be met by doubters, especially considering the grisly way his recent attempts at a comeback have ended. However he is confident the difference this time will be Jackson, a man widely considered to be one of the greatest minds in the sport.
If all goes well at UFC 199, Penn firmly believes a run towards the featherweight title will be within his grasp, even if he has to grind his way up the division's ladder to do it.
"I don't want to speak too soon," Penn said. "Me and Dana (White), we always get along. The guy has me given some title shots over the years. But I think I'm going to let Greg decide (when we fight for the belt), actually. I mean, the public and the public opinion and everybody, we might wipe out two guys and they might be like, ‘come on, man, fight the best guy!' But I think I'm just going to sit back and I'm going to say, ‘Greg, what do you think? When is the time?'
"I realize, as time goes on now, I'm in the gym and I'm seeing all these young kids, all these strong kids, and I'm like, yeah, it's true. The same for the people in the UFC -- you got more firepower than me. You got a bigger military than B.J. Penn now. But I'm going to control the engagement. I'm going to control every time we clash, and that is going to make the difference. That's going to make the f**king difference."