When B.J. Penn announced his comeback last January, he confidently stated that his goal was to be UFC featherweight champion. He was in this for the long haul, Penn promised, and this third and final resurgence wasn’t just a one-off. He was going to ride this sucker until the wheels fell off, regardless of what that meant.
Much has happened to the 38-year-old Hall of Famer in the 12 months since. Three different opponent changes and a minor USADA run-in effectively turned what should’ve been a comfortable return against a beatable foe into an uncomfortable date with a demon of an up-and-comer. But regardless of how things have played out, Penn says his goals haven’t changed. He still fully intends his showdown against Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 103 to be his first step towards UFC gold.
“My whole goal right now is to just get that third world title,” Penn told MMA Fighting ahead of his headlining fight on Sunday night. “And then we’ll see. If it takes a little while, maybe we walk away. If we get it quick, then maybe we go to 155. I don’t know. I don’t know, but I know … I’m in here to fight and I’m going to win on Sunday, and you’re going to see me again quick after this, for sure.”
While this is not Penn’s first emergence from retirement, it certainly is one that “The Prodigy” seems to have taken with uncommon seriousness.
Under the tutelage of Greg Jackson at Jackson-Winkeljohn, Penn dove right back into the shark tank upon making his announcement, booking a fight against Dennis Siver on the undercard of UFC 197 immediately after things went official. Penn reasoned that he and Jackson had been hitting it off, and the two had worked diligently to revamp his game. He was ready to show the world the new B.J. Penn.
But then April became June, and June became October; Siver became Cole Miller, and Cole Miller became Ricardo Lamas; and suddenly his impromptu comeback stretched into the new year.
Looking back, Penn admits that the process was extremely frustrating at times. But now that fight week is at last upon him, the former two-division UFC champion is thankful for the way things worked out.
“At first, I was burned out,” Penn admitted. “It was burning me out. I was wondering what was going on. But as we sit here today, I’m very glad that I had all this time to prepare. You know what? I would’ve been rushing it to come back (in April). After taking two years off, two solid years off from the gym — I didn’t even walk into the gym once for those two years. So after taking that time off, I was probably rushing to get back. But I guess the world had different plans. And here I am a year later, and I’m a year more prepared. So I believe that it all worked to my benefit.”
There is no doubt that Penn remains one of the most legendary figures to ever compete in the sport’s lower weight classes. In his heyday, “The Prodigy” was the biggest draw ever seen in the lightweight division, largely spearheading the return of the weight class in the UFC by himself. Even years after his grandest run, Penn still holds the record for most consecutive UFC title defenses in the history of 155 pounds.
But the stark fact remains that this is not his first attempt at a post-retirement reinvention.
Back in 2012, Penn returned from the sidelines to fight Rory MacDonald at 170 pounds. A year-and-a-half later, he emerged from another hiatus to challenge Frankie Edgar down at 145 pounds. Both attempts yielded disastrous results, but Penn is taking another crack at 145 pounds at UFC Fight Night 103. And with a year of preparation under his belt, as well as the experience of having made the cut to featherweight once before, Penn is confident that, for the first time in a long time, he has given himself the best chance to succeed.
“I’m more disciplined,” Penn said. “Right now I’m 153 pounds and just hanging out. I’ve been walking around for the last two months at 156. I’ve been under 160 all year though, so it’s been good. I like being lean. Man, some people were sending me some old pictures last night, and man, I was heavy. Back in my middleweight days and stuff. But yeah, I’m enjoying it. I’ve enjoyed being in shape this year.”
Penn’s ironclad confidence notwithstanding, it is hard to overlook the reality that more than six years have passed since this living legend last tasted victory in a cagefight. Heck, nearly five have passed since Penn even looked relatively competitive.
That all leads back to the question Penn has faced countless times since this final journey started: Why come back? Why put yourself through all of this pain and stress? What is all of this for? Penn admits he doesn’t have much of a good answer to those questions, other than the fact that this is just who he is and this is just what he does. That, and the fact that he just couldn’t live with himself if he let Father Time pass him by without at least giving it one last good try.
“What’s still driving me is I want to just keep getting better,” Penn said. “I love martial arts. I love everything about it. Definitely, the third title is also 100 percent driving me — getting those three titles in three different weight classes, that would just be an awesome accomplishment for myself, and then I could probably get some sleep at night. That is my driving factor.
“But man, it’s more than that. I just love it. I love fighting. I love the competition. I love the struggle. That’s what it is, man. It’s a struggle, and I love it.”