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Ahead of UFC comeback, B.J. Penn reflects on a suddenly unfamiliar MMA landscape

Gallery Photo: UFC 175 Press Conference Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When one talks about B.J. Penn, it helps to specify which version of “The Prodigy” they mean.

There was the fire-breathing B.J. Penn from the early days, the take-no-prisoners wunderkind who defied logic and weight classes and implausibly topped himself with every single fight. Then there was B.J. the Legend, the motivated two-division champion who nursed the lightweight class back to health and supped from the blood of his slaughtered enemies. That B.J. Penn was one of the greatest to ever do it. And then came the afterword, the losses and the retirements, and the somber funeral march that accompanied his exit in the summer of 2014.

Now here we are in 2017 and B.J. Penn is back, because of course B.J. Penn is back. This is who he is and even he will tell you that it was only a matter of time.

But while past comebacks have brought more of the same, Penn returns in 2017 to a world distinctly alien from the one he left — one transformed by the boogeyman of USADA, by the words of an Irishman and the era of the money fight, by the night WME-IMG affixed an astonishing price to a once-scrounging sport.

So much has changed in just two short years that it’s staggering, even for a man with nearly two decades logged in the game. And as Penn readies for his comeback fight against Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 103, he can’t help but marvel at how oddly foreign these surroundings feel.

“I mean, just look at the hotel you’re sitting in. It doesn’t look like the MGM, does it? It’s definitely the end of an era,” Penn said to MMA Fighting ahead of Sunday night. “There’s nothing nobody can do. There’s nothing Dana (White) can do, and there’s nothing anybody can do. It’s new owners. It’s a trip, man. It’s really a trip. I don’t know, I don’t get caught up too much into it, but I realize we’re driving down a different street now, no doubt.

“When the Fertittas left, I was like, oh man, this is a monster with no head now. This is just going to be — the UFC is a monster with no head. The Fertittas had so much heart and they really were sympathetic to the fighters at the time. You could talk to them and everything. And Wall Street took over Main Street. It’s a different time now.”

The truth is that Penn improbably outlasted his contemporaries, many of whom were in place as recent as his ill-fated swan song against Frankie Edgar. Joe Silva is gone, as is Mike Goldberg. Stitch Duran and Burt Watson are Octagon pariahs, and even several of the old guard of fighters, the Urijah Fabers and Miesha Tates and Dan Hendersons, have decided to call it a day.

In their place, a new crop of faces has emerged to repopulate the ranks, and with them have come new, more modern sensibilities and mentalities — mentalities that far differ from the just scrap mantra that made Penn into an early star.

“Especially today, with all of the fans, there’s a new star created every week,” Penn said. “One guy gets a knockout and you see his name all over the internet and you hear it everywhere. That’s not how it was. Before, you had to get like 10 knockouts to get some kind of credit, you know? There’s just a new guy created every different week. One guy, he wins one fight with a spinning kick and everybody loves him. That’s just the game, that’s what it is today.

“These guys go and beat the champion who was champion for a long time, and then they start to say, ‘yeah, I want the money fight, this and that.’ Like, why don’t you make yourself the money fight? What is this? Is everybody trying to piggyback off the other guy? Go knockout 20 guys and then everybody will say you’re the money fight. It just blows me away. It’s such a different mentality. I mean, you’ve got people fighting today who want to be on Instagram. You’ve got people fighting today who want to get some money fights, and it’s like, what?

“Is it some kind of entitlement?” Penn continued. “I don’t know what causes it. I don’t know if it’s just the nature of the world that we live in, in 2017.

“It just blows me away, these guys. I guess it’s just a different era though. Different times. Some people want to get one-million followers today, and back in the day it was just, ‘oh, I want to be the toughest man on the planet.’ I think that the times changed. You’ve got to go with them, I guess.”

In a vacuum, it may sound as if Penn is speaking like the old curmudgeon, the retiree yelling from his rocking chair for these damn kids to get off his lawn. And maybe there’s a little bit of truth to that. The fight game will always be his first love, but in a time where champions are calling out non-contenders and everyone and their mother are picking and choosing for the biggest possible pay-per-view paydays, regardless of divisional logic, Penn simply can’t relate.

So when he see fighters like Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway, those who live by the old creed of onto the next, Penn is proud to know that the spirit of his era is still alive in some small way.

“Max is a perfect example of a guy who just went in there and did his fights, did what he had to do, and got his way to the belt,” Penn said. “That’s exactly it, much different than a lot of the other guys out there. Much different.

“It’s amazing what Max Holloway did. And even more amazing than him winning the title is his 10-fight win streak. In the UFC, that is very, very hard to do, so just hats off to him. Hats off to him for what he’s accomplished. And I’ve always said it, that there’s going to be a ton of UFC champions from Hawaii and they’re not going to stop coming. It’s just going to keep going.”

Despite his late-career struggles, Penn remains a cult hero among many MMA circles for good reasons. He was a trailblazer for the lightweight division and he embraced the wilder side of the game much more so than many of his peers. What other lighter weight fighters were out there taking heavyweight fights against future UFC champions? There is a reason Penn has double-digit losses on his record and is still so revered.

Even to this day, flashes of Penn’s influence can still be felt at the upper ranks of the game. One has to look no further than Conor McGregor, the superstar Irishman who accomplished the very thing that forever eluded Penn when he transcended weight classes and became the first-ever simultaneous two-division UFC champion at UFC 205. Even Penn was blown away by that feat — though as Penn’s moment of truth against Rodriguez approaches, he shrugs off any notion that his influence played a part in helping to turn the lightweight division into the behemoth that it is today.

“That was just amazing. That was amazing how Conor wiped Eddie out,” Penn said. “That’s it, the guys today, they’re very good, man. You better be ready. The styles are changing. People are doing all these spin kicks and everybody has their own one special move that they’ve got. So, it is amazing, and I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘oh, it’s all because of me.’ No, no, no. You guys went and put in the work.

“It’s different game though, I’ve got to say. I never studied martial arts until I was 17, and now you’ve got five-year-old kids already saying they want to be the UFC champion. So it is, it’s just a really different game than it used to be. And it’s fun for me to see.”

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