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A B.J. Penn victory over Yair Rodriguez would be like a reunion to simpler times

Gallery Photo: TUF 19 Finale Weigh-in Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Back in 2011, when Tito Ortiz broke a nearly five-year slumber by defeating the heavily favored “current” fighter Ryan Bader at UFC 132, it was as if an underground nation of Titoheads had been given new life. The lid came off the MGM Grand Garden Arena that night as Ortiz — exalted and full of old reminders — went into his grave-digging motion over Bader’s bewildered body.

The collective gasp to all onlookers at that moment, in the arena or at home, went like this: “Holy f*cking sh*tballs! He’s back!” (It lasted until UFC 133, when Tito lost to Rashad Evans, rendering the whole thing a fun hallucination).

That’s kind of the situation B.J. Penn finds himself in heading into Sunday night’s fight with Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 103. Penn has emerged victorious in a professional MMA bout just once since 2010, and that was a 23-second KO of Matt Hughes at UFC 123. Through that time a nation of Pennheads have been held in check. Waiting. Waiting for the moment they can come back to life. Waiting to live through Penn vicariously as he licks the blood of his gloves. Waiting for a truth they suspect is back there somewhere, that the man who opened a bloody northbound crevasse on Diego Sanchez’s forehead would one day return to them, his fingers wagging at the detractors.

Like Ortiz, Penn is one of the pioneers of the game, and his faithful remains ever so faithful. Perhaps more so than any other fighter, fans stick with him. In some ways, Penn fandom is the heartbeat of MMA. Without blushing (or apologizing), Penn fans embrace all of its organic properties. They are sadistic, artistic, and eccentrically fight-centric.

As in, to hell with metaphoric ball sports — fighting is the realest, and Penn embodies what’s real. In that way, he is a fight game essence. And in that that way, it’s not only Penn that’s being pulled for, but the thing he has grown to define.

No, if Penn takes out the 24-year-old Rodriguez, it’ll be jailbreak. What a refreshing story that would make. Penn, who has been booked in numerous comeback fights over the last year, would instantaneously jump back into a familiar stardom, and with him the idea that all things are possible. The Frankie Edgar losses, the Rory MacDonald reckoning, the Jon Fitch draw, the thing with Nick Diaz…they’d all turn into red herrings. Like Ortiz, Penn could point to the fog of war. Instead of Tito pointing out his injuries in great detail (fusion of the C5-C6 vertebrae), Penn could cite burn out, contentment, a general malaise, Greg Jackson, Jason Parillo, whatever.

Right about now people would believe him, because in the tumultuous modern day UFC people want to believe in something.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, welcoming back the 38-year-old Penn to the fold — even after all his travails both in and out of the cage. He stood tallest in MMA at a time when the sport was emerging into the feel-good light of the boom period. It was a simpler time when Penn was fighting Georges St-Pierre at UFC 58, or when he was picking apart Sean Sherk at UFC 84. There weren’t so many sidelines going into the fights. The associations, USADA, Reebok, WME-IMG. Focus was on the fight itself.

And Penn, for his part, was the original anywhere/anytimer.

He’s meeting Rodriguez as a featherweight, a slightly more focalized pursuit in his twilight years, this development of pigeonholing himself through diet — but back in the day, he fought anywhere from lightweight to light heavyweight. He would’ve just as happily fought heavyweight if commissions hadn’t enforced such civilized rules. That’s just who Penn is.

The UFC of the now must seem like one of precious cargo to his way of thinking. Conor McGregor has turned into a complication that may never be fixed, having created three interim title fights all on his own and now entertaining a crossover bout with boxing’s Floyd Mayweather (which would affix his pay to a point of no return to the usual pay structures of MMA). Ronda Rousey doesn’t lose well, which is unfortunate for somebody with two losses in a row to overcome. The Diaz brothers, Nick and Nate, aren’t exactly dying to get back in the cage (unless there’s a nice trail of zeroes on the check stub).

So many conditions, so much convolution.

And here comes B.J., yet again. Today’s Penn is more enigma than prodigy. He wants to return from a humiliating third loss to Edgar, and not just prove he’s still got it, but to take the game again by storm. He wants to win titles, and just lay some waste among the new thinkers, the selective, the fighter awares. He wants to restore some feeling of fighting’s more vital center. He’s not saying it, but you get the sense that’s what he’s thinking. That’s who he is. He’s the zeitgeist of the mid-aughts, straining again the day.

Rodriguez should be able to walk through Penn. He’s young and brimming with promise, a star in the making. It would be a major upset for Penn to turn the tables on him. It looks bad on paper. There’s no evidence to suggest that Penn belongs in the same cage with Rodriguez in 2017, nor to believe this will be a gateway to his revival.

But holy sh*tballs, in the area of belief, imagine if it is?

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