Safe to say the old B.J. Penn isn’t coming back, that he’s been replaced permanently by old B.J. Penn. Happens to us all, aging, yet for fighters the realization that time has moved on from the glorious was occurs in front of millions of people, standing in your underwear, twitching through delayed instincts at incoming shots that have already long since landed.
Penn had nothing for the 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez on Sunday night. Nothing at all.
In the same city that Julio César Chávez was forced to read the writing on the wall when he lost to Grover Wiley in his hundred-and-fifteenth fight, so too did the former “Prodigy.” And it wasn’t that “El Pantera” scored one for the new school of mixed martial artists by taking Penn apart down to the atoms, as most people viewed Penn as just a bunch of rickety floorboards that existed in a state of near-collapse anyway — it was that Penn couldn’t stop the kicks, the speed, nor the closing credits from rolling over his career.
Penn spent two-and-a-half years composing one last love letter to fighting, and that cruel seductress went and changed her address.
Back in mid-2014, when he first dropped down to featherweight for his trilogy fight with Frankie Edgar, Penn was already in his wind-up for one last Hail Mary. I saw him come to a realization that night in the somber post-fight press conference — also on a Sunday — that the game had passed him by. There was a finality to that realization, which choked up the room a bit. It was one of the more memorable moments I can recall, in how stark that realization was after all he’d accomplished.
Eh, in fighting retirement is nothing more than an impulsive idea to rail against. Penn was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame during that stage, and yet he couldn’t get the idea of the “comeback” out of his mind. Guess he had to find out for himself one last time.
Rodriguez did to Penn what Edgar did, only he did it through a barrage of designer kicks and speed components, rapid sniper angles and ghoulish lengths — all the stuff that never seemed a wise thing for Penn to try himself against to begin with. What would have happened if Penn had fought Dennis Siver, whom the UFC originally booked for his port of re-entry a year ago? We’ll never know. But you get the feeling that even a German accordion like Siver might have delivered the same news in a different way.
Namely, that Penn can’t do it anymore.
That’s one emphatic realization that came out of Sunday night. Yet there was another, too — and perhaps this is the real story.
MMA might have discovered its own version of Julio César Chávez in the process. Coming in, Rodriguez had already begun to flex in the lead-up to the fight with Penn on the microphone, yet he made the most of his spotlight by putting the dog years on a legend. As one of the very few Mexican-born fighters for the UFC to market, Rodriguez has a country to rally behind him, and a hypnotic style to compel a nation to do so — much like Conor McGregor with Ireland. There just aren’t that many prospects with that kind of upside.
At 24 years old, Rodriguez has emerged as a radar darling in the same general sense as McGregor did circa 2013, in part because he’s already signing off on fights in his own unique way (watch that fight with Alex Caceres again; it was a mix of roulette, performance art and Wachowski-like mind manipulation). For him it’s the multitude of kicks that can spring from just about any look he gives you, and in any form. If anybody was tailor-made to get Mexico aboard, to truly convert the traditionalists from boxing to the broader realm of the mixed martial arts, it’s Rodriguez.
He’s young, but he’s got the makings to be a star in the cage. He proved that versus Penn, the old guard representative who never intended to be a springboard for anybody, yet ended up being just that. One last fight became somebody else’s first big statement. That’s the fight game, where graceful exits are rare, and its entrances onto the scene never so grand.
Sunday night was a very clear reminder of both.