UFC on FOX 5: The Legends Have the Most to Lose

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2012

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27:  BJ Penn of the USA walks into the arena before the start of his welterweight bout agains John Fitch of the USA as part of UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

UFC on FOX: Henderson vs. Diaz is, undeniably, the best thing to happen to MMA on free television. Ever. Period.

There has never been a show so stacked with talent, meaningful fights and guys who are absolutely going to show people what the UFC offers when it’s at its best.

If this event was a pay-per-view, fans would be salivating at the prospect of handing over $60 to Dana White and his chums to watch it. The fact that it’s on free television is almost too much for a man to comprehend.

Comprehend they will though, when fists start flying and leather starts landing come Saturday night in Seattle.

Over the course of the network program (which will likely lap FOX’s usual Saturday staple Cops in viewership, even if it can only offer a comparable amount of chaotic violence), two of the most revered legends in the history of MMA will walk to the Octagon.

Shogun Rua will fight Alexander Gustafsson in the co-main event, and before him, BJ Penn will return from retirement to try his luck against up-and-comer Rory MacDonald.

And both men have so, so much to lose, it’s not even funny.

For Rua, it’s more or less the same game he’s had to play since he was aged into near irrelevancy in his title loss to Jon Jones. Jones demolished him, to the point that many wondered if he was done as a contender literally overnight—as in, he woke up on Saturday as the best light heavyweight alive, and woke up Sunday with people eulogizing his career.

Since then, he’s had to face down the reality that at 31, people think he’s on the downside of his career. He’s 2-1 since the Jones loss, beating Forrest Griffin and Brandon Vera while suffering a narrow defeat to Dan Henderson in the best fight most people have ever seen, but he’s been getting by on durability a lot of the time.

Henderson couldn’t finish him and he gutted it out against Vera, but since Griffin (a guy a lot of people seem to be looking good against these days), he’s been unspectacular. A loss of Gustafsson, the man many believe to be the last curious test for Jones in the title picture, and people will truly claim Shogun to be toast at 205.

And only moments before the world finds out whether or not Rua is still a threat to recapture his former glory? Well, that time will be spent finding out if the most enigmatic man the UFC has ever promoted is still great, still worthy of his billing, still the legend people once thought he was destined to be.

BJ Penn has been the ultimate warrior in his career. He has fought anyone and still will fight anyone. He doesn’t like to train, hates being in shape, but boy, does he like to fight.

That’s why he came back. To fight. Particularly, to fight Rory MacDonald, a rising star who’s penchant for beating people up has led to a penchant for running his mouth.

Make no mistake, this fight is a nightmare matchup for Penn. That’s part of his appeal, though: He’s never asked for it easy. He’s a natural lightweight who could probably make 145 if he committed to it, but he’s fighting a welterweight who could very well be a middleweight before 2014.

That bruising welterweight said some things about Penn, mostly about his sizable paunch and year-long layoff, and the Hawaiian decided he’d like to punch MacDonald in the face for it.

It’s a big risk to walk off the streets of Hilo and pick a cage fight with a guy that no one else in the division is thrilled about exchanging punches with. But it’s a risk Penn is taking, and he’s taking it with the reckless enthusiasm of the kid from a decade ago who knew only how to “just scrap.”

He’s—get this—in shape. He looks mean, like he wants to hurt MacDonald outside of a bar just as much as he would want to inside the confines of a regulated athletic contest. He’s talking about his legacy, his greatness, and there’s a genuine fire in him that hasn’t been there for a long, long time.

No one has the capacity to get people riled up like BJ Penn, and he’s done it so many times before with poor showings that it shouldn’t still work. But it does. People want to see him fight, and they want to believe that he’s really back this time.

And so it goes that there are two legends on UFC on FOX this weekend that have more to lose than anyone else. Yes, Benson Henderson could conceivably lose his title, but that’s a thing that can be recaptured, especially when you’re on the south side of 30.

A legacy though? A legacy can never be recaptured. Once it’s lost, it’s gone forever. Nobody wants to be the guy who held on too long or the guy who might never have been what everyone thought he was, all because of a loss or two to the best young guys out there.

That’s what’s at stake for Shogun Rua and BJ Penn on Saturday night. Who needs a gold belt?