UFC: Breaking Down B.J. Penn's Possible Lightweight Return

Duane FinleyContributor IJune 7, 2013

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 14: BJ Penn speaks to the media during a UFC 127 Press Conference at Star City on December 14, 2010 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Mark Nolan/Getty Images

There was a time when B.J. Penn was considered the greatest lightweight fighter on the planet.

The former two-divisional champion dropped his welterweight ambitions and committed himself to dominating the 155-pound jungle where—over the course of a two-year span—"The Prodigy" battered and shredded his way through the best competition the lightweight division had to offer.

The proud Hawaiian's historic run was ultimately brought to an end due to a series of bouts with perpetual underdog Frankie Edgar. "The Answer" edged out Penn in a close decision at UFC 112, then turned around and thoroughly cleared the air of any doubt that lingered from their tilt in Abu Dhabi by steam rolling the legend in their rematch at UFC 118.

Following the second loss to Edgar, Penn returned to the welterweight division, where he experienced mixed results. Where the former champion once dominated the opposition, suddenly the 34-year-old looked every bit his age as he was tagged up in matches with former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz and surging Canadian upstart Rory MacDonald. 

In the aftermath of his loss to MacDonald at UFC on Fox 5 last December, Penn appeared to be hovering close to putting the retirement stamp on his storied career. While the Hilo-based fighter never fully committed to hanging up the gloves once and for all, the manner in which he was being defeated fueled the speculation of his days inside the cage coming to an end.

But the tides of Penn's career could be shifting once again.

This past Tuesday, on Fuel TV's UFC Tonight, Ariel Helwani reported that Penn is not only considering a return to the Octagon but is also contemplating making that return at 155-pounds. While Penn coming back to the lightweight fold—or at all for that matter—is far from concrete, the idea of the former champion jumping back into the chaotic waters of the lightweight division certainly creates a few interesting scenarios.

The division Penn once ruled has taken on a much different look in his absence. Mainly, the fighters who are currently competing at 155-pounds are physically larger than when Penn was champion. The majority of the top 10 ranked fighters in the lightweight division are cutting down from the 180-190 pounds range to make the required weight limit. 

Throughout his career, Penn has struggled against opponents who were physically larger and much stronger. While the future "Hall of Famer" has a strong boxing skill set, when the opposition smothers him and takes his conditioning to task, Penn has typically come out on the business end of things.

Nutrition guru Mike Dolce shared his thoughts on Twitter regarding how Penn would size up with the current crop of lightweight contenders.

When you look at Penn's record over the past three years (1-4-1), there are certainly signs that point to his career being on the downturn. On the other hand, Penn's natural toughness and incredibly gifted skill set make him a dangerous opponent for anyone who stands across the Octagon from him. But even with that being the case, the former lightweight king making another championship run in what has become one of the most competitive divisions under the UFC banner seems highly improbable. 

So why would Penn—a fighter whose heart isn't fully invested in the fight and whose bank account isn't suffering—jump back into ultra-competitive waters? Only Penn would know the reason to make that decision. Then again, there is no definitive proof returning to the Octagon is a choice he is going to make. 

But if a comeback is something Penn decides to do, there is also no shortage of solid matchups waiting for him. Former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez has been looking to fight Penn for several years and a showdown with "El Nino" would make sense in the bigger picture. Melendez is coming off a razor-thin split-decision loss to Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7, and trading leather with "Baby Jay" would be a scrap fight fans could get behind.

While facing an opponent who carries a solid name in the sport would be the most likely option for Penn to choose, stepping into the cage with a fighter who is making his way up is also another avenue to consider.

Shortly after the news of Penn's possible return hit MMA headlines, undefeated 24-year-old Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov took to Twitter to let the UFC know he would like to welcome Penn back to the fold. "The Eagle" has won all four of his showings under the UFC banner and a fight with Penn would hold tremendous upside for the surging contender.

That being said, while the potential fight poses high reward for Nurmagomedov, there is very little to gain on Penn's side of things. This makes a potential bout with the AKA-trained fighter unlikely, but certainly something the UFC should consider.

In a weight class as stacked as the lightweight division, there are plenty of fights for Penn to take. Both Gray Maynard and Jim Miller would make for exciting tussles, but it's difficult to find a situation where the risk would equal the reward for Penn in the grand scheme of things.

Then again, there is always the chance that he doesn't return. Penn has a stack of accomplishments to his credit and has already left his mark on the sport. Choking out a blood-soaked Joe Stevenson, crumbling Sean Sherk with a flying knee and beating Diego Sanchez so badly that he decided to change his nickname after UFC 107 and start over at welterweight, Penn has plenty to hang his hat upon.

But walking away from the spotlight is a difficult decision for a fighter to make, especially one as beloved as B.J. Penn. And with the former champion talking about giving it another go at lightweight, the situation is definitely something to keep an eye on.