For nine months, B.J. Penn watched and waited from afar, patiently contemplating if he would ever step into the Octagon again.
The chances seemed bleak with the passage of time. Penn had already accomplished everything there was to accomplish in the UFC. He was a future Hall of Famer and—alongside Randy Couture—the only fighter in MMA history to hold a UFC title in two separate weight classes.
What else did he have to prove?
Besides, the landscape of the UFC had completely changed. Frankie Edgar, the man who defeated him for the lightweight title, was competing at featherweight and no longer a UFC champion.
The top fighters in the lightweight division were all new faces, and the welterweight division was still overrun by brutish wrestlers. There simply appeared to be no place for Penn, a 34-year-old legend on the downside of his career.
But then UFC President Dana White received a text message.
“B.J. Penn sends me a text that says, ‘Dana, I want to fight Ben Henderson.’ So I immediately pick up my phone and called him, and he doesn’t answer,” White said during an appearance on Fox Sports' Google+ Hangout.
For White, it was shocking enough that Penn wanted to continue fighting, but why would he call out Benson Henderson?
Initially, it didn’t make any sense, but the puzzle pieces slowly began falling into place when Penn returned White’s phone call.
White continued in the Google+ Hangout interview:
So B.J. calls me like 45 minutes later, and he’s like, "Hey Dana, I didn’t answer your phone call because I don’t want you to talk me out of this. I know how you are, I know what you’re going to say and you’re going to talk me out of it." I’m like, "You’re damn right I’m going to talk you out of it. I mean I just don’t get it."
Then he says, "The reason I want to fight Ben Henderson is because I believe if I beat Ben Henderson, you’ll give me a shot to fight Frankie Edgar." And I’m like, "Frankie Edgar?" And he goes, "Yeah, I want this Frankie Edgar fight worse than anything. Those two losses are the rock in my shoe. He should have never beat me. That guy can’t beat me."
For Penn, Edgar is the fighter who triggered the domino effect of his impending retirement.
Life before Edgar was like an alternate reality. Penn was widely recognized as a UFC champion and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Pundits of the sport even began insinuating that Penn was becoming bored with the competition at 155 pounds, and his reign would surpass that of Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre.
Then Edgar, an undersized lightweight from New Jersey, came along and proceeded to change the course of history. After one of the greatest lightweight runs ever, Penn’s quest for continued domination was thwarted by Edgar, the most unlikely of champions.
Despite Penn’s greatness, he was never able to match Edgar’s heart and resilience. Speed was also a major factor.
Reflecting on a lifetime full of regrets is a hard burden for any man to carry. Penn has accomplished everything in the UFC, but given his talent, it still doesn’t seem like enough.
“B.J. is one of these guys who I think is fighting some demons right now, and if he could go back and do it all over again, I think he’d do it differently,” White said on Google+ Hangout.
Penn and Edgar are set to meet for a third time at featherweight in April 2014 after serving as opposing coaches on the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter. Second chances are hard to come by in life.
What will Penn do with his third?