The year is 2007.
The UFC's lightweight division is not only not a feature attraction, it basically doesn't exist. Sean Sherk is the champion, but he's only held the belt for a couple of months after the title had been shelved for nearly four years.
The man many consider the true champion, legendary Hawaiian warrior BJ Penn has only been back in action for about a year after a UFC absence due to contract issues. He's fought exclusively at welterweight since his comeback.
But now he's coaching The Ultimate Fighter 5. He'll see Jens Pulver, a longtime lightweight rival, across the cage when the season is over. All the competitors are lightweights, most of whom will become household names within a few years.
Lightweight is back.
BJ Penn is back.
He'll go on to torch Pulver in his return to 155 pounds and reclaim the title he never lost soon after.
His place as the greatest lightweight of all time is secured with title defenses that span across two years, most of which see him looking better than he ever has.
The year is 2014.
He's young, talented, and marketable, and the UFC is enjoying promoting its newest superstar.
A weight class below him, legendary Hawaiian warrior BJ Penn is reinventing himself as a featherweight. He's working with diet guru Mike Dolce to make his first trip to 145 pounds a pleasant one.
He's on television every week, coaching The Ultimate Fighter 19, appearing in the position for the first time since 2007. When it's all over, he'll see longtime rival Frankie Edgar—a man who handed him two losses and sent him packing from the division he basically created—across the cage. No one knows what the future holds for the cast members, but some are bound to break through in the UFC.
BJ Penn is back.
He's come full circle.
The BJ Penn you'll see next year is not the one you saw in 2007.
That Penn left town on his own terms, hadn't lost at 155 pounds since Pulver beat him in 2002 and was a welterweight title contender while he awaited a chance to return to his natural weight class.
In a lot of ways, the Penn returning after a layoff of at least 16 months is what Pulver was in 2007—a former champion who had shown some signs of fading, but who no one wanted to admit might be done.
The Penn loss was his second in a row, and he'd go on to lose six straight after a single win. Since 2007 he's gone 6-10, and losses in more recent times have been to guys he'd have destroyed in his prime.
The other actor in this play, Edgar, is in 2014, ironically, the Penn of 2007. He's a former champion who's still in his prime, beloved by most for his gutsy performances, and thought by some to have never lost his title in the first place.
He's reinvented himself in a new weight class and is looking to vanquish his greatest rival one more time on the way back to the top of the heap.
So why do the fight?
Edgar beat Penn twice in 2010, and nothing has indicated that the two have gotten closer in ability in the time since they last met.
For one, Penn wants it. Bad.
For another, Edgar never met a fight he didn't like, so he didn't take much convincing.
Plus, it's happening in a new weight class where the possibilities are endless for either guy coming off a win.
But perhaps most importantly, the fight is happening because MMA is a full-circle sport. There's a very clear trajectory in the career of a mixed martial artist.
You start off young.
You beat veterans on the way to the top.
You maybe win a title.
You maybe lose it.
You're a veteran on the way down.
It's a would-be circle of life, and it's being played out right in front of our eyes with Penn's return to TUF and, eventually, the cage.
The only thing left to see is whether or not he can alter that course, whether he can show that he's got something left in a career that is, without question, among the most remarkable in the history of the sport. Time and evidence, however, aren't on his side.
This spring BJ Penn comes full circle against Frankie Edgar. It's a fight six years in the making, but we didn't even know it until a few weeks ago.
Looking at history though, we all kind of knew this was the way it had to end.
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