BJ Penn is returning to the UFC—again.
The details of when and against whom are still up in the air, but The Prodigy is coming back with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn in his corner. The former lightweight and welterweight champion is setting his sights on featherweight gold. Such an accomplishment would make him MMA's first-ever three-division champion, but is that a realistic goal for the 37-year-old former champion?
The Bleacher Report staff got together to discuss Penn's return, what it means and our expectations.
Scott Harris: Any and all BJ Penn takes must arrive at the table wrapped in disclaimers and served with a side of platitudes.
Yes, Penn is one of the greatest MMA fighters ever and almost certainly the lightweight GOAT. Yes, at age 37 and with 13 years of combat under his belt, the very wealthy Penn is taking an unnecessary risk with his health and well-being. Yes, Penn has earned the right to make his own decisions. Yes, Penn is severely diminished as a fighter. Yes, Greg Jackson is a very good coach and could impart some new motivation to Penn.
After wading through the context and acknowledgements, there's not much left but a couple of basic questions: How would you define success in this run, and do you care? My answer to the first is that any UFC win, even if it comes over, say, Phillipe Nover, is probably enough to scratch Penn's competitive itch and send us all home satisfied. In the second, I guess my answer is yes. It may be sad to think of Penn hurting or deluding himself, but when Michael Jordan played for the Washington Wizards, I still bought tickets.
Nathan McCarter: I loved the blood-licking, underwater-rock-carrying BJ Penn. He was fun. Notice the past tense. I have simply been burned too many times by a “motivated” Penn. I got excited when he returned against Frankie Edgar at 145. I thought getting to 145 and having dropped two to Edgar previously would allow us to see a competitive and fired-up Prodigy. He got destroyed, and he looked listless.
Penn wants to make a run at 145 gold? No. It's not happening. That's a pipe dream he needs to let go.
I don't have high expectations for this return—whatever number we are at with Penn now. I think Nik Lentz would be a perfect opponent for him, and their beef would, at least, allow me to care a tiny fraction of what I used to care for a BJ Penn fight.
It is also a fight between two fighters not nearing a title shot and can be a serviceable piece to any fight card. So that's something I guess. I expect the bare minimum in the hopes I can be surprised by even a marginally entertaining performance.
Featherweight is a strong division, and I just can't see Penn having long-term success in the UFC. If pressed to make a prediction of what happens, I'd have to say he'll get a win over a subpar fighter and get wrecked by a true contender.
Truthfully, I just hope this return doesn't make me sad.
|Frankie Edgar||UFC 112 (4/10/10)||Loss, Decision|
|Frankie Edgar||UFC 118 (8/28/10)||Loss, Decision|
|Matt Hughes||UFC 123 (11/20/10)||Win, KO|
|Jon Fitch||UFC 127 (2/27/11)||Majority Draw|
|Nick Diaz||UFC 137 (10/29/11)||Loss, Decision|
|Rory MacDonald||UFC on Fox 5 (12/8/12)||Loss, Decision|
|Frankie Edgar||The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale (7/6/14)||Loss, TKO|
Steven Rondina: Honestly, I think you're both being too negative when it comes to Penn. Is he 37 years old? Sure. Is he 1-5-1 since 2010? You betcha. Are his hopes of making a title run wildly unrealistic? Absolutely.
But when I'm mulling over a fighter's retirement prospects (or, in this case, unretirement prospects), there's only one question on my mind: Are they still able to physically do this? When it comes to Penn...I don't see why not.
Penn hasn't been knocked out bunches of times like Ken Shamrock. He hasn't endured multiple neck and back surgeries like Tito Ortiz. Heck, he hasn't even sustained a catastrophic injury and been popped for performance-enhancing drugs like a certain other former champ who is going to be making a potentially ill-advised return in February.
My one and only concern when it comes to Penn is how the UFC uses him. Jobbing him out to Brian Ortega or Dustin Poirier, in my opinion, would be a massive disappointment. I'm not sure I could emotionally handle it!
But Penn vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri? Penn vs. Joe Lauzon? Penn vs. Takanori Gomi 2?! Those all sound pretty darn great to me.
I’m still hesitant about a BJ Penn comeback, but I don’t see Greg Jackson getting behind him unless he thought BJ had something left.— Marc Raimondi (@marc_raimondi) January 19, 2016
What is BJ Penn's Ceiling?
Jeremy Botter: I got the same gross feeling in the pit of my stomach about all this Penn return stuff as the rest of you.
But then I started thinking: You know, this is not Penn staying home and being fat and training for 30 minutes a day and waiting until the very last minute to do anything resembling a fight camp. This is Penn, a historical loafer, uprooting himself and moving to the desolate Albuquerque, New Mexico, area, which is just about as different from Hawaii as you can get without, you know, going to Mars or something.
And it's not just about that willingness to get out of his comfort zone, because we've seen Penn do that in the past with dismal results, and it never sticks. This is about the destination. This is about Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, two men who might as well be certified miracle workers when it comes to plucking old, shot dudes off the trash heap and giving them a restoration job that confounds the world.
Andrei Arlovski? That dude was getting knocked out by atrocious fighters until Jackson and Wink got their hands on him, and then he turned right around and went on a run that pushed him near the UFC heavyweight title before Stipe Miocic's brutal hands ended him.
Jackson and Wink—they have a thing for this, for taking the broken-down dudes we don't believe in anymore, the ones we believe should hang 'em up, and then making them an unlikely return-from-the-grave success story. If this were just BJ Penn deciding he's bored and wants to make some money, I'd be all vomity at the notion of him stepping back in the Octagon.
But Jackson and Wink have a pretty good track record, or at least enough of one for me to trust them when they say they believe Penn still has what it takes. They also have the kind of brutal honesty that, if they met with Penn and watched him work out and decided that they weren't on board with this whole idea, they would've put the kibosh on it, or at least to their own involvement.
Penn might come back and get brutalized. That's a real possibility. But in my mind, this isn't about Penn. It's about Jackson and Winkeljohn and their track record for doing the impossible. Because of that record, I am willing to see what happens here, and I'll do so without any hesitation.