Earlier this week, BJ Penn’s long-delayed comeback got another restart date when it was announced he would fight Yair Rodriguez in January. It is now the third try at getting him back into the Octagon after two previous starts were scrapped, spanning the entirety of 2016.
While the announcement inspired the excitement of those who favor known names as well as those who trade on nostalgia, it also drew groans from the realists who closely watched the latter parts of Penn’s career and saw the former UFC two-division champion suffer through lopsided beatings in each of his last three fights.
If the feeling of watching him get dominated by both Frankie Edgar and Rory MacDonald was uncomfortable, it’s jarring to realize that he hasn’t won a fight in six years.
If a 33-year-old Penn couldn’t win in the cage, why shouldn’t we be downright uneasy about him stepping into the cage as a 38-year-old?
It would be one thing if he faced another aging featherweight, but Rodriguez is a 24-year-old on the come up, a flashy kid who has yet to lose in the UFC Octagon and who is probably licking his chops at the chance of adding a legend’s scalp to his collection.
The odds are he will, and in an uncomfortable way.
The Penn announcement offered a sense of deja vu, as over in Bellator, just a few days prior, the organization announced it had signed former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko to a multi-fight deal and that he would debut against Matt Mitrione on Feb. 18.
On paper, it’s a different situation, as Emelianenko comes into the bout on a five-fight unbeaten streak, but even that comes with a caveat. In his last bout, Emelianenko looked liked a washed-up fighter against journeyman brawler Fabio Maldonado and was nearly knocked out before escaping with a decision, though on appeal, that was overturned to a no-contest.
There are other cases too.
Thirty-seven-year-old former UFC champion Rashad Evans has been declined a fighter’s license by commissions in both New York and Ontario yet, despite that and two straight lopsided losses, intends to continue his career.
Meanwhile, 41-year-old former UFC interim heavyweight champ Shane Carwin recently announced he would end a retirement of over five years to compete in Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation. He hasn’t won a fight since knocking out Frank Mir in early 2010.
Even the great Anderson Silva has entered this category of awkward unease.
While the libertarian in me believes that everyone has the right to determine their own future, the humanitarian cannot ignore the elevated risks these fight legends are taking by continuing to compete long after their bodies (and probably their brains) have been compromised.
As we learn more about brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), it becomes impossible to put aside the increased probability of damage that athletes face as they age in an unforgiving sport.
Most fans and fighters come to terms with the risks these athletes are facing early on in the process of falling in love with the sport. It’s easy to ignore the dangers when they’re not so obvious, and it’s also easy to rationalize that many pursuits include the acceptance of danger. Rock climbing, bike riding, scuba diving all bring with them inherent danger. Many jobs also bring risks. Roofing, construction, emergency response. Hell, even if you sit at a desk eight hours a day, you face health issues, from muscle degeneration to organ damage to back problems.
No matter what we’re doing, we risk hurting our bodies. But there comes a time to minimize that risk, and for most of these fighters, that time has not just come; it’s already passed.
For older fighters, there are few protections in place past their support staffs, who often plead for them to hang up their gloves to no avail.
Inside the cage, opponents are unforgiving with their own careers at stake. Beyond that, it is both ironic and unsettling that referees often give more leeway to these legends out of respect to their longevity, success and experience. After all, it stands to reason that if they’ve thrived so long, they may have one last trick up their sleeve. In reality, it often leads to longer beatings.
And fans? We often cheer on their arrivals and cringe at their exits.
To be sure, this is an issue on which we have little moral high ground. We not only praise the same fighting spirit in the same young athletes; we practically demand it.
But often, when observers go from fanatical to apprehensive, they are seen as turncoats. Such criticism is misguided. Voicing concern is hardly anti-fighter; it is, in fact, the apex of fandom to put the athlete’s interests above your own.
So count me as a conscientious objector to the past-their-prime crowd of legends. Fighters have the difficult task of timing their own endings while we judge every step. Our opinion is the easy one. We get to be right or wrong with no repercussions, while they live with the decision, the doubt and the injuries forever.