BJ Penn has spent the last year trying to get back in the Octagon.
This Sunday at UFC Fight Night 103, perhaps the fifth time will be the charm. That is, if you consider putting the slumping, 38-year-old veteran in the cage with fast-rising 24-year-old prospect Yair Rodriguez a “charmed” outcome for Penn.
Since announcing his intent to return from an 18-month hiatus in January 2016, the former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion has at various times been linked to failed bouts against Dennis Siver, Cole Miller and Ricardo Lamas.
Due to a variety of circumstances—including injury, a since-dropped investigation into allegations of sexual assault against Penn and a six-month suspension for a minor violation of the UFC’s anti-doping policy—his comeback has been delayed time and again.
Barring a last-minute calamity, however, it appears this time Penn will actually get to fight Rodriguez in a featherweight bout. On the other hand, given that Penn comes into this fight just 1-5-1 during his last seven bouts, while Rodriguez is riding a seven-fight win streak and is ticketed for future contender status at 145 pounds, is that really such a good thing?
Here, Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiappetta joins me to discuss this odd piece of matchmaking, whether Penn belongs in this fight at all and whether the dynamic and dangerous Rodriguez might end up retiring the UFC legend once and for all.
Chad Dundas: Mike, Penn’s journey to the Fight Night 103 main event is one of the longest and strangest in my admittedly failing memory.
I hope I’m not just imagining things when I say the UFC saddling him with increasingly difficult opposition—escalating from Siver to Miller to Lamas to Rodriguez over the course of the last year—carries an unmistakable note of finality.
Dare I say it almost feels like some kind of punishment, though for what (aside from accepting and then pulling out of a series of bouts) I have no idea. Maybe I’m just projecting, but it seems like Penn’s return was a thing UFC brass may once have been excited about but now are not.
He’s going off as more than a 3-1 underdog against El Pantera, according to OddsShark, and anybody who saw his bizarrely ineffective performance against Frankie Edgar during his most recent fight in July 2014 can’t give him much of a realistic chance to win.
I will give Penn credit for seemingly handling this return the right way in the gym. After years of being regarded as a guy who never maximized his potential, he’s prepared for this comeback fight with the coaching wizards at the Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA team in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That’s a move Penn likely should’ve made years ago.
I suspect even getting the best help can’t save him here, though. Am I being too pessimistic? Can you make a case that Penn can win this fight, and, if not, do you think this shapes up as the very last time we see him try to make a return to the Octagon?
Mike Chiappetta: Sure, I can make a case for it. Do you need it to be a convincing one, though?
There’s plenty of reason to believe the moneyline on this fight is on the money and that Rodriguez will walk out with a boosted profile—which is probably the point of this matchmaking. But there are also question marks that can cause you to hesitate in saying it’s a sure thing.
For one thing, the most decorated opponent Rodriguez has fought until now is Alex Caceres, an entertaining but inconsistent talent who’s never cracked the Top 10 of the UFC rankings. And in that fight, Rodriguez needed a split decision to win (although admittedly, most observers thought the final result was clearer than that).
There’s also the fact that Rodriguez can be quite wild, taking risks in order to launch flashy techniques. There’s always the possibility that Penn catches him mid-flight with a powerful right hand. There’s always the potential that Penn goes retro and traps Rodriguez with his ground skills. Any combination of the two or either one of them could change the complexion of the fight in an instant.
It’s just been awhile since we’ve seen that kind of thing happen. Chad, you mentioned his recent struggles, but would it surprise you to hear that Penn hasn’t actually won a fight since November 2010? You know how long ago that is in MMA time? Ronda Rousey had yet to make her professional debut.
Which is to say, the sport evolves quickly, and Rodriguez has shown enough tools to suggest he’s about to pad his resume with his first name-brand victory. He has a full arsenal of strikes, has looked fairly competent with his jiu-jitsu and has passable wrestling. He’s also illustrated an excellent gas tank, which is quite likely to pay dividends in a scheduled five-rounder. It all seems to add up to a long night for Penn.
That storyline is flat-out depressing to reflect upon. So to look at the other side of the coin, what would this win mean for Rodriguez? In 2017, is there any value to beating a former legend, even if he’s fallen on rough times? Do you see this as part of WME-IMG’s initiative to find and cultivate potential stars, and, if so, shouldn’t we applaud that?
Chad: By now, Rodriguez should be a person new UFC ownership is very interested in promoting. Through two-plus years inside the Octagon, he’s gone 5-0 and given us every reason to believe he’ll turn out to be the real deal. Kind of shocking, really, considering the guy just turned 24 a bit more than two months ago.
For years now, the UFC has been trying to establish a foothold in Mexico’s traditionally lucrative and fight-crazed market. It has labored to prop up former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez as the point man on that operation in the past, but those efforts have largely fizzled.
Unlike Velasquez, Rodriguez is both actually from Mexico and a fluent Spanish speaker. He’s also an exciting strike-first fighter with an interesting backstory. Already ranked the UFC’s No. 10 featherweight, I honestly can’t think of a better candidate to lead the fight company’s efforts south of the border.
That said, predicting who will become MMA’s next breakout star is never easy. As you noted, Mike, the last time Penn won a fight in the UFC it would have been impossible to predict the rise of either Rousey or Conor McGregor. So fans will ultimately be the arbiters of Rodriguez’s appeal.
In that vein, it’s tough to know exactly what beating Penn might mean for him. I’d wager anybody MMA-centric enough to know who Penn is would also know he’s recently fallen on hard times and therefore may not consider a win here a career-defining accomplishment for Rodriguez.
Getting a highlight-reel win over a recognizable face—if that is indeed what happens here—is never a bad thing, but this also isn’t a make-or-break performance for the young slugger.
Assuming the UFC can get its audience to tune in for this unorthodox Sunday night broadcast on Fox Sports 1, it’ll be better than nothing, though.
Mike, if this fight plays out according to chalk and it does indeed prove to be the last time we see Penn in the cage, how will you remember him? Are you inclined to give him due daps as a legend of the lightweight class? Or are you always going to think of him as a gifted athlete who never quite lived up to his potential?
Mike: It’s a complicated legacy, to be sure.
On one hand, Penn epitomizes everything most of us love about the sport. When he arrived, he was an upgrade to the norms of the time. He was incredibly well-rounded, with powerful and technical striking, brilliant jiu-jitsu and strong wrestling, and he melded it all together depending on the situation. He was also fearless in challenging the best available opponent, regardless of size. That bold approach is the same one that led him to become only the second two-division UFC champion in history, following Randy Couture, and to become one of the best lightweights the sport has ever seen.
It is also fair to consider that the same attitude led to some of his greatest failures in the cage. It was his outsized ambition that led him to doomed matchups like Lyoto Machida and Georges St-Pierre.
There have also been countless stories about his lack of motivation in preparing, about an unwillingness to push himself past his brilliant natural talents, although he himself has claimed that it was the opposite and that overtraining sunk him on more than one occasion.
Whatever the case, his record is his to own. He lost fights that were seen as winnable (Jens Pulver I, Caol Uno II and Frankie Edgar I), but most fighters with any longevity have similar blemishes. And if you’re being fair about it, you have to admit that he never lost to someone that was way below his talent level. Most of his defeats are to all-time greats at best, former champions at worst.
Still, if you look at the entirety of Penn’s career, you can’t help but think that he could have done so much more. If only he would have stayed at lightweight, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation; his lifetime winning percentage would be beyond reproach. Count me as one who will always look past that.
Numbers drive a lot of these narratives. Wins and losses. Weight divisions. Money. As the UFC moves forward with a booking philosophy that prizes cash above merit, it seems quaint to look back at Penn and be reminded that he was out there just trying to find the best available challenge. Neither ideology is inherently the correct one, but it’s difficult to criticize such raw ambition.
MMA, after all, aims to be the most pure form of athletic competition around. And BJ Penn? He was the human embodiment of that approach. Any time, any weight, anywhere. That’s a legacy that speaks to us, numbers be damned.