Sunday night in Phoenix, there will be a rising from the ashes. Surely there isn’t a more appropriate city in the world for it to occur.
BJ Penn, a living legend who has spent the past couple of years as a retired afterthought and the past year or so trying to jump through the proper hoops just to end his exile, will enter the cage to take on young gun Yair Rodriguez in a featherweight feature.
And there’s excitement.
Penn is one of the few men who can garner attention simply by telling people he’s going to do something.
A fight to the death? Excitement.
Riding a motorcycle with a former nemesis? Excitement.
A comeback? Excitement.
People care about Penn and what he’s doing. He’s magnetic, the type of character who draws people in and invests them in his pursuits. It’s that type of magnetism that made him the biggest star in the MMA world for a period in time, a charismatic two-weight champion who would box you up or choke you out if you didn’t come correct on fight night.
He fought every great from his era, standing across a cage or ring from the like of Takanori Gomi, Renzo Gracie, Jens Pulver, Matt Hughes (three times), Georges St-Pierre (twice), Frankie Edgar (three times) and even Lyoto Machida in a heavyweight bout.
He was the epitome of a martial artist, a man who believed heart and technique could overcome any challenge put before him and who was far less focused on a manicured record and a fat pay cheque than he ever was about going out and testing himself in the name of greatness.
Sure, there were criticisms at times about his commitment to the sport, his interest in training and his motivation, but it was always a guarantee that when the lights were on and it was time for Penn to show up to a fight, he would do it to the best of his abilities. More often than not that ended with him licking the blood of a vanquished foe from his gloves as he paraded around in victory.
However, athletically, that Penn is long behind us. While he’s still magnetic and charismatic, he hasn’t won a fight in six years and hasn’t been more than a shadow of himself in that time. He’s a man who built a legacy on fighting anyone, anywhere, at any weight, and the tolls of that choice have been evident for a very long time now.
Yet because he’s a star and this is a sport driven by them, his comeback has people buzzing. There’s enthusiastic talk about how he may look now that he’s training with Greg Jackson, consideration that featherweight is perhaps the weight he should have fought at all along and even a UFC Countdown show cataloguing the process surrounding his return—a first for a UFC show broadcasting on FOX Sports 1.
Penn is the type of asset the UFC can use to either get a young talent like Rodriguez over with fans or who can prop up an event on his own as needed. At a time when Conor McGregor is on hiatus and Ronda Rousey is at rock bottom, proven commodities are valuable and hard to come by, and those on the scale of Penn are almost impossible to find.
He’s burnt out, though.
Even if he wins on Sunday, he wins to what end? A single, surprising outcome and a fight with another younger, hungrier guy who wants to be the man to end the legend of BJ Penn? Two more such fights? Five more? How long can that be viable, even in a best-case scenario?
At 38 years old, time just isn’t on the Hawaiian’s side. He’s an icon, the type of star whom the sport may never see again because he was created by the perfect confluence of attitude, exposure and a growth period that was entirely unique. But he’s not a contender any longer, not a man who should be in there with top-10 opponents after taking nearly three years off.
Yet because his name looks so good on the marquee, he’ll fight such an opponent on Sunday, and regardless of the outcome, you might well see him fight again afterwards.
That’s star power. That’s the need for BJ Penn the name outweighing what’s good for BJ Penn the man, because while stars burn out, that star power never does.