When BJ Penn makes his Octagon return next week, it certainly won’t be as ‘The Prodigy’.
The UFC Hall of Famer and former two-divisional champ ends a two-and-a-half year stay in retirement to take on one of the promotion’s most talented and exciting prospects in the form of Yair Rodriguez.
His comeback, though, comes under a thick cloud of uncertainty with a good measure of apprehension mixed in to form an innate feeling Rodriguez could be about to rain on his parade. Indeed, there are a myriad of questions to be answered. What can we reasonably expect from him? Can this version of Penn hang with such a top prospect? And crucially, why is he even returning in the first place? It’s a perplexing decision and one which leaves even his most loyal supporters feeling a little anxious.
The 38-year-old totally fell off towards the back end of his career. His last seven fights read 1-5-1 and his solitary victory in that time came against a 37-year-old Matt Hughes with a majority draw coming against Jon Fitch.
For context, his five defeats did come against elite-level competition at a time when he could no longer be legitimately considered elite. He lost welterweight clashes with Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald while Frankie Edgar completely dominated him three times, the last of which epitomised his tragic decline and ultimately sent him into retirement.
On that night, Edgar was able to do whatever he wanted, when he wanted and forced a third-round stoppage in what he called a “bitter-sweet victory”.
There was a collective sigh of relief when Penn signaled the end after that fight and one can’t help but wonder if he will echo the same sentiments he did post-Edgar come Sunday.
“I shouldn’t have came back. I shouldn’t be in the ring tonight, to be with the top level like Frankie Edgar,” he said.
Penn stuck around for too long. He’s still trying to now. After the Diaz defeat he should have ended it there and unquestionably fighting Edgar was a mistake. There are parallels heading into the main event of UFC Fight Night 103 in Phoenix. Another devastating defeat will make for hard viewing.
Penn, though, is as confident as ever, and despite the undercurrent of dread from fans, the former lightweight and welterweight champ is hoping to use a victory on Sunday as a springboard towards a featherweight title shot.
“I’m fit and ready now because I just like fighting,” he said. “Standing in front of people, sparring every day, punching people, getting into a fist fight every morning.
“I want to get one more world title and that would make it three titles at three weight classes.”
Rodriguez has his own lofty ambitions. The 24-year-old is 5-0 in the UFC and moved up into the 145lbs top-10 rankings with a split decision win over Alex Caceres.
Proceeding that victory was his knockout of the year contender, a jumping switch kick, against Andre Fili. The Mexican is on the fringes of the elite in a talent-stacked division.
His record doesn’t boast the scalp of a big name to push him through to upper echelons of the division but a win against Penn, no matter the asterix which may come with it, will give him a credible name on his CV.
“It’s not over yet. It’s not over yet baby,” said Penn last month.
Unfortunately, all signs say it could be after Sunday.
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