“I’ve got a daughter at home and another daughter on the way. I don’t want to go home looking like this. I’m done.”
Those were the words uttered by a bloodied BJ Penn immediately after his 2011 decision loss to Nick Diaz. And while it’s always hard to watch a legend retire, it was even harder to argue with the former two-division champion on that night, as he stood there with his head hung low and his face as purple as a ripe plum. Yes, it certainly seemed like a good time for “The Prodigy” to hang up the gloves. He’d proven all he needed to prove.
Of course, we now know that Penn would go on to fight again, losing a lopsided decision to Rory MacDonald in a 2012 welterweight bout. Then, after another failed attempt at retirement, he’d drop all the way down to featherweight, where he would lose a third fight with Frankie Edgar by third-round TKO.
“I shouldn’t have come back,” Penn told UFC Octagon commentator Jon Anik after that third Edgar loss. “I shouldn’t have been in the ring tonight thinking I could be in there with a top-level [fighter] like Frankie Edgar.”
After that loss, it really seemed as though BJ Penn was ready to let the curtain close on his long and glorious career. Though he’d cried wolf about his retirement twice in the immediate past, it really, finally seemed to be over. But then, on a mid-January episode of The MMA Hour, Penn once again brushed away his previous retirement talk, telling host Ariel Helwani that he was ready to return to the perilous world of cage fighting.
“I wanna go get that 145-pound belt,” Penn said on the show. “I believe I’ll be able to walk away as the only man with three titles in three weight divisions.” And so began the latest iteration of the BJ Penn comeback story.
Given the fact that Penn had not won a fight in well over five years, and that he looked pretty rough in his last bout with Edgar, this news was met with plenty of skepticism. Really, it’s safe to say that the majority of fans and pundits considered his return a bad idea. Then again, there seemed to be some real, though undeniably faint, causes for optimism as the details of Penn’s comeback began to emerge.
First, we learned that he’d be heading to Albuquerque to train under Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, two of the very best coaches in the game. Then, we learned that Penn’s comeback would see him take on Cole Miller—certainly no slouch, but not a destroyer like Nick Diaz, Rory MacDonald or Frankie Edgar either. So, while Penn’s emerging from retirement remained a cause for concern, some comfort could be found in the fact that he’d have some brilliant minds in his corner, and that he wouldn’t be mixing it up with a top-5 fighter.
Then, however, Penn was pulled from his proposed comeback bout when he was flagged for the medically-administered use of an IV, which is no longer allowed under the UFC’s partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). With that, his return was put on hold and, amid the excitement of UFC 200 and International Fight Week, all but forgotten.
On Monday morning, that changed, as news broke that Penn will be headlining the UFC’s return to Manila on October 15. And while it’s still comforting to know that Penn will be preparing for this bout under the tutelage of Jackson and Winkeljohn, the comfort provided by his taking on a fighter outside the featherweight top-15 has vanished. No, he will not be taking on Cole Miller. Instead, he’ll be taking on a bona fide, top-10 featherweight in Ricardo Lamas.
In Lamas, Penn will tangle with a fighter whose only recent losses have occurred against elite opposition in Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes and Max Holloway. He’ll face a fighter with some of the division’s very best wrestling, a strong submission game, and an extremely underrated stand-up arsenal. He’ll face a fighter three years his senior, and a fighter with seven years less wear and tear on his body. In short, Penn is now scheduled to face a fighter he is likely to lose to. And make no mistake, when the odds for this fight are released, they will reflect this likelihood.
Of course, it’s possible that Penn dazzles with a late-career win, straight out of the playbook of Dan Henderson, and bursts right back into title contention. If any fighter is capable of such a thing, it’s him. Yet despite his accolades as a two-division champion, despite his being one of the impossible-not-to-love “anyone, any place, any time” guys long before Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone had even entered the mainstream consciousness, despite his mountains of bloody-glove-licking ferocity, Penn seems doom to come up short in this latest comeback, and that just seems to suck all the fun out of his return. Here’s hoping he proves us doubters wrong with an epic fight against Lamas this October. Again, if there’s any fighter on the planet whose capable of doing so, it’s a legend like BJ Penn.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.