Roughly 18 months after getting squashed by Frankie Edgar at The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale, B.J. Penn is back and once again motivated to win a UFC title. This isn’t surprising. MMA fighters announcing their retirement are about as reliable as UFC President Dana White promising someone a title shot, and there have been rumblings about a potential return for Penn for roughly a year now. What is surprising is that Penn has decided to take his last push for a UFC belt to the featherweight division, the same weight class where he debuted against Edgar and looked worse than he had in his entire career.
After winning titles at both 170 and 155 pounds in his career and looking abysmal at 145, it seems strange that Penn would want to jump into a weight class where he’s had virtually no success and would have to put his 37-year-old body through a strenuous weight cut.
There’s only one real reason Penn would set his sights on the 145-pound title instead of another prize, and that’s Conor McGregor.
It’s been quite a while since a fighter — outside of Ronda Rousey, of course — has captured the attention of the sports world in the way that McGregor has done over the past year or so. Despite fighting in one of the UFC’s lighter divisions, where star power has been hard to come by, the Irishman’s gigantic personality and big mouth have more than made up for his lack of muscles. He’s quickly become the biggest star the sport has to offer. Everyone from the bantamweight contenders to longtime welterweights have been calling out the “Notorious” one, and with good reason. A bout with McGregor is a guaranteed huge payday and a chance to steal some of the Irishman’s spotlight, something fighters both young and old are chomping at the bit to do.
From the look of things, it’s time to add Penn to the list of guys that are looking for an opportunity and plan on using McGregor to make it happen. If Penn just wanted to come out of retirement and make a splash, he could have done it at lightweight or welterweight and easily find an opponent or two that would not only provide him with a fun fight but give him a chance to advance in the rankings as well. It would have been easier on Penn’s body, as he’s not so secretly had a difficult time with cutting weight in the past. Furthermore, he would have had a ton of high-profile options due to the depth at 155 and 170 pounds. Instead, he’s decided to continue to try to make the cut down to 145, and while he’s hardly mentioned the champ by name, it still almost certainly means his real goal is to get a crack at McGregor.
You can’t blame Penn for going after the biggest name in the sport upon his return, but “The Prodigy” is so far out of the title picture at this point that it feels ridiculous to even mention a championship or someone like McGregor when Penn’s comeback is brought up. That’s probably because it is ridiculous. Penn’s last fight against Edgar saw him taking on the man who is now the No. 1 contender to McGregor’s belt, and Penn was absolutely crushed in the process. So you’ll have to forgive fans for not exactly buying Penn as a reasonable title threat.
After three straight losses and a rough five-year period that saw Penn accumulate just a 1-4-1 record against stiff competition, the Hawaiian walked away from the sport following a beatdown at the hands of Edgar in the summer of 2014. During the loss to Edgar in his debut at 145 pounds, Penn looked worse than ever. We always hear about the differences between a “motivated” Penn and one that didn’t quite get up for the fight, but we can forget about whether he was motivated or not on that night. Penn looked like he’d lost the raw athleticism and speed that made him such a nightmare to deal with in his prime. Fight fans are almost always excited to see a true legend perform, but Penn’s performance was so uninspiring that the Twitter-verse was begging for “The Prodigy’s” retirement just minutes into the bout. When Penn announced he was walking away from the sport following the loss, fans could take solace in knowing one of their heroes wouldn’t be putting himself in that position again. At least, this is what we thought.
Now Penn is back. While everyone is having fun speculating on whether or not spending time training at Jackson-Winkeljohn in New Mexico is going to bring back the old Penn that used to rule the lightweight division with an iron fist, no one is talking about Penn getting a title shot or even a bout against a top contender. Why? Because no one wants to see Penn in any sort of high-profile fight until he can prove to the world that he’s still an elite fighter. One of the most cringe-inducing parts of being an MMA fan is watching your heroes grow old and start taking beatings. After seeing it three straight times for Penn, no one is jumping up and down to watch it happen again.
It’s very possible that seeing McGregor turn into the star that he has over the last year was the added motivation Penn needed to step back into the cage and give it one more go, and you can see the appeal behind such reasoning for “The Prodigy.” Getting a fight with the hottest rising MMA star in the last five years is a huge deal for a legend like Penn, mostly because he’s guaranteed to get a huge payday and a boatload of attention if he can earn himself that shot. But there are so many factors working against that happening that it’s easy to wonder if Penn would have been better off fighting at a more comfortable weight class in his return — and that’s if he should have returned at all.
If McGregor had been around five years ago, a Penn vs. McGregor fight would have been one of the biggest bouts in UFC history. Now, though, the thought of this bout seems like wishful thinking for Penn fans at best and a nightmare at worst. There may still be a place for Penn inside the Octagon, but a fight against McGregor or anyone near his level isn’t it. Motivated or not, Penn isn’t the superstar he once was. The UFC and its fans need to keep that in mind as he attempts his comeback tour.