It’s a fight that’s occurring much to the outward dismay of both the MMA media and fans. B.J. Penn is taking on Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 103 at Talking Stick Arena this weekend in Phoenix.
Twitter timelines don’t have to be scrolled for long to see some sort of reference to the last time Penn won a fight. For the record, the date was November 20, 2010.
For a lot of interested observers in MMA, this fight is nonsense. Rodriguez is a top-10 featherweight according to the UFC rankings, whereas Penn is unranked by the UFC. So, let’s try and make sense of the nonsense by examining the reasons this fight makes sense for all the parties involved.
Let’s start with Rodriguez. He seems to be a fighter who is destined for greatness. His skill and willingness to take chances both on the feet and the ground have many MMA pundits labeling him as a future star in the UFC. However, a quick glance at Rodriguez’s resume and you can see it needs to be bolstered by some big names and finishes.
Rodriguez’s finishes mostly came prior to the UFC and also on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. Since joining the UFC’s roster, he’s mostly gone the distance, with a couple of split decisions over Charles Rosa and Alex Caceres. He did have a knockout win over Andre Fili, which is probably his most impressive victory to date, but this is not the list of victims that builds a championship contender.
What Penn offers Rodriguez in an opponent is a big name with a willingness to stand despite diminished defense on the feet. This is a recipe for a highlight-reel finish of a big name, which is something that would be a huge shot in the arm for Rodriguez’s career. Everyone knows that this isn’t the Penn of old, but his name still carries weight. Penn’s name in Rodriguez’s win column, along with the visual of a finish for his highlight reel, go a long way in securing bigger fights.
Next, let’s talk about Penn. What does he have left to prove? The short answer is nothing. However, that’s the answer for someone not named B.J. Penn. In Penn’s world — the fighting world — he feels like he has more to give. That’s all that matters to him. With two world titles on his mantel, he sees the challenge of obtaining a third as the necessary motivation to climb back into the Octagon.
In fairness to Penn, had there been a featherweight division when he was in his prime, he probably would have been the champion. He was that far ahead of the other lighter-weight fighters. So, for Penn, Rodriguez represents the fastest and easiest path into the top 10 in the 145-pound division. This is not to say Rodriguez is a pushover, but everyone ranked above him is done so with validity. All pose more problems for Penn than Rodriguez. As the two split decisions to unranked fighters attest, Rodriguez can be had. Penn’s window is small, so a win over Rodriguez could secure a top-five fight and then a win there could get him a title shot. It’s an outside chance, but a Penn title run could be of great interest to the promotion.
This brings us to the UFC. This fight makes a lot of sense for the promotion. The UFC is in desperate need of stars.
If Conor McGregor continues to hold all the cards as the only bankable star in the UFC, the company is at the mercy of his desire to advocate for labor changes by holding his services hostage. A Penn title run gives the UFC another star that can carry a pay-per-view on his own. Penn versus the top five of the featherweight division would make money. It doesn’t make McGregor levels of money, but you could argue it makes more money than the top five versus José Aldo.
Speaking of Aldo, a fight between the Brazilian former champ and Penn would be massive. There are a lot of money fights out there for Penn if he can show some credibility in the Octagon. That’s where Rodriguez comes in.
On the other side of the Octagon, a huge step to creating a star is by having that fighter defeat stars. If Rodriguez defeats Penn, then it raises Rodriguez’s profile. This certainly helps the UFC. Rodriguez’s higher profile raises the promotion’s ability to more effectively promote its product to Latin American markets, specifically Rodriguez’s homeland of Mexico.
Historically in MMA, and in the UFC specifically, the old-school-vs-new-school fight is used to lend credibility to one fighter or the other. The young fighter wins and the promotion can say he is ready for big fights. If the older fighter wins, the promotion can say he’s still got it. This fight is the type of bout that a promotion takes a chance on because long-term financial upside exists. It’s a risk, but there is a path toward these two men potentially making the promotion a lot of money in the next couple of years. It all starts on Sunday.