August 28, 2010. For a brief moment, it was going to be the last time we would ever see BJ Penn fight.
“The first thing that came to me was I don’t know if I want to do this, and that comes to every fighter after some losses,” said Penn, who had just lost his second straight UFC lightweight title fight to Frankie Edgar. “I thought that maybe I didn’t have the motivation anymore.”
Penn kept these thoughts to himself, well aware that decisions made in the heat of the moment aren’t always the wisest ones. And this one was monumental, a choice that would shake the foundations of the mixed martial arts world. Sure, Penn had lost two in a row, but that happened once before, in 2006, when he dropped back-to-back fights to Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, and then went on a tear that saw him win five of six bouts. Plus, at 31, he was far from finished physically. The question was, did he still want this. That answer would come soon enough.
“As soon as I got to Hilo, something told me to get back in the gym and keep going,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the bar and just drink and do nothing, so I told myself to get back in the gym and keep moving, and that’s what I did.”
Talking about the current state of life in the world of ‘The Prodigy,’ he simply says, “I’m in a good place,” and that’s the type of statement that puts fans on the edge of their seats and makes prospective opponents gulp, because when Penn is on – both mentally and physically – he’s tough to beat. But to get him where he needs to be, he needs a challenge. That challenge came to him shortly after the Edgar fight was in the books, and it came in the form of an old rival, Matt Hughes, with whom Penn has split two welterweight title fights.
“I figured this fight would happen sooner or later, but I didn’t think right now would be the time, coming off two losses, but I’m excited,” he said. “It’s good motivation for me.”
The fight, taking place as the co-main event of UFC 123 in Detroit this weekend, not only marks the conclusion of a storied trilogy, but it also signals Penn’s return to the welterweight division for the first time since his 2009 loss to St-Pierre in their rematch. The former 155 and 170-pound champion admits that he’s been thinking about competing in both weight classes, but for now, his sights are on the Hall of Famer in front of him, who has rejuvenated his career with a three fight winning streak.
“Matt’s been looking great lately,” said Penn, who defeated Hughes in 2004 before having the Hillsboro native even the score two years later. “He just took out three good guys (Matt Serra, Renzo Gracie, Ricardo Almeida). He had a tough fight with Thiago Alves (in 2008), and GSP beat him up (in 2007) and all these things, and we were just about to write him off, and now he’s making another run. That’s the sport - where there’s a will there’s a way and you get out there and things start working for you and you start building momentum and you just keep going. That’s what makes MMA so beautiful.”
And Penn has long been one of the sport’s premier artists, painting pictures with his fists. But with such talent and achievement comes the pressure to always perform. And the media and his fans have done him no favors by constantly attaching the words “legacy” and “history” to his name. It leaves him in a strange spot between fighting simply because it’s his job and it puts food on the table, and doing it for fun and with a loftier goal in mind – to be immortalized in the history books.
“I’m constantly stuck between the two,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of Rampage’s interviews lately, and that’s exactly where he is. I guess people do get burned out over time. When you first start this whole journey of being a mixed martial artist, you’re here to beat everybody up, and I guess after a while it does turn into a job. Some people get burned out, some people don’t, and it’s a strange thing. I come out here and destroy Matt Hughes on the 20th and maybe you’ll hear the same things coming out of my mouth again – that I’m going back for my legacy and all that stuff.”
He pauses, then chuckles.
“It’s weird, man. It’s such a weird journey.”
But could he see himself being anything but a fighter right now?
“I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times, and I look at everything else there is in the world to do, besides retirement, and I looked at all my other options, and I like this one a lot more.”
He laughs, then is asked if it’s more fun that being an impromptu CNN correspondent, like he was when a Tsunami threatened Hawaii in February.
“I think this is even more fun than being a CNN correspondent.”
Penn even admits that like his opponent on Saturday, when it comes down to it, fighting is still where he finds joy and peace.
“That’s where I want to be and I’m having fun right now,” he said. “I could be doing a lot of other things than getting ready to fight Matt Hughes, and this is fun and very exciting.”
And if BJ Penn is back, that’s a good thing for the fight world, and the reason is simple. In fact, it’s something that came out of his mouth, ironically before his last fight with Hughes in 2006. It’s a quote I’ve worn out over the years, but it’s so good I don’t care. I read it back to Penn during our interview:
“There’s just something about BJ Penn that gets people amped up. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, but something’s gonna happen though. He might disappoint you, he might make you happy, he might make you cry, he might make you jump out of your chair, but he’ll do something to you.”
“Something’s gonna happen on November 20th. I’ll tell you that right now.”
So that guy is still there?
“That guy’s definitely still there, and I’m ready to go.”
BJ Penn - Still "That Guy"
"Where there’s a will there’s a way and you get out there and things start working for you and you start building momentum and you just keep going. That’s what makes MMA so beautiful.”