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Why UFC legend B.J. Penn is stepping into the cage again

B.J. Penn
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Frankie Edgar, left, and B.J. Penn face off during media day Thursday at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. (Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – B.J. Penn gently pats his belly and grins impishly. Two days before he's supposed to weigh in to face Frankie Edgar for a third time at "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" on Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, the guy who once spoke of holding five UFC titles simultaneously weighs just 148 pounds.

He is only two pounds over the contracted 146 he must meet in a little more than 48 hours, and he's gleefully chatting up a group of reporters who are puzzled why he ever decided to come back to fight.

Penn is one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history. He is, along with Randy Couture, one of only two men to win UFC titles in two weight classes.

There was a time in Penn's life when he wasn't satisfied by the extraordinary. He's one of the five or 10 most accomplished fighters to have ever competed in MMA, without question, but he might be the most physically gifted.

When Penn made his UFC and MMA debut in 2001, he already was a world-class jiu-jitsu player and had the best hands in the sport. There were few fighters at that time who were as multi-dimensional as Penn.

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B.J. Penn clearly still enjoys being a part of the UFC. (Getty Images)

B.J. Penn clearly still enjoys being a part of the UFC. (Getty Images)

After he won the welterweight title by choking out the great Matt Hughes in 2004, he set his sights far beyond the 170-pound division's borders. He wanted to chase the heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and lightweight belts as well.

It was an audacious thought, but Penn was perhaps the only man alive who had even a remote chance of doing it.

This, though, is a much different Penn who is relaxed and joking about his career. He managed to pick up the lightweight belt, in the process earning the reputation as the UFC's greatest 155-pound fighter, but he never reached the heights his talent suggested he might.

He fought perhaps the deepest level of opposition any UFC fighter has ever faced. He met Georges St-Pierre twice and Hughes three times. He fought Edgar twice and former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.

Add in Rory MacDonald, Nick Diaz, Jon Fitch, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk and Jens Pulver twice and a strong argument could be made that no one ever faced better opposition than Penn.

But Penn goes into Sunday's bout just 1-4-1 in his last six. He was pummeled by both MacDonald and Diaz. He lost a clear decision to Edgar in their second fight.

He looked for all the world like a fighter who was done.

So, Penn was asked the other day why in the world he asked to fight Edgar a third time.

"I'm enjoying it; I love it," Penn said. "I love to fight. I love being around the UFC. It's what I've done my whole life. It's habit, and it's fun for me."

But it's also plenty dangerous. He's already lost twice to Edgar, who still is a viable title contender, and the possibility clearly exists that he could get blown out Sunday.

It was painful for those who have followed his career to see him pummeled ruthlessly by MacDonald in his last outing. He posed no threat to MacDonald, who took to showboating at some points.

It wasn't the way to remember a legend. It was like watching Willie Mays with the Mets, Johnny Unitas with the Chargers or Joe Namath with the Rams.

The MacDonald fight was a year and a half ago, just a few days before Penn's 34th birthday. He's now trudging along toward his 36th on a losing streak and taking on yet another highly dangerous opponent.

Edgar, though, isn't expecting an easy night. He watched much of Penn's career in admiration and knows that, at his best, Penn was as good as there ever was.

"Of course he's a serious threat; he's B.J. Penn," Edgar said. "There aren't a lot of guys out there who can do what he's done."

The question, of course, is whether he can summon those skills once again.

UFC president Dana White isn't so sure, and said if Penn loses, he'll have the sad talk with him that he had with legends such as Chuck Liddell and Hughes.

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Penn, left, was dominated by Rory MacDonald in their December 2012 bout. (Getty Images)

Penn, left, was dominated by Rory MacDonald in their December 2012 bout. (Getty Images)

"B.J. has done everything you can do in this sport, and more," White said. "But this isn't an easy sport. When you get to that point where you're losing fights and taking a lot of punishment, you have to think about walking away. That's the circle in this business. The young guys come up, they're hungry, they want to prove something and if they have the talent, they go on to have a great career.

"But then, those young guys eventually become the older guys and they've taken a lot of punishment and their bodies start to wear down and then the risk just increases. B.J. loves to fight, and that's one of the reasons so many people love him, but if he loses this, I think I'm going to talk to him and tell him it may be time to get out."

Penn, who suggested he might take White's advice if he's unable to get the job done, is hardly worried about sullying his legacy.

There was never a challenge Penn would shy away from and he's not going to go out looking to take an easy fight simply to get a cheap win and hear the applause of the crowd.

"Now, it's all about the record and it's all about everything," Penn said. "When I first started, it was just about 'Who can you fight?' I remember [ex-UFC heavyweight] Tank Abbott had a great quote. He said, 'You are who you fight.' I still believe that and [feel] that way. I like to fight all the best and this is another opportunity."

Penn said he has enjoyed his career and has no regrets about the way it has played out.

Nor should MMA fans. He was audacious enough to try to pull off what so far has been the impossible. He often shot beyond his reach.

Penn is beloved, though, because everyone loves someone willing to bite off more than he can chew rather than trying to be a paper champion.

When he climbs out of the cage on Sunday, probably for the last time, he deserves nothing less than a standing ovation from those in the building.

It's going to be a long time before we see the likes of another B.J. Penn again.

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