B.J. Penn believes he's ready for a comeback

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
B.J. Penn, right, hasn’t been inside the Octagon since 2014. (Getty Images)
B.J. Penn, right, hasn’t been inside the Octagon since 2014. (Getty Images)

B.J. Penn, the UFC Hall of Famer, wrote a book in 2010 called, “Why I Fight.” If he were to do a sequel in 2017, it might best be named, “Why I Still Fight.”

One of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history, Penn retired following a one-sided loss to Frankie Edgar in 2014. In 2015, he was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

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Penn hasn’t fought since that TKO defeat on July 6, 2014, which was his third loss in a row and dropped his record over his last seven fights to 1-5-1.

Fighters, though, are notorious about ending retirements not long after they announce them, and in that regard, Penn is no different than many of his peers who have done the same thing.

Penn, though, is different. He doesn’t need the money. He’s got nothing to prove. Most who even casually follow the sport know his name.

The reason for his return, though, is hardly complicated, though his bid to return to the cage has been a bit more difficult.

But the why is much easier to answer.

“I like it. I like this stuff,” he said. “I love it. I’ve been training hard, but in the beginning, it was tough to find my bearings. But now I’m getting to the point where I can really do some stuff in there. I think I’m getting better. I don’t know. Bottom line, I missed the competition. I missed the struggle.

“That’s all this is, it’s a struggle. Fighting is a struggle. I miss that, and I just love the whole thing. It’s such a tough sport. You’re sitting there with your emotions running wild, butterflies, anxieties, anxiousness, but you know what? I don’t want to give it up.”

And so on Sunday, about a year after he announced his intention to once again compete, he’ll face Yair Rodriguez, one of the UFC’s most promising prospects, in a featherweight bout in the main event of a Fight Night card at Talking Stick Resort in Phoenix on Fox Sports 1.

It’s a big show for the UFC, coming immediately after the NFL playoff game on Fox, and the 38-year-old Penn is right in the middle of it again.

Rodriguez is a fairly significant favorite – better than 4-1 – to hand Penn his fourth consecutive defeat. Another loss wouldn’t do his record proud.

Penn would be 16-11-2 with another defeat, which would cloud his legacy. Those who saw him in his prime will understand, but those who come along later may not fully grasp his greatness should his record edge closer and closer to .500.

B.J. Penn’s last fight was a TKO at the hands of Frankie Edgar. (Getty Images)
B.J. Penn’s last fight was a TKO at the hands of Frankie Edgar. (Getty Images)

It’s hardly a bother to Penn, though, whose eagerness to compete is evident in just about everything he says.

“I don’t really ever think about that,” he says. “I know I got a lot of losses, but I don’t even think about it at all. Maybe it’s to my detriment, but I always see something good happening.”

Penn announced last January that he planned to return to competition and would train at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., under the legendary coach Greg Jackson.

Jackson has raved about Penn’s skills and insisted he’s as good as ever, but it hasn’t been easy for him to prove it.

In March, he ran afoul of new USADA regulations that ban the use of IVs, and was suspended for six months. He was supposed to return to fight Ricardo Lamas in Mexico in October, but was injured and had to pull out of the fight.

So while this is his first fight in 30 months, the “retirement” ended a year ago. He says the time away from the fight game ultimately was beneficial, even if, truth be told, he never wanted to sit out.

He was able to train throughout much of 2016, and so is once again used to competing at the highest level even though it’s been 2½ years since he actually fought.

“It really did help me, because after taking two years off, you become almost like a normal person,” Penn said. “And maybe I trained wrong, too, for some of my fights. When you’re at the highest level and you’re training all the time and you take two years off, you’re nowhere near the world class guys. You’re nowhere near them no matter how good you are.

“I didn’t even walk into the gym for two years. A decent amateur could give you a good fight at that point because you’re just off whack. That would happen to any champion. So it’s really good that I had this year, actually, the way it all worked out. At the time, it was blowing my mind the way these things kept happening. But sitting here today, with the choices and decisions I made to the point where I’ll be fighting next week, I’m glad I had the time.”

Penn said the work with Jackson has made a huge difference. Though Jackson’s reputation is as an easy-going, mellow sort of guy, Penn laughed at that depiction.

“He’s crazier than all of us, man, believe me,” Penn said. “But he and I clicked and it did as soon as we got together.”

He’s nostalgic in some ways, realizing that he hasn’t always lived up to his potential. He’s making no boasts, but says the work he has done with Jackson has him as confident as ever.

“I’m a mixed martial artist, a more complete fighter, but I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m perfect or that I’m the best at everything,” Penn said. “But I’m going to say right now that I’m a good mixed martial artist and if I get you in something, that could be it. I feel my game is the most complete it’s been and if I get a couple of wins, and get a winning streak going, I’m ready for this. That’s what I’m looking at.

“Honestly, I was with so many guys before, and I wish I had listened more to what [striking coach Jason] Parillo told me. I wish I was with Greg Jackson earlier. But man, when the student is ready, the master appears. You’ve got to be into it; you’ve got to live it; you’ve got to want it. When they see how you act in the gym and how you act when it’s time to put your mouthpiece in and get punched in the face, that’s when they know you’re ready.”

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