B.J. Penn wants to reclaim his place as one of MMA’s pound-for-pound best. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Above all else, it seems B.J. Penn wants to be remembered.
Penn, who has recorded just one win in the last three years, will collide with surging Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald in a featured matchup at UFC on Fox 5 “Henderson vs. Diaz” this Saturday at the Key Arena in Seattle. One of only two men -- Randy Couture is the other -- to capture Ultimate Fighting Championship gold in two weight classes, the Hawaiian turns 34 in a little more than a week and can sense the book on his career may close without a fitting final chapter.
“No one says my name when they talk about the greatest fighters anymore, and that really bothers me,” Penn said during a pre-fight media call for UFC on Fox 5. “I know that’s my fault. My name was always in the mix. I told [UFC President] Dana [White] I had a real problem with that. That was part of my motivation to come back and look strong.
“I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy,” he added. “I don’t want to be known as being good back in the day. I want to be one of the best. I still think I have something left to accomplish.”
Many view MacDonald as a future champion, perhaps even an heir to the throne of longtime welterweight kingpin and Tristar Gym stablemate Georges St. Pierre -- a man who has beaten Penn twice. The 23-year-old thoroughbred has won three fights in a row since his technical knockout loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 115 in June 2010. MacDonald was 11 years old when Penn made his professional debut at UFC 31, and the opportunity to teach a young lion a lesson or two proved a strong lure for the Hawaiian.
“I was just hanging out with the itch to fight again, and it was better than staying at home and sitting on the couch,” said Penn, who has not competed in more than 13 months. “I realized I can’t do this forever, so I wanted to do it while I can. As far as fighting Rory, he’s an up-and-comer and everyone says he’s going to be a champion soon. It wasn’t a tough decision. I wanted a tough fight against Tristar again. They’re a great club. I think it’s a great fight all-around.”
“I’m not going to sit here and get into that with everybody right now,” Penn said. “I’m sure there are people in all sports that bend the rules, so I’m not going to point the finger. As far as doping [goes], it’s a painstaking thing for the UFC, and I don’t want to put them through that. If I was going to make a comeback, I wanted to make it as safe as I can.
“I’m protecting myself; that’s all it is,” he added. “I’m not saying Rory is using steroids.”
Penn and MacDonald were originally scheduled to battle one another at UFC 152, but the promotion was forced to reschedule when the Canadian suffered a facial cut in training. In the interim, MacDonald made some not-so-flattering comments about the former lightweight and welterweight champion’s perceived lack of conditioning via Twitter. They did not go unnoticed, and Penn claims to have stepped up his preparation in response.
“I started this training camp at 40-percent body fat and I was going to go in there and give it my best effort, but Rory pulled out 10 weeks before the fight,” he said. “He said he saw me and said I looked fat and he’d end up killing me. I’m down under 10 percent now. I’m ready to go. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Penn, who is 1-4-1 in his last six appearances at 170 pounds, welcomes the additional motivation.
“I love it when my opponent says things to me,” he said. “It’s wonderful. I couldn’t ask for more. Fighting is still not a sport for me. I don’t know if I should still be saying that. I’m not a great athlete who can play any sport. I can’t do much in different sports, but one thing I could always do is fight back. I go into the fight ... this is a fight. This isn’t putting a ball in a hole. It’s always been a fight for me. I love it when it’s that way.
“I never lost my old mentality,” Penn added. “I lost the ability to prepare properly. I won’t be able to do this the rest of my life, and I want to give it a good shot.”
A victory over MacDonald could help revive Penn’s career. Plus, he always has the option of returning to 155 pounds and the division in which he enjoyed his greatest success. For now, his attention remains centered on the considerable challenge before him.
“I’m just focusing on this fight,” Penn said. “I’ve got no more plans after this. Once I do have plans, we’ll call Dana and talk. I’ve got no plans after Dec. 8. I put my whole life into that.”