Opinion: The Prodigal Son Returns

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

As an MMA writer, I try to be as objective and emotionally detached as possible. While I can proudly say I’ve checked my personal feelings at the keyboard -- and many times gone about the sobering process of betraying them -- the truth of the matter is that I’m still, at my core, a fan. So objectivity be damned: Quit playing games with my heart, B.J. Penn.

“The Prodigy” last week made his comeback official. In doing so, he sent fans everywhere jolts of excitement, anxiety and that feeling you get when you’re called to the principal’s office. I don’t know how to process it all.

As a storyline, it’s obviously compelling. Penn remains one of the sport’s most enigmatic figures, the heights of his success only matched by the lows on which he went out; and boy were those some lows. Following a brief reinvigoration at welterweight that saw him starch Matt Hughes in 21 seconds and become the second man ever to fight Jon Fitch in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and not lose, Penn went on to get thoroughly throttled for the remaining 44:16 of his Octagon career. Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald booted him out of the welterweight division, and the man who stole Penn’s thunder at lightweight, Frankie Edgar, pounded him out in his featherweight debut. Each of those fights, at their time, was the most hard-to-watch performance of Penn’s career.

It is hard to believe that anything will be different this time around for the 37-year-old legend. Yes, we will hear much about his newfound home at Jackson-Wink MMA, and yes, we will be able to close our eyes and hear Joe Rogan’s voice in crystal clear detail harp on the implications of a “motivated B.J. Penn.” We can only hope that the awkward, upright style Penn debuted in the third Frankie Edgar fight will stay in the past. However, in terms of what will happen in the cage, it is doubtful that those talking points will amount to a different result for the former champion, who has a combined 1-5-1 record since 2010.

How everything shakes up will be dependent upon matchmaking. As nice as it would be to see Penn come back against a favorably curated, mid-level opponent, that seems pretty unlikely. This is B.J. Penn; when has he ever asked for someone outside the top five? That is why I’m not totally convinced he will actually step inside the cage against Nik Lentz. He may very well end up in there against Ricardo Lamas or Hacran Dias. If he’s feeling froggy, he might very well call out Chad Mendes. Lentz may have his sonnets ready, but Penn said he was shooting for the title, and fighting “The Carny” does little to get him moving in that direction.

Regardless of whom Penn fights on his return, one of three scenarios will play out. First, he continues the streak of painfully lopsided losses. This seems like a distinct possibility given his age and time away from the sport. Making a more difficult weight cut than he used to make and doing so at an age older than he has ever been does not seem like a recipe for success. The featherweight division is tough and skilled, no doubt, but even worse, it’s a relatively young weight class. The average age of the top 10 featherweights is a shade under 30, making it somewhat easy to imagine a younger, fitter athlete outworking “The Prodigy” for a clear-cut unanimous decision -- or worse.

Then again, Penn has always been a fighter who has relied on technique more than outright athleticism, so it will be interesting to see if that technique can be sharpened and honed by Greg Jackson. If this happens, it could result in our second potential outcome: a close loss. If -- and this is a big “if” -- Penn is able to make the weight cut smoothly, and he is able to demonstrate the same crisp skill set with an improved game plan courtesy of Jackson, then he could just as well come back and be competitive. In many ways, a close loss would be the worst for Penn. It would leave him in a purgatory of “what ifs” and likely prolong his comeback tour in order to answer them.

Paradoxically, what strikes me as the scariest possibility for Penn fans is a win. In my mind, this will only invite short-term validation and down-the-road ruin. A comeback win, depending on the “how” and the “who” associated with it, would send the MMA world abuzz. We would all collectively watch his old demolitions of Hughes, Takanori Gomi and Sean Sherk and let our imaginations fill in the gaps for how a fight between that Penn and the current Conor McGregor would pan out, forgetting at least momentarily about the Diaz, MacDonald and final Edgar fight. The allure of Penn has always been that he seems to define his own limits, and a win in his first fight back in over two years would allow him to set unrealistic parameters that, to be blunt, most of us Penn fans would let ourselves believe. I can’t help but feel we’d be setting ourselves up for a big fall in that scenario.

No matter what happens, Penn’s legacy is cemented. He could come back and get blown out by nobodies and still be revered as the best lightweight ever; Michael Jordan’s run with the Wizards doesn’t negate either of his threepeat championships. Ultimately, it’s not a shock to see Penn unretired and set on another title. Outlandish ambition and a penchant for giving zero you-know-whats is why he’s so beloved by fans. As both an MMA writer and a Penn fan, I would love to see him ride off into the sunset on a solid win, but let’s be honest. Even if Penn shocks the world and becomes the featherweight champion, he’s probably not leaving the sport until someone hands him the kind of next-level beating that makes him reconsider why he’s in there anymore and he decides he’s too old again. Until his next retirement comeback.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea with his fiancé and dachshund.
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