Penn returns with something left to prove

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
7:08
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Along the way, BJ Penn committed himself to doing only what he wanted. If it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth his time.

To the delight of many people over the past 11 years, that sometimes meant walking into a cage to fight.

So the 33-year-old former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion's decision to end a brief retirement, get off the couch and accept a bout with hotshot Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald wasn't a surprise. Penn can be impulsive, and time is not on his side; he sought an itch and scratched it.

Oh, he wanted to return. He wanted to put young MacDonald in his place and take another crack at a Tristar Gym fighter. Penn also missed being mentioned in rarefied terms. He wanted that again -- a vain, revealing and honest admission. The same could be said over his concerns about legacy, which, to be fair, are hardly new.

Yet none of these things pushed boundaries, a Penn specialty. What did? Random amped-up drug testing administered by a group unaffiliated with the UFC. Via the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, Penn and MacDonald are the first fighters in mixed martial arts to undergo urine and blood testing for substances including EPO, human growth hormone and synthetic testosterone. On Wednesday, VADA tested Penn for the third time.

"If I was gonna make a comeback I wanted to make it as safe as I can,” the Hawaiian said last week in the run-up to Saturday’s UFC on Fox 5 event in Seattle. “I’m not saying Rory MacDonald is using steroids. That’s all it is. I’m protecting myself.”

Penn surely didn’t return to the UFC to be tested for drugs, but he wasn’t going to do so without being tested as rigorously as he wanted.

In a nutshell, whether it works out or not, this is how Penn has handled his career.

He angled to make it to the Octagon. He is among a select few fighters who can say he began his career there.

He pushed to fight for a UFC title and did in his fourth contest. Penn, however, wasn't ready for the moment.

He obtained a shot against Matt Hughes at 170 pounds. This time he shocked the world in his debut at the weight and captured the belt.

He coveted a contract with the UFC that allowed him to fight for Japan’s K-1 promotion. That didn’t happen, and it led to a contentious departure from the UFC and an odd sequence of matches that hurt the way his legacy is viewed. He wanted to fight at middleweight and light heavyweight, and he did. And he looked chubby and sluggish, infuriating as it was for fans who love him, away from the Octagon in the midst of his prime.

He desired the UFC welterweight title once more and re-signed with the promotion, though the belt never returned.

He aimed at the UFC lightweight title, the one that eluded him in his fourth fight. This played out the way he hoped when he ran through Jens Pulver.

Because fighting at lightweight, where he appeared dominant, wasn’t challenging enough, Penn eyed a rematch with Georges St-Pierre at 170. He suffered through a rough TKO after 20 minutes. All for an itch he wanted to scratch.
[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Eric JamisonBJ Penn bit off more than he could chew in a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.

Penn has come off like a happy warrior leading up to Saturday’s card.

He restocked his camp with old faces, tailored, like always, just the way he wants. One Penn associate described the fighter as being "so relaxed and confident. He hasn’t been like this in a while. I’m feeling good about it."

The Prodigy maintains a unique place among fighters. Admittedly not much of a stick-and-ball athlete, Penn was preternaturally talented for MMA. Speed, flexibility, balance, technique -- he possessed it all, yet on the eve of bout No. 27, scuffling at 1-3-1 since 2010, this is a man lamenting that his name is missing from discussions of the best, a man craving a lasting, meaningful legacy.

MacDonald, nearly a head taller than the Hawaiian, suggested thinking like that could get Penn hurt.

"He said he's fighting to get his legacy back," MacDonald said. "I don't know if it's true or not, if it's his motivation or not. But if that is true, if you're fighting for someone's opinion, for some status, it's the wrong reason to fight."

Penn, it so happens, wants his opponents to chirp. Last week he claimed it was wonderful that MacDonald called him fat, among other things. Said Penn: "I couldn't ask for more."

Looking directly at MacDonald during the final pre-fight news conference in Seattle on Thursday, Penn reiterated the point. He wanted to tell the young fighter that he better be ready to live up to his words.

So he did.

"I’m a glass half-empty kind of guy," Penn said. "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."

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