Last October, B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn announced his intentions to retire after a unanimous decision loss to Nick Diaz at UFC 137. He couldn’t stay away for long, however. Hot up-and-comer Rory MacDonald issued a challenge and that was enough for Penn to make a return to the cage in 2012.

The two were originally scheduled to meet at UFC 152, but a training injury pushed the bout to the upcoming UFC on Fox 5, adding to its already stacked Dec. 8 card.

You won’t hear Penn complaining about having more time to get rid of his belly. After all that he has accomplished in the sport, his motivation isn’t being stoked as it once was. It took MacDonald saying in interviews how out of shape Penn appeared and how badly he would be defeated before their first scheduled meeting to “light a fire” under Penn’s butt to get into great shape. At this point, most everyone else that has followed Penn’s career is wondering where that career is headed after this fight.

Since Penn has been in the UFC, he’s only lost to guys at the very top of the lightweight and welterweight divisions. A win over MacDonald, a very young fighter that is expected to be great one day, is critical to Penn’s stock towards being an active player in the welterweight division. Both fighters are right outside of the top 10 by the media’s standards, but Penn can reasonably be put anywhere outside of the top five, given that his last loss was against what could have been a title challenger in Nick Diaz. All the Hawaiian needs is a concrete win here and a little promotional push will take care of the rest.

But Penn has a few speed bumps in his way. If he makes it past MacDonald, then he could next be in the cage with a welterweight contender, though it’s a question of how bad he wants it. His draw with Jon Fitch and loss to Diaz over his last two fights even had him questioning if he can still hang with the best, but fights are there to be made for him by a willing UFC. It will be up to Penn as to whether he wants to put up with the process of consistent training and fighting his way upwards in the division. If not, then why continue this course against challengers in lieu of marquee fights?

Penn would need a solid run against two or three welterweights to be built as a title contender, if that is his current goal. But there is the problem of selling a rubber match against champion Georges St-Pierre. Penn lost a split decision against St-Pierre way back at UFC 58 and was beat down by him in the UFC’s last superfight in 2009 while vying to become a two-division champion (challenging for St-Pierre’s belt while holding the lightweight crown). Enough time has passed that the two could meet again in what would be a marketable fight, but that is an unlikely scenario.

More likely is that Penn can go on to have a profitable career as a fighter past his prime, much like Rich Franklin. Penn could take the “company man” route and remain on main cards and keep his name fresh. Taking on the younger crop of prospects and contenders is a hazardous balancing act for older fighters that aren’t consistently competing. It doesn’t do as much for a fighter’s legacy, and Penn is similar to former champion Matt Hughes in this regard. Grinding out a few wins and losses here and there isn’t as rewarding as doing so against established veterans for a bigger paycheck and exposure.

Penn isn’t eying anything past this MacDonald fight. If he loses here, it would be his fourth defeat in six fights and that could have him tipping further towards retirement. But that doesn’t mean he will be done fighting. His talk of retirement sounds like a struggle to come to acceptance with the fact that he won’t be facing a UFC champion again. He’ll take more time away, probably for an extended stretch, but he’s not going to end his career with a loss here.

“The Prodigy” has been around this sport since before it rose to prominence in the current era. His last run of glory had him holding onto the lightweight belt for two years, earning and defending it with brutal wins over very good competition. That’s something no lightweight champion has done with the same vigor since his reign. Unfortunately, Penn hasn’t had any consistency since losing two competitive decisions against Frankie Edgar, and the question now is how his viability will be used going forward.

Recent videos showcasing Penn’s renewed physique and attitude are promising markers of motivation, but a win against MacDonald is necessary for the former two-division champion to hold onto his current course, which is shaky at best. Penn is still young at 33, but we are seeing his career transition away from what it once was. Win or lose, accepting that the divisions he used to have a say in are moving on with him is a hurdle that Penn is going to have to clear.

Photo: BJ Penn wears the wounds of his war with Nick Diaz at UFC 137 (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.