“The Prodigy” is back.

Over the course of the last few weeks, MMA fans have bid farewell to retiring former champions Matt Serra and Forrest Griffin, but while his contemporaries decided to hang up their gloves, B.J. Penn surprised fight fans by opening up the possibility of a UFC return.

Penn’s return to the cage is a bit unexpected (especially after UFC President Dana White called for him to retire a few weeks ago), but apparently Penn believes he has at least one more trip to the Octagon left in him.

While there’s no doubt that fight fans will eagerly anticipate Penn’s Octagon return, one look at the last few years of his career may have those same fans wondering if Penn stepping in the cage again at all is a good idea. Outside of a throwback performance against another aging legend in Matt Hughes at UFC 123 over two years ago, Penn hasn’t looked good in a fight since he lost his lightweight title to Frankie Edgar in April of 2010. After losing his belt and failing to earn it back in a subsequent rematch, Penn made the trip up in weight to try his hand in the welterweight division and the results weren’t pretty.

Back in 2004, when Penn first decided to compete above his natural weight class and go after Hughes and the welterweight crown, fighters could get away with being undersized, even against elite competition. Today’s UFC landscape is very different and even though Penn’s skills have always been far above average, his physical disadvantages made it hard for him to overcome the bigger, longer fighters at 170 pounds. “The Prodigy” was at one time considered one of the best boxers in all of MMA, but Penn’s 70-inch reach just wasn’t long enough to let him compete with most of the larger athletes in the welterweight division.

In his last two UFC bouts, Penn entered his fights against Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald with at least a six-inch reach disadvantage, and “Baby Jay” took a lot of damage as a result. With no chance to get inside against his opponent and less of a chance to get the fight to the mat due to being undersized, Penn was basically a sitting duck for the majority of his last two fights. As a result, it appeared he was ready to retire.

Considering the amount of punishment Penn has taken over the last few years of his career, no one would blame him if he decided to hang up his gloves and call it a career. However, since Penn seems to be mulling over a comeback, it’s worth mentioning that a return to the cage for Penn would come at lightweight. And if he wants to find success, that’s the place to do it.

It’s no coincidence that the majority of Penn’s best performances have come when he has fought at 155 pounds. Whereas Penn could occasionally allow himself to get too comfortable and fall out of fight shape when he competed at welterweight, the cut down to 155 ensured that Penn would at the very least show up on fight night with the conditioning necessary to go a hard three rounds. A motivated, in-shape Penn is a very scary fighter and more often than not, that’s what we’ve gotten when Penn has fought in the lightweight division.

Since it’s pretty obvious that for Penn to be successful in his return he needs to compete at lightweight, the obvious question then revolves around who his potential opponent would be.

Rising star Khabib Nurmagomedov immediately threw his name in the hat as a potential opponent for Penn this week, but even though the Russian is undefeated and is one of the brightest young fighters in the division, it makes absolutely no sense for Penn to accept a fight against such a little-known fighter. The same could be said about the other man to call out Penn this week: Evan Dunham. Dunham is one of the most entertaining fighters in the division and he’s held his own against top competition at 155 before, but he doesn’t have the name value to make accepting a fight worth it for Penn.

The problem with finding a fight for Penn in the lightweight division at the moment comes down to the lack of big names near the bottom half of the top 10. Most of the well-known fighters at 155 are coming off big wins and looking to get back into the title mix, and throwing Penn against a young fighter gunning for a title shot doesn’t seem right at this point. Penn is likely never going to get near a UFC belt for the rest of his career, so putting him in the cage with another fighter sitting just outside of title contention makes the most sense.

Luckily, the UFC has Nate Diaz sitting around to provide Penn with the perfect opponent for a comeback fight.

Stylistically, these two fighters match up extremely well. On the feet, both men prefer to use their boxing to set up combinations. And when the fight hits the floor, Diaz and Penn both prefer to use their jiu-jitsu to finish bouts. Sure, Penn could run into a few of the same problems that he did against the elder Diaz at welterweight, including a massive reach disadvantage, but “The Prodigy” has consistently looked like a better fighter at 155 than he has at 170, and it could make all the difference in the world in a potential fight with Diaz.

It’s unlikely that Penn and Diaz would produce a boring fight in the cage, but it’s even more unlikely that both men would refrain from getting into a war of words leading up to the bout. Diaz isn’t quite as vocal as his older brother, but he’s made a habit of getting into some verbal sparring sessions prior to his last few fights, and Penn has never been one to back down from a good trash-talking battle. Simply put, this fight is a matchmaker’s dream, and all Joe Silva has to do is put it together.

With his career nearing its end, Penn needs to be careful about his choice of opponents if he’s serious about making a return to the cage. There’s no one on the UFC roster that makes more sense than Nate Diaz for Penn’s return to the lightweight division. Win or lose, Penn may decide to hang up his gloves for good after one more fight. If that fight happens against Diaz, at least it will be a fight worth remembering.

Photo: BJ Penn (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.