When BJ Penn fights Rory MacDonald on Dec. 8 in Seattle, he’ll be facing a fighter almost 11 years his junior whom oddsmakers have installed as a significant betting favorite.
The UFC’s former lightweight and welterweight champion called it quits after taking his lumps in a unanimous decision loss to former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nate Diaz on Oct. 29, 2011. But when MacDonald called out the Wainaku warrior on “The MMA Hour” podcast in June, Penn quickly unretired.
The 23-year-old MacDonald trains at Montreal’s Tristar Gym, home of Penn’s arch-nemesis, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who holds two victories over Penn. Revenge and redemption may be factors, but there’s another motivation prompting Penn’s return to the octagon. He has always been fueled by his legacy, having once said: “I only want to be known as the best ever. Is that too much to ask?”
“People talk about the best fighters now and the best fighters ever, and my name’s not brought up as much when people talk about who the best fighters are now,” Penn said Friday. “I’ve got some motivation to have people mention my name when they talk about the upper echelon of what’s going on currently.”
Penn’s record is 16-8-1, but he is 1-3-1 in his last five fights. MacDonald is 13-1, the only blemish on his ledger a TKO loss two years ago to Carlos Condit.
“I think he’s very well-rounded,” Penn said. “He’s got good striking. He’s obviously worked on his takedowns with Tristar. He can kick; he can wrestle; he can fight off his back; he can fight on top. He’s a strong guy, athletic, young. So I expect him to be fearless going in. We’re gonna have to go at him, but not right at him. We’re gonna have to go around him. It’s gonna be good.”
A look beyond the numbers reveals a huge difference in the quality of opposition each fighter has faced. In addition to St. Pierre and Diaz, Penn has fought Matt Hughes three times, Jens Pulver and Frankie Edgar twice, plus Lyoto Machida, Jon Fitch, Sean Sherk, Renzo and Rodrigo Gracie, and Takanori Gomi. Condit, who lost a unanimous decision to St. Pierre on Nov. 17, is by far the best fighter on MacDonald’s résumé.
“I think experience is gonna be a factor,” Penn said. “I think the strength is the same, but I think I’m a lot faster and more technically proficient, and I think that’s what’s gonna make the difference at the end of the day.”
Penn’s training regimen has come under scrutiny — and criticism — in the past. He’s working again with trainer Tony Aponte, whom he worked with in preparation for Pulver, Sherk and Joe Stevenson. He’s also brought in some fearsome training partners with names familiar to MMA fans, including Tyron Woodley, Ben Askren, Pat Healy, Jay Hieron, Josh Thomson and Tarec Saffiedine.
Penn said he’s prepared to go the full 15 minutes, but added that he isn’t coming back “just to eke out a decision.”
The fight is part of the UFC on Fox 5 telecast, live at 3 p.m. Hawaii time on Saturday, Dec. 8, and network TV will give Penn the largest audience, at least in the U.S., to have witnessed him fight live.