For only the second time in history – and the first since 2014 – the Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming to Phoenix.
The 2014 UFC event featured a number of fighters who would become much bigger stars over the next two years. Stipe Miocic, Rafael dos Anjos, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk all went on to win championships, while both Henry Cejudo and Alistair Overeem would challenge for the belts in their respective divisions. And Sunday, January 15’s fights will feature arguably the most legendary fighter to compete in Arizona — ever. His name is BJ Penn.
Although his 16-10-2 record may not look like much on paper, the bulk of Penn’s bouts have come against some of the best fighters of all time. As one of the most revered Hawaiian athletes ever, Penn won both the UFC Lightweight (155 pounds) in 2008 and Welterweight (170) Championships in 2004 after beginning his career as a truly elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor.
Before dropping to Featherweight (145) ahead of his last fight – a loss to the man who took the UFC Lightweight Championship from him, Frankie Edgar – the UFC Hall of Famer was already regarded as the best Lightweight fighter in history. Now, “The Prodigy” has moved the bulk of his training out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to train with the best in the business under famous trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn as he looks to become the first mixed martial artist to ever win a championship in three different weight classes.
“I’d love to make a run for the title,” the 38-year-old says. “I view fighting as seasonal, so I’ve got a fresh new year with 2017, and I’m ready to make a run for the Super Bowl. I’m not the guy to go around and say, ‘I want to fight this guy and that guy.’ I’ve been in the sport a long time, and it is what it is. It’s a sport of fighting and I don’t care who it is. People say ‘Oh I want this guy because that’s the money fight,’ but why don’t you make yourself the money man? Go knock everybody the fuck out and then everybody will want to fight you for money.”
But there are some serious odds stacked against Penn as he goes for his third title. The Hawaiian is coming off a two-year retirement, and he hasn't won a fight since 2010.
To much of the MMA community, Penn’s chance at the UFC Featherweight Championship belt is pretty slim. Sure, if he puts together a few good wins against tough competition – such as Sunday’s opponent, 10th-ranked Yair Rodriguez – Penn’s name and legacy are big enough to earn him a title shot over a lot of other fighters, but for someone coming off a two-year retirement who hasn’t won a fight since 2010, rattling off consecutive victories in 2017 could be a challenge. While a third championship may be the ultimate goal, it’s not the only reason the MMA legend continues to step into the octagon time and time again.
“I’m addicted to standing in front of people; I’m addicted to confrontation; I’m addicted to struggle,” Penn says. “I like this, and it’s my life. I don’t know what else I would do.”
Over the last handful of years, Penn has watched as the big names he lined his resume with have retired one after another. From welterweight legends like Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre to historic lightweights such as Jens Pulver and Sean Sherk, most of the opponents Penn has shared a cage with have hung up their gloves, giving way to a new generation of MMA stars.
But the new torchbearers don’t come into the UFC with the wrestling pedigree of Hughes or Penn’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu background. They grew up watching Penn knock out Hughes and choke out Pulver, and they’ve been training in every aspect of MMA since they first stepped into a gym. The well-rounded mentality is credited with elevating MMA to the level of competition and mainstream success it sees today, but Penn doesn’t buy into the whole “jack of all trades” thing.
“I think the fighters that had a base [in one martial art] were better than these guys who are all over the place,” Penn says. “I look at some of these fighters, and they’re all over the place. They learn this move and that move and this move and that move, but they don’t put it all together. Guys like Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell, you know what they’re going to do, but can you stop it? Maybe I’m speaking from inexperience from fighting these guys, but I think you should find your base and go as far as you can in that. Then when you want to go to MMA later, you can add everything else in around it.”
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As for his own mindset going into Sunday’s fight, Penn’s mental game hasn’t changed all that much since first joining the UFC in 2001. He’s still the same powerful and skilled fighter who famously licked Joe Stevenson’s blood off his gloves after submitting him to win the Lightweight Championship back in 2008, and he’s ready to give Phoenix’s MMA fans a classic BJ Penn performance on Sunday night.
“I’ve just been getting ready and staying humble like any other fight,” Penn says. “It doesn’t feel any different than when I was fighting Jens Pulver or Matt Hughes or anyone else. It’s just another good fighter standing in front of me. People should expect an unbelievable fight. It’s everything you get from a BJ Penn fight. If you don’t know what that is, then go watch some BJ Penn fights and get excited, because that’s what you’re going to see when I get there.”
UFC Fight Night starts at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 15, at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Tickets start at $40 and are still available on Ticketmaster.