BJ Penn and the Never-ending Comeback

The night of July 6th, 2014 was a tough one for many.

As the nineteenth installment of the UFC’s flagship reality show drew to a close, two hopeful up-and-comers were awarded contracts with the world’s largest Mixed Martial Arts promotion for their efforts throughout show and the stage was set for the traditional coaches bout to conclude the season.

Typically, opposing coaches on the ultimate fighter are a pair of rivals, two athletes on a collision course, be it for a championship, number one contender status or simply to significantly elevate their status within their weight class. The UFC selects coaches that make for a compelling bout which will build anticipation as the show unfolds. In this case though, they broke the mould.

This particular coaches’ showdown had no shortage of name value, as former champion Frankie Edgar would square off against UFC legend BJ Penn for the third time. On paper the matchup would make for good television, however this was not an example of two familiar foes settling a score, but rather an ageing great trying desperately to hold on to a career that had long surpassed him.

BJ Penn had no business being in the cage with Frankie Edgar that night. In their two previous bouts Edgar had been victorious, leaving no reason for a third meeting. In the years since the two first met, Edgar had begun to settle in to what would eventually become the most impressive run of his career, while Penn had gone winless in three outings. So, how did the match up come together? Because when you achieve legend status, you can call in some favours with your employers, even at a detriment to your own wellbeing.

Frankie Edgar annihilated BJ Penn within one round, making him look shrivelled up, confused and uncomfortable at the very prospect of being in a cage fight. The loss was an emotional one for Penn, who at the post event press conference admitted that attempting to come back from retirement was a bad idea. The former lightweight and welterweight champion vowed to call it quits for good and said that he felt the experience showed him once and for all that he just didn’t have it any more. 

So, why, a year and a half later, are we again hearing talk of a comeback?

It has hit the press in recent weeks that Penn has moved camps to the famed Jackson-Winklejohn gym in Albuquerque, NM and has spoked with Dana White about his desire to capture a third UFC championship at featherweight, starting with a return against public rival Nik Lentz.

In this situation we truly have to wonder, for Penn, what will it take for him to retire for good? The Edgar fight was not the first that saw him take a brutal beating and decide immediately post fight that fighting was no longer in his best interests, he held a similar sentiment after bouts against Rory Macdonald and Nick Diaz, only to go back on his decision and cause himself more harm. for Penn fans, the string of comebacks is heartbreaking, due in large part to the fact that it damages the legacy of one of the sports all time greats.

In the age of mainstream superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, a large percentage of the UFC audience won’t see Penn for who he is, a once unstoppable force with a mix of blinding hand speed and a world class ground game. A fighter who would take on all comers at any weight class. The man who brought eyes to the UFC lightweight division at a time it struggled to stay afloat. Instead, they will see, a beaten up, shadow of one of the most important figures in the sport’s history.

And for that reason, BJ, I beg you, if you have to come back again, let this one be your last.

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