B.J. Penn Still Has The Skills to Compete With the Best Lightweights in the UFC

Jeremy BotterMMA Senior WriterJuly 9, 2013

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27:  BJ Penn of the USA walks into the arena before the start of his welterweight bout agains John Fitch of the USA as part of UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

I'm not here to tell you if B.J. Penn is going to fight again. But I can tell you what I know after speaking with Penn on Sunday.

Or, at least what I think I know. Because with Penn, you are never quite sure.

First, I'll give you my observation:

Penn is lighter than I've seen him in a long time. This is not the welterweight version of "The Prodigy," which is pretty much the worst version of Penn. On the surface, this at least looks like the lightweight Penn, or at least very near it, and he appears to be priming himself for a comeback to the Octagon.

Again, I'm not telling you if Penn is going to fight again. When we asked "The Prodigy" if he planned on returning to the Octagon, he told us that he wasn't sure. He has a very specific agenda in mind, and it doesn't involve getting repeatedly punched in the face. 

"I don't want to come back if I'm just going to get beaten up," Penn said.  

If Penn came back to the Octagon, he'd be returning to a very different landscape than the one he left. When Frankie Edgar wrenched control of the title away from Penn back at UFC 112, Penn had reigned as the most dominant lightweight in the history of the sport for years.

Gray Maynard was knocking on the door of title contention, and there were no World Extreme Cagefighting lightweights in the UFC. Sean Sherk was still considered a potential contender. I'd assumed Sherk had retired until I saw him waltzing around the UFC Fan Expo last week in Las Vegas.

This is a different world. He's not returning to the division he once dominated; he's coming back to a world ruled by Benson Henderson, who has already tied Penn's record for most lightweight title defenses (three) and is the odds-on favorite to add another when he meets T.J. Grant next month.

Henderson isn't just motivated. He's driven to become the best in his division right now and to be the best ever. He wants to break Anderson Silva's now-stagnant record for most UFC title defenses (10). He shows the kind of grit and determination that we've seen from Penn in the past. The only difference is that Penn was sporadic in displaying his fire, while Henderson—despite his cool exterior and seeming indifferent to the notion that he's in the middle of a cage fight—well, he's always on fire. Always capable and always ready. 

But Penn was always a different fighter at lightweight than at welterweight. He seemed more focused and just better overall. He had something to prove. He had the crazy eyes.

At welterweight, Penn was content to train and do just enough, and still he competed admirably with some of the better fighters in the division, even in recent years when the UFC seemed fine with the idea of using Penn as a kind of name-value booster for its young up-and-coming fighters. 

I don't know how Penn would fare at lightweight in 2013 or 2014. Perhaps he should stay retired. He may not be able to hang with stud athletes like Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson or even Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone. Penn's expiration date may have drifted through our rear-view mirrors years ago, and not even a drop back to his best fighting weight can help him. 

Or perhaps we'll see "The Prodigy" step back in the cage and continue the history-making story he began when he earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in an astounding (and record-setting) three years, or when he became the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division at the 2000 World Championships. 

I know which one I'd prefer.

When handed a choice between Penn staying in Hawaii and never competing again or returning to the UFC for marquee matches with Melendez or Diaz or—and you can file this one under the "you never know" department—even a title shot with Henderson?

Well, I know which one I'd choose. And I suspect you do, too.