By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
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.
“I really enjoyed this camp,” he said. “We’ve had some good training. Coming off of one year off — don’t get me wrong, the sparring was hard and we took our licks for a couple weeks — but we’re in the groove now and everything just seems kind of fun.”
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.
“I’m very excited about fighting on Fox. I’m glad that everyone in Hawaii can just turn on the channel and get to watch,” he said.
Penn is used to being in either the main event or the semi-main, but that won’t be the case this time out. The main event will be the UFC lightweight title clash between champion Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz, while the semi-main will feature former UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson.
“I don’t want to sound too cocky, but in reality, I look at the Fox 5 card and everybody says it’s such a big card,” he said. “But I keep thinking, how big of a card would it be if I wasn’t on the card. You know what I mean? It would be a title fight with Ben and Nate, who are good fighters, but aren’t that well known, and the fight with Shogun, who’s one of my favorite fighters, fighting Gustafsson, who’s not that well known. But all in all, it’s a very good card.”
At Penn’s request, he and MacDonald are undergoing strict pre-fight testing for performance enhancing drugs by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). Fuel TV MMA commentator Ariel Helwani said that MacDonald finds the tests “annoying” and added “BJ loves this.”
“I would’ve taken the fight regardless, but I think it’s in his best interests to agree to it, too,” Penn said.
The father of two young daughters, Penn will turn 34 on Dec. 13 — five days after the fight — and admits that fighting, for him, is not the same as it was a decade ago.
“I’m not gonna lie. I was much more fearless back then. I think things through a little bit more now,” he said. “I’m a little bit afraid to go in now, but I have more experience, I’m smarter. I have all these things on this side. I still have relative youth on my side when it comes to going through the physical things, but when I was in my early 20s, maybe up to about 27, I was just fearless. Now I think about it a little more; I know there are dangers involved.
“Being a dad, it brings that stuff up to the forefront. What if I get hurt? What about my kids? It comes into your head. It doesn’t play a factor in those decisions, but it does come up once in awhile.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.