Friday | December 15, 2017
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MMA: Penn a big underdog in return Sunday in Phoenix

When BJ Penn enters the octagon Sunday in Phoenix to face Yair Rodriguez, the 38-year-old former two-division UFC champion from Hilo will face long odds in making the fight his first step toward his stated goal of capturing a third title belt.

As of Wednesday, the betting line on Rodriguez (9-1), a 24-year-old from Mexico and the UFC’s No. 10 featherweight contender, was -450 according to the online sports book Gamblers Palace, which means a bettor would have to wager $450 to profit $100 on the bet. Meanwhile, the odds on Penn (16-10-2), are +355, meaning a wager of $100 will bring a return of $455.

Penn is 1-5-1 in his last seven fights, and his last victory came in a 21-second knockout in 2010 over former UFC welterweight king Matt Hughes in the rubber match of their trilogy. That said, he’s a UFC Hall of Famer and his star power is such he still can headline a fight card. In a recently televised countdown of the UFC’s 200 greatest fighters, Penn ranked No. 7.

“Everyone’s asking me why I’m coming back and I’ve got a thousand reasons, you know,” Penn said in a UFC video. “I want to make an honest living. I know I can do this. I’m just not made to sit on the couch. I’m not made to sit behind a desk.”

This will be Penn’s second fight at 145 pounds, having lost a third-round TKO on July 6, 2014, to Frankie Edgar — his last fight and his third loss to Edgar.

The New Jersey native wrested Penn’s lightweight title by unanimous decision in April 2010 and won a unanimous nod in the rematch in August that year.

“Everybody who fights at different weights can say this and that, but there’s only one man hunting his third world title,” Penn said. “That’s BJ Penn. That’s why I’m here.”

Rodriguez grew up in Parral, a city of 100,000 in southern Chihuahua, and sports a spectacular style with a multitude of kicks and is 5-0 in the UFC octagon. But while Penn has traded blows with a murderer’s row of opponents, including Edgar, Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, Renzo Gracie, Jens Pulver, Takanori Gomi and Lyoto Machida, the most recognizable foe on Rodriguez’s résumé is Alex Caceres, whom Rodriguez defeated via five-round split decision in August.

“He’s like, a legend,” Rodriguez said of Penn. “He says he wants to go for a third belt. … It’s my turn. I’m going to prove myself, that I can beat one of the best, and I’m going to be the champion of the world.”

Rodriguez, known as “El Pantera,” is riding a streak of eight wins, dating back to February 2013.

“I push myself harder than anyone, and I always try to go deeper — and that’s what I try to do always. In my life, in my training, it’s in everything. So, I think that makes me different than other fighters,” he said.

Penn’s strategy against the younger, favored opponent?

“You know, I’m gonna get out there and bounce around and just scrap, just scrap,” he said, repeating the mantra that adorns his T-shirts.

As of late, Penn has trained at the vaunted Jackson-Wink Academy, a gym that trains the likes of Jon Jones and Holly Holm.

“I think he’s got a few more good fights in him,” trainer Greg Jackson said. “He’s just got to change some things up, and getting different ideas, different looks, I think it’s a positive thing.”

Penn has also reconnected with a familiar face from past fights, boxing coach Jason Parillo.

“We’ve picked up a world title together, lost a world title together, but we always talked,” Penn said. “There was never a time when me and him weren’t keeping contact.”

Parillo admits his history with Penn has been a roller-coaster ride, but added, “I’m excited for BJ to come out and show the world who the (expletive) he is.”

Penn’s training partners for the fight include hard-boiled veteran Diego Sanchez, whom Penn stopped via fifth-round TKO in 2009, and the aforementioned Caceres — known as “Bruce Leeroy” — whose flashy style is similar to Rodriguez’s.

Some saw the lopsided loss in the third Edgar fight as a sign Penn should remain retired, but “The Prodigy” appears to have received a different message.

“You know what, the MMA gods were saying, ‘Hey BJ, I think you need a little more time,’” he said. “And I feel like a different person, completely, from how I felt when I walked into Greg Jackson’s gym to right now. It’s a year later, I trained with them from six to eight months, then I started training in California back and forth, and I needed the time. That’s the bottom line. But I’m very happy with the way everything played out.”

Weigh-ins will air on Fox Sports 1, channels 214 and 1214 on Oceanic Time-Warner cable, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Hawaii time. They will be re-run on Fox Sports 2, channel 241 at 5 p.m.

The fight will air on Fox Sports 1 starting with the preliminaries at 3 p.m. Sunday and the main card at 5 p.m. The prelims will be rerun at 8 p.m., following the post-fight show, while the main card will be aired again at 10 p.m.

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