After being smashed by Rory MacDonald in December of 2012, former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion BJ Penn elected to hang up the gloves. A year and a half later, he strapped those gloves back on for an ill-advised featherweight bout with Frankie Edgar. As the majority of fight fans predicted, this featherweight foray went terribly for the MMA legend, who was quick to retire again in the moments after the bout.
Apparently, however, Penn's post-Edgar retirement was no more permanent than his post-MacDonald retirement. Earlier this week, it was confirmed that the 37-year-old Hawaiian was planning another comeback. And though he spent the best years of his career at lightweight, it's now known that this looming comeback will occur at featherweight, where he was so recently demolished by Edgar.
That said, Penn appears to be taking the comeback very seriously. He has moved from Hawaii to Jackson-Wink MMA—arguably the best camp in the game—and seems to be reinvigorated. So, while his goal of becoming the first UFC fighter to hold belts in three divisions seems nearly impossible, his planned comeback is looking fairly intriguing. This begs the question: who welcomes the MMA legend back to the Octagon? Well, it should come as no surprise that a fighter of his caliber has plenty of options.
Until a few days ago, the most logical choice for Penn was Nik Lentz, as the two have recently swapped plenty of verbal fire. A key detail of Lentz's most recent reply to Penn, however, was that their potential bout would have to occur at lightweight. Now that we know Penn is set on a featherweight run, the chances of a Lentz-Penn showdown seem slim. That means that, when weighing Penn's options, we'll have to comb the UFC featherweight roster. Luckily, the division is packed with interesting choices for the Hawaiian great.
Penn has made no secret of his featherweight goals: he wants the title. Yet at 37, he doesn't have time to dilly-dally. If he hopes to reach a title shot any time soon, he'll have to fight and beat a handful of the UFC's top featherweights quickly. That said, throwing Penn in there with a fighter like Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas or—god forbid—Frankie Edgar, seems premature at this stage. He is, after all, an ugly 1-5-1 in his last 7 fights.
Pairing Penn with a fighter on the outer edge of the featherweight top-10 does seem reasonable, however. Imagine, for example, a collision of Penn and Jeremy Stephens or Dennis Bermudez. Both of these featherweights have looked great recently, but have also shown chinks in their armor. While either fighter would represent a stark test for an aging Penn, both also look like surmountable challenges for him.
It's probably wiser to view Penn's return through a more pragmatic lens. Cry as he might for a title shot, his recent record speaks for itself. Even under the tutelage of experts like Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, his staying afloat amongst the sharks of the featherweight deep seems very unlikely.
Luckily, he's got plenty of other choices that are likely to interest him, and the fans.
Imagine, for example, a showdown between Penn and Clay Guida. For many years, Guida stood out as one of the premier players at both lightweight and featherweight. More recently, however, he's lost his footing, alternating wins over Tatsuya Kawajiri and Robbie Peralta with one-sided losses to Dennis Bermudez and Thiago Tavares. At this stage, then, he'd provide a great test for Penn. And though Guida is often maligned for his less-than-pretty game plans, Penn is likely to bring out the best in him—he might even coax out the version of Guida who blew our minds in a 2009 brawl with Diego Sanchez. Furthermore, with Guida's recent move from the Jackson-Wink stable to Elevation Fight Team, the timing for such a bout couldn't be better.
A similar option for Penn would be Tatsuya Kawajiri. Like Penn and Takanori Gomi, Kawajiri was once considered one of the best lightweight fighters in the world. Unfortunately, he never crossed paths with Penn in his best years. Though he is currently a shell of his former self, Kawajiri remains a fixture of the featherweight top-15. So, no matter how he performs in his February 21 bout with Dennis Bermudez, he would provide a fun and historically relevant welcome-back for Penn.
Then there are the less likely options which, though far-fetched, are fun to think about. When it comes to matchups of this kind for Penn, there's perhaps no choice more intriguing than Urijah Faber. Granted, Faber is currently competing at bantamweight, and with Dominick Cruz's recent defeat of TJ Dillashaw, seems poised for a final, grudge-infused crack at that division's title. That said, Faber's title wishes could well be brushed aside by a Cruz-Dillashaw rematch. In that event, he might opt to stay busy with a featherweight bout against Penn. He recently made a similar trip north to take on Frankie Edgar, and though that trip didn't go as planned, he'd undoubtedly be intrigued by the prospect of a scrap with a legend like Penn.
All this to say that while it's fun to think about Penn claiming a title in a third weight class, or even duking it out with top-10 featherweights like Bermudez or Stephens, his best choice at this juncture is probably against other aging talents like Guida, Kawajiri, or Faber. Of course, these aren't the types of fights that are going to thrust him directly into title contention, but they are the kind of fights that would help him build up some sorely-needed momentum, and entertain the fans in the process.
Then again, Penn's supernal fighting legacy means that no matter who he fights in this questionable comeback, we'll all tune in. And just as he's proven so many times throughout his illustrious career, it'd be unwise to count him out against any prospective opponent, no matter how dangerous. He is, after all, one of MMA's best ever.