It didn’t bother the UFC Hall of Famer, who kept his schedule of three days of sparring intact by flying in featherweight veteran (and former Rodriguez opponent) Alex Caceres for some work on the island.
“I really wanted to maintain those three days, so I ended up flying him in and we’ve been hitting it hard in sparring and keeping in touch with everybody,” Penn said.
The delays in getting to Arizona were just the latest in a series of such starts and stops for Penn since he announced his return for the first time since his July 2014 loss to Frankie Edgar. Some would say that these were signs, a way for the MMA gods to tell the 38-year-old that maybe he should have stayed in Hilo to enjoy a more sedate lifestyle in retirement.
Penn agrees that the MMA gods were sending him messages, though the message he received was a different one.
“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.”
Penn talks of not being as sharp in those early days in Albuquerque as he was in the past, of needing plenty of rounds and drills to get back to where he feels ready to not just fight, but to chase after a third UFC title. But even between the Edgar fight and his decision to resume his career, he required time of a different sort, to be BJ Penn, civilian.
“I definitely needed that time off that I took in the retirement,” he said. “This is a funny sport. You see people like Dan Henderson, you see (Fabricio) Werdum up there fighting at 39 years old, and Mark Hunt. But you never know how you’re going to fit in when it’s your turn to turn 40 and get in there with all these world-class athletes. But it’s exciting, I’m having fun and I don’t even know how old I am right now.”
He laughs, at ease in a situation that would stress most out. But Penn has never been like anyone else. He’s a fighter at his core, and it tore at him to leave the sport when he felt he had more to give. But now he’s back and it’s not about the money or the glory. No, “The Prodigy” is chasing bigger game.
“History was always my favorite subject,” he said. “I could never pass math (Laughs), but I always loved history. I really have to be a goal-oriented person to get involved with something because I’m either in or out. That’s how I am. Maybe I have to have a good cause in my head in order to go a hundred percent at something. When I got the 155-pound belt, I never thought about fighting for a 145-pound belt because it didn’t exist. I never thought this opportunity would happen, and then I see all the pieces of the puzzle that would have to be put together to make that accomplishment happen and the work that would have to be done, and that’s the direction I want to head in.”
Standing in the middle of the road is Rodriguez, a rising star from Mexico who has done all the right things since entering the Octagon for the first time in 2014. He’s 5-0 in the UFC, with two Fight of the Night and one Performance of the Night bonus, establishing him as a young man with championship potential. In October 2017, he will turn 25, a magic number for a lot of fighters, including Penn.
“Twenty-five was my prime,” he said. “I felt like I could fight anybody in the whole world – the youngest kid, the most experienced fighter. That’s the number I always tell myself. I said, ‘Man, when you’re 25.’ I just knew I could kick everybody’s ass in the whole world. I don’t know why, but that’s where my head was.”
When he turned 25, Penn had already fought for the UFC lightweight title twice, he was coming off a submission of Japanese star Takanori Gomi, and he was a month away from beating Matt Hughes for the UFC welterweight title. Two more wins over Duane Ludwig and Rodrigo Gracie followed before his 26th birthday, and at that point, he could have dropped the mic and walked away from the sport with a resume any fighter would envy. It was a different time.
“Today, the sport’s so big now, a guy wins a fight or a guy does anything and everybody’s talking about him,” Penn said. “You wouldn’t be able to really compare our (his and Rodriguez’) two careers when we were both 25, but it’s just because of how everything is so monumental now that people feel that he’s made some good accomplishments. And he is a good fighter.”
But is the young Rodriguez as good as the young Penn?
“Twenty-five was my prime and here we are making another run,” he laughs, not interested in giving up any bulletin board material to his opponent. “That’s just what it is.”
Penn knows all the talk in the world won’t save anyone when the Octagon gate closes. All the truth comes out on fight night, and no one knows that better than Penn, who does drop another interesting tidbit when talking about the sport he loves so much.
“This is not a physical game, this is an emotional game,” he said, bypassing the mental game altogether in his breakdown. “This is about emotion, it’s gonna be good.”
As good as his 25th year on the Earth? That remains to be seen, but when asked if he still feels that he could kick everybody’s ass like he did back then, it’s clear that Penn certainly has the emotional part tied down.
“Oh man,” he said. “I’m ready. I tell you right now, I’m ready. I’m ready to go.”