There is no shortage of unease and hand wringing over recent years whenever the topic of another B.J. Penn comeback arises.
A UFC Hall of Famer and former two-division champion, Penn was once one of the most feared men in the sport during his heyday as lightweight and welterweight king. But those days have passed. It’s been nearly eight years since “The Prodigy” picked up his last win — a 21-second knockout of Matt Hughes back in 2010 — and his performances in the time since have been rough, to say the least. Penn has lost five consecutive fights and come out of retirement three times. His latest run saw him drop back-to-back outings in 2017 against Yair Rodriguez and Dennis Siver, the former of which ended via brutal TKO stoppage.
But nevertheless, Penn continues to push on.
“The Prodigy” is next slated to meet decorated jiu-jitsu artist and TUF 22 winner Ryan Hall in a lightweight contest on Dec. 29 at UFC 232. And for Hall, who is returning from a two-year layoff of his own, the question of where Penn stands today and whether the living legend should carry on with his MMA career is a complicated one.
“I think it’s hard to say,” Hall explained on a recent edition of The MMA Hour. “As an athlete, I think that as with any of us, we think about doing what you love doing and what you’re meant to do — and I know how I felt when I was called by the UFC and they said, ‘Hey, B.J. Penn would like to fight.’ I remember how it felt. Immediately, I was excited to face a challenge. Also, that’s tempered against the danger of what could happen if you don’t do your job. But you know what you’re doing is — I won’t go far as to say what you’re meant to do, but certainly something you love to do.
“We talk about the people who have not faced this competition, that competition, because of the risk and reward. I think risk and reward is something that’s only every now and then factored in for B.J., and I respect the heck out of him for that. I think it’s the sort of thing that puts you at risk. I mean, look at him fighting at 170 all of those times. He had a mixed record at 170, but he always performed pretty well, sometimes amazingly well, and always fought only the best, and all of these guys were naturally massive compared to him. So I guess it’s one of the things that makes him special that is one of the things that can get you in trouble, and I think that’s probably the truth for all of us. For anyone of us in anything, all of your strengths cut both ways.
“It’s funny how that works. But I would say, at least as far as I’m concerned, B.J. is still very, very dangerous,” Hall continued. “And I think a lot of the people — and I’m not pointing this at anyone — but a lot of the people who look at fighting as if it’s like a Madden where, ‘Oh, I’m a 93 and you’re a 96, I’ll never outrun you. If you get it in the open field, you’re gonna win.’ The people who are not getting in the ring with him have the luxury of being a little bit dismissive. Speaking personally, that could end poorly.
“[So] I guess I would say it’s hard to tell anyone when to hang it up, and I think that when B.J. Penn wants to fight, I think you give the guy a fight. That’s my opinion. And I know very well that this person is very dangerous. And maybe, physically, of course he’s not the same person he was when he was 23, but he’s also tactically evolved. And as far as competing against me, he’s got 30 MMA fights, the vast majority of them at a very high level. I have 10 if you count The Ultimate Fighter. So, it balances out interestingly, but I think that also he’s being given some concessions. We’re fighting at ’55 — ’55 is not my weight class. So I think a lot of the things that maybe would’ve been trouble in the past, like, ‘Hey, you want to fight at 170 against Rory MacDonald right now?’ — I don’t know if that’s a great idea, but I don’t think that’s the case here.”
Many supporters of Penn’s continued pursuit of MMA glory have pointed to the stylistic matchup between he and Hall as a reason why the UFC 232 booking makes sense.
Hall, 33, is a grappler by trade, a leglock specialist whose submission skills rival any other fighter’s at the lower weight classes. By contrast, Penn’s entire five-fight losing streak has come against opponents well versed in the standup arts, which has led the 39-year-old Penn to sustain a heavy amount of damage over the course of his late-career slide. That threat will still be omnipresent against Hall, but perhaps less so than it would be for Penn against some of the more seasoned strikers in the lightweight division.
With his jiu-jitsu roots, Hall also holds a deep respect for what Penn has been able to accomplish throughout his time in the fight game.
“B.J. Penn has been personally extremely inspiring to me,” Hall said. “I still think that maybe only one or two other people have passed the guard like he has in MMA. Maybe him, Demian Maia, obviously there’s others, Kenny Florian did a very good job as well. But I think that, it’s funny. It was interesting, it’s very interesting. I’ve never been in a situation like this quite before where I’m getting to compete against the people who I’ve looked up to, truly looked up to since the beginning of even my grappling career.
“I think that our jiu-jitsu is actually a little bit more similar than people realize, but it’ll be interesting to find out on the night. And I can absolutely say that I’ve drawn a great deal of inspiration and information from watching B.J. compete over the years.”
As for Hall’s future, now that he is back on track to fight for the first time since 2016, Hall hopes he is able to carry his momentum forward from UFC 232. His layoff was not purposeful — he said on The MMA Hour that the main reason for his two-year hiatus was a lack of willing and meaningful opposition — and Hall is optimistic that the Penn fight could lead to a much more busy 2019 schedule.
“God willing, yes. Win, lose, or draw, I absolutely look forward to competing a lot more frequently, and I hope that the performance I put on will — win, lose, or draw — create an opportunity and interest in other people being willing to fight,” Hall said. “I guess time will tell, but it’s again, right now I’m 100-percent focused on facing absolutely the greatest challenge that I’ve ever personally faced in martial arts. I will just look forward to that and then we’ll see what happens after.”