AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – With a stunning 21-second knockout of Matt Hughes in their long-awaited rubber match at Saturday's UFC 123 event, former lightweight champ B.J. Penn has become relevant once against at welterweight.
He knows people have questioned his commitment to the sport, and Penn is determined to put that behind him.
That's why the 31-year-old wants to make one final run and then call it quits, likely at age 35.
Penn pounced from the opening bell of the fight, which co-headlined Saturday's UFC 123 event at The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. He let his hands fly, and though Hughes attempted to do the same, Penn connected first with a right hook. Hughes hit the canvas, and Penn followed with a series of blows to force the swift knockout stoppage.
"I wanted him to hit me, and I wanted to hit him," said Penn, who moved up a weight class after losing his belt and a rematch to current champ Frankie Edgar earlier this year. "I was just in the mindset to fight like a kid. I got into this to fight, and I know a lot of people have been questioning if I was motivated or I wanted to do this. I really wanted to come out and show everyone my fighting spirit."
For UFC president Dana White, the performance harkened back to the days of vintage B.J. Penn, the intense and fiery Hawaiian who once ruled the lightweight division with iron fists (and rubber legs).
When White first pitched Penn on the rubber match with Hughes, he jumped at the opportunity. Now White thinks Penn can make a serious run at welterweight. And as he revealed after UFC 123, White already has pitted Penn (16-7-1 MMA, 12-6-1 UFC) against top contender Jon Fitch (23-3 MMA, 13-1 UFC) at February's UFC 127 event in Australia.
"I think he looks good at 170 (pounds)," White said of Penn. "When he walked into the octagon tonight, he had that crazy, talking to himself, swearing to himself, hyped up (mentality). He had that energy, and he looked hyped up."
Still, Penn is taking the win in stride. He knows luck played a small part in it, and he's not about to claim his dominance over one of the sport's true legends.
"It's just something that happens," Penn said of the victory-sealing punch. "Who knows how it would have played out if it went longer?"
So what's next for Penn? With a retooled fight camp and the help of traditional Eastern medicine, does he want to stay at 170 pounds? Does he want to return to lightweight at some point?
"You know what? For the first time in my career, I'm going to let Dana make that call," Penn said. "Whatever Dana says, we'll go with that."
That left the boss in shock.
"Holy [expletive]," White gasped.
But regardless of the weight class, Penn just wants to stay busy. He used to balloon up in weight between fights, and questions about his commitment to the sport usually were justified.
Recently, though, Penn has remained in year-round camps. To compete at a higher level, his God-given talents are no longer enough, and he learned that in recent years.
Additionally, he knows his time is limited. So with Fitch and all his future opponents, he wants to line up the fights and cut out the off time.
"I want to get back in there as soon as possible," he said. "I'm 31 right now. I want to fight a lot more until I'm 35 and then maybe call it quits."