Sometime in the recent past, B.J. Penn noticed a trend that alarmed him. After years of hearing his name in the discussion of the sport's greatest fighters, Penn had begun listening to interview after interview where it was no longer brought up. The person talking would inevitably mention Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre and others, but the Hawaiian who had fought in more weight classes than any major fighter of the modern era was noticeably missing.
"I really don't like that. It really bothers me," he said in a Tuesday teleconference for UFC on FOX 5.
That, he said, is one of the many things that motivated him to get into optimal shape to face Rory MacDonald for the night's co-main event. Make no mistake about it. Penn gets that he has no one to blame for this but himself, saying, "I know it's my fault," particularly incriminating himself for failure to prepare properly for some of his recent matches.
But this time? This time he says it's different. After all, despite still being just 33 years old, it could be the last time. Penn pondered retirement after his last bout, and for this one has refused to look past the date of the show, with everything hinging on how he performs against the young Canadian upstart.
"I’m just focusing on this fight," he said. "I got no more plans after this. Once I do have plans, I’ll call Dana [White] and we’ll talk at that point but I have no plans after Dec. 8. My whole life is just into that."
But it took more than just the potential conclusion of his career to get him going. When MacDonald said during a press conference in July that last time he'd seen Penn, he was "really out of shape," and that he'd hurt Penn, that bit at the proud ex-champ.
The fight being postponed from its original September date to December was the best thing that could have happened, Penn said, allowing him extra time to whip himself into shape.
"That really lit a fire under my butt," he said. "I think I'm down under 10 percent [body fat] now. I'm ready to go. I'm expecting the best B.J. Penn that I've ever seen, so we'll just see how this all plays out."
Fans, of course, have heard this all from Penn before, that he's in fantastic shape and ready to go. But just to prove his point, Penn posted a video of himself last week looking lean and fit.
It's essentially a must-win for him. Penn has only won a single time since the start of 2010, a crushing 21-second win over Matt Hughes at UFC 123. But that performance is emblematic of who Penn has become over that time, a fighter capable of a blistering first round but who fades thereafter. The same script was followed in his loss to Nick Diaz and draw against Jon Fitch, both fights in which he won the first round before running out of gas.
MacDonald, 23, faded in his only career loss, but that came in the last round of a fight with Carlos Condit, a bout that was held at a scorching pace. Since then, he's only gone past the second round once, but in that bout, a dominant win over Nate Diaz, he showed no signs of fatigue in the final five minutes.
That's led many to believe that Penn could find himself in trouble against MacDonald as the fight goes along. It's even a warning MacDonald himself passed along to Penn back in July when he said, "I don't know where his head is at in this, but he better get serious or I'm going to hurt him very badly."
Those words were music to Penn's ears, the decorated veteran needing more and more fuel to get himself through the grueling training camp process. Now, just two weeks away, he's promising to deliver his best. He's still got something to prove. He's still got lists to make.
"Everything is current," he said. "I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Everything is current. I don't want to just be known as 'Oh, he was good back in the day.' I want to be known as one of the best. With that said, I don't want to sit here and sound like I want more admiration because you just said a lot of people admire me. I still think I have something left to accomplish."