No surprise: Penn up for a challenge

June, 7, 2012
6/07/12
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Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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B.J. PennMartin McNeil for ESPN.comB.J. Penn, left, will have his hands full upon his Octagon return with Rory MacDonald.
Knowing what we know about B.J. Penn, it shouldn’t come as a shock that he’s offered to accept a fight against Rory MacDonald at UFC 152 later this year in Toronto.

The 22-year-old MacDonald said during an interview on the radio show, “The MMA Hour” on Monday, that he’d like a crack at Penn before the former two-division champion retires from the sport for good.

Two days later, Penn responded on his personal website with the statement, “Rory, I accept your challenge.”

Part of what has endeared Penn to mixed martial arts fans is his, at times, blind passion. He doesn’t play it safe and isn’t shy about pointing the finger at those who do. He’s confident and he takes risks.

When Penn meets MacDonald on Canadian soil though, it will arguably be the biggest gamble he’s ever made. This is either ending really good or really, really bad.

Respectfully, Penn (16-8) is one or two losses away from reaching that point in a fighter’s career where one starts to ask, “Why go on?” He’s 1-3-1 in his last five bouts, with the lone win coming off a slowed-down Matt Hughes.

It’s not that he can’t take a punch anymore and it’s not that he’s washed up. It’s just -- he’s at a level where he should only compete against the best. And against the absolute best, especially at welterweight, it’s unclear how successful he’ll be.

If Penn goes out there against MacDonald and gets thrown around, ends up on his back and takes a lot of damage, he’s really backed himself into a corner. Considering how good MacDonald has looked recently, the risk of this happening is fairly big.

He had other choices, but again, knowing Penn -- it makes sense this is where we’ve ended up. A fight against Josh Koscheck would have been fine, but what would it have gained him, really? A win doesn’t put Penn back in title contention and given all his accomplishments, it would have added little overall to his resume.

He could have gone to lightweight, an option many had hoped he’d take. Given his long history with conditioning issues and now the fact he’s been away from the sport during a brief “retirement” though, was that ever a realistic expectation?

No, accepting a matchup that appears virtually impossible on paper but one that would potentially catapult him back into title contention is the Penn way. Looking at it, there are a few ways to decipher why he chose this route.

1. It’s life or death. Why waste his time on any opponent except the very best. This is the guy they are saying is the future. If he can’t beat MacDonald, there’s no sense in sticking around. If you win, great. If you lose, then you know. It’s over.


2. It has been and still is all about the title. A fight against Koscheck would have worked for fans, but got him nowhere. He’d still be well behind the likes of Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks and Martin Kampmann. Now, here comes MacDonald -- a guy en route to a title. Ranked No. 6 in the world by ESPN.com, but in reality, perceptively higher in the minds of MMA fans. Beat him and a title shot isn’t far.

3. It’s been a long career and he needs something to motivate him. Dropping weight to go after a title he already won doesn’t do it. Koscheck, an opponent who’s never held the belt, doesn’t do it. A young, hungry prospect, being groomed as, “the next big thing,” that does it.

Whether you love or hate the move for Penn is fairly irrelevant. He loves his fans but always made it clear he would be the one to decide where his career went next.

If this turns out to be the final move for Penn, or at least the one that will be looked back on as the beginning of the end, at least it coincides with the rest of his career. While the experts and analysts hoped for a drop to 155, Penn accepted a challenge from one of the biggest guys in the entire welterweight division in the guy’s backyard.

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