"That arena's packed, everybody's screaming your name, you're making tons of money, and it's hard to walk away from that."
Dana White was painting a lustrous picture, his first couple of brush strokes decorating a canvas that had been covered by one man's masterwork more than two dozen times. Twenty-seven times, to be exact. That's 16-9-2, if you're into a full accounting.
The UFC president was speaking in the aftermath of a fight night back in May, a few minutes after he had stepped to a press conference podium and announced Forrest Griffin was retiring and would be inducted into the promotion's Hall of Fame. But now he was chatting informally with a group of media folks. And talking no longer about Griffin, but about an active -- or semi-active -- fighter whom Dana was hoping to see follow Forrest's lead.
"I want B.J. Penn to retire," said White, referring to his former lightweight and welterweight champion, who had not fought in the five months since being beaten up by bigger, stronger Rory MacDonald. It was the continuation of a ruinous run for the former champ, who has but one victory in his five bouts since 2009. What a comedown for a fighter whom Anderson Silva has said is the greatest mixed martial artist ever.
"You've won belts in two different weight classes. You're one of the greatest ever," White continued. "You have money. You have a beautiful family."
Penn had a lot going for him, to be sure, but at age 34, the MMA game seemed to have gotten away from him.
The UFC announced Wednesday that Penn will indeed fight again. And coach. And portray the leading man in the promotion's melodramatic brand of reality. B.J. will coach opposite Frankie Edgar on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, after which they will fight for a third time. Their shared drama began in the spring of 2010, when Edgar ended Penn's two-year reign as 155-pound king with a unanimous-decision win. Frankie then retained the belt with a more convincing decision win four months later. Part 3 will be contested, however, in Edgar's current division, featherweight.
That last part is what makes White's about-face seem not so peculiar. The protectiveness the UFC poobah had shown toward Penn came in the wake of B.J. having moved up to welterweight and getting outmuscled and overwhelmed. That had never happened to him at lightweight, even in losses. Now, down at 145 pounds, he'll have a chance to be the big guy. And a much-desired opportunity to redeem himself against a fighter who has haunted him.
"The kid's fired up. He's got me fired up about this," said White. "He believes he can beat Frankie Edgar, he can compete at 145 pounds. It's tough to say no to B.J."
A more interesting conversation to overhear, though, would have been the one in which White enticed Edgar on board. What's in this whole arrangement for Frankie, after all? Once you've already beaten someone twice, what more do you have to prove?
Well, Edgar has not a thing to prove against Penn. But the TUF platform could prove useful in helping him raise the profile of his personal brand. It might sound ludicrous to suggest that a former champion would need a boost in status, but even going all the way back to 2009, when Frankie put himself on the map with an upset of former lightweight champ Sean Sherk, he has flown under the radar the way a lunchpail-carrying blue-collar guy might be expected to. He's softspoken, no-nonsense, easy to overlook.
The 31-year-old Edgar (16-4-1) is a rare fighter whose stature hasn't changed much whether he's been winning or losing. Frankie never put Penn in trouble in either of their fights, and there still are those who'll insist Penn is the better man. Edgar's subsequent two-fer with Gray Maynard is best remembered for the dire straits Frankie was in both times ... despite the fact that the then-champ ended the latter fight with a knockout. Last year's title loss to Benson Henderson was closely contested, as was his defeat in the rematch, so much so that Frankie remained in some pound-for-pound Top 10 rankings. Even when his losing streak reached three with a failed attempt to take the featherweight belt from José Aldo in February, Edgar remained near the top of the 145-pound ladder. A July victory over Charles Oliveira did little to build momentum.
A 10-week run in front of a Fox Sports 1 audience can't help but push the guy forward.
Or at least push Edgar in some direction. Or push some buttons. There's no knowing where the TV production crew will take the show's narrative. Look at the current TUF season, with women's bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey coaching against archnemesis Miesha Tate. In the name of drama, the UFC allowed Fox to treat one of its biggest stars like it might some attention-grabbing bachelorette, survivor or idol, manipulatively marching her out to meet opposing coach Cat Zingano, only for Ronda to discover that Zingano was out and Tate was in, all with the cameras rolling. Disrespectful. Unprofessional.
"It kind of set the tone for the whole series, where they were purposefully going out of their way to manipulate me just as dramatically as possible," Rousey said following a media preview screening of Season 18's first episode last month. "One of the reasons I walked away from the whole experience with a sour taste in my mouth was they didn't really care about making it easy on us. They cared about making it difficult on us. So it was nice to know right off the bat what their priorities where, and it wasn't us."
That's a lucid lens through which Penn and Edgar might be wise to view their upcoming experience.