His opponent has long been referred to as "The Prodigy," a nickname with a sell-by date if ever there were one. And Rory MacDonald is just the guy to take it over.
Perhaps the transfer of ownership can take place when MacDonald and B.J. Penn clash on the next UFC card, which will be televised on the Fox network on Dec. 8.
Then again, at 23, MacDonald is evolving beyond the potential of genius that he began showing off when he made his mixed martial arts debut at 16, near where he grew up in British Columbia. He's become a rising contender among welterweights, beginning when he reeled off 10 straight victories, mostly in small Canadian promotions, before being stopped cold by Carlos Condit in his second bout in the UFC. Through two rounds on that night in June 2010, MacDonald actually was getting the best of the former WEC champion. But the more experienced fighter persevered, finishing MacDonald with just seven seconds to go.
How did Rory react? Ten months later, he dominated a pretty tough guy, Nate Diaz, throwing him around like a rag doll, on the way to a unanimous decision. Diaz has since dropped back to lightweight and become a dynamo in that division. He will challenge Benson Henderson for the belt in the main event of the Dec. 8 UFC on Fox event in Seattle.
MacDonald followed up that impressive win with two brutal stoppages, knocking out Mike Pyle in August 2011 and Che Mills last April. So now he's ready to move on to B.J. Penn, right?
Not entirely. That loss to Condit still grates at MacDonald, as quickly became evident during a question-and-answer session with fans held before the UFC 154 weigh-ins two Fridays ago in Montreal. While Rory did have some things to say about Penn that afternoon, his energy heightened when Condit's name came up. And it made perfect sense that Carlos would enter the conversation. Condit was due to fight Georges St-Pierre in the next night's main event.
That 170-pound title fight would be big for the two fighters, naturally, but it was to be pretty significant for MacDonald as well. Rory trains at TriStar gym, having moved across the country following the loss to Condit to bring his career to the Montreal facility. So for a year and a half he's been a training partner of St-Pierre. They're friends. They're not going to fight. Ever.
"It's just not going to happen," MacDonald said in response to a fan's question. "I don't want to sacrifice a friendship and my spot training at TriStar."
So despite being a fast-rising star in the division, MacDonald isn't going after the belt while St-Pierre is wearing it.
That has allowed MacDonald to set his sights on a Condit rematch. He wasn't rooting for his friend to lose. He wanted Carlos no matter what. "We'll see how the fight with Georges and Carlos goes," he told fans. "Either way, I plan on getting my rematch with Carlos in 2013, win or lose tomorrow night."
It turned out to be "lose," of course, for Condit, who was mostly manhandled by St-Pierre over five rugged rounds. So MacDonald doesn't have to work his way all the way up the ladder to a new champion. But he sure could use an impressive victory to move up a few rungs and get the rematch he craves.
That's where B.J. Penn comes in.
That was the thought that went careening through my mind when I heard that MacDonald was accepting the challenge of the 33-year-old, last seen getting beaten up by Nick Diaz just over a year ago, then calling it quits in the cage. It was the fourth fight in his last five in which Penn hadn't come away victorious. The one win since 2009 was a 21-second KO of a washed-up Matt Hughes. Penn had looked good against Jon Fitch, though, threatening him with submissions and earning a draw. And his two other losses were to Frankie Edgar, the man who took away his lightweight championship. So B.J. hasn't been losing to bums.
But why come back? And why Rory MacDonald?
MacDonald wondered precisely that. "I was kind of taken aback that he wanted fight me," Rory said during the fan Q&A, acknowledging that he had no idea Penn was thinking of fighting again. "I was like, whoa, that's random. But the more I thought about it, I thought it would be a great opportunity and I would be honored to fight a guy like that."
That attitude goes both ways. Just as a victory over a legend such as Penn, a two-division UFC champion, would be a gold star on the rising fighter's resume, beating back the young lion would do wonders for Penn. "No one says my name when they talk about the greatest fighters anymore, and that really bothers me," B.J. confessed during a conference call with MMA media on Tuesday. "I know that's my fault. My name was always in the mix."
But it's not all about legacy for Penn. He's also thinking of the here and now. "I don't want to be known as being good back in the day," he said. "I want to be one of the best. I still think I have something left to accomplish."
Standing in his way is a young man who believes that this is his time, not B.J.'s. "I just think that I'm a better fighter," he said during the fan event. "I'm not really scared to fight him anywhere. ... I feel I'm a better striker, a better wrestler and better on the ground as far as MMA jiu-jitsu. Probably not straight jiu-jitsu, because we all know what he's done there, but I feel in a straight mixed martial arts fight, I'm a little more well rounded than he is."
That reasoned analysis, delivered calmly and confidently from the stage of a nightclub in downtown Montreal, didn't stir up the crowd one bit. But when some of the things Penn has said and done during the pre-fight buildup were brought up -- particularly B.J.'s insistence on Volunteer Anti-Doping Association random testing, which Rory has found "annoying" -- MacDonald got a little more animated. "At the end of the day, he can say whatever he wants to say, get people excited," he said. "But I'm still going to beat his ass."