Not even Penn.
History suggests Penn is in for a tough night when he meets MacDonald on Dec. 8 in Seattle. Arguably the greatest lightweight of all time, he’s been mediocre at 170 pounds, going 1-4-1 in the division since returning to the UFC in 2006.
That record, combined with his oftentimes pudgy physique when weighing in as a welterweight, has set low expectations on a fighter many consider one of the most talented ever. Penn isn’t naïve. He hears what they’re saying about this fight.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Penn told ESPN.com. “[Everyone thinks] a short, fat guy is going to show up -- that [MacDonald] will lean on me and throw me around.
“They always say that, and you know what? They’re right. All the fans, all the people who have been saying it for years, they’re right.”
He originally planned to coach himself for the fight, but ultimately reunited with former trainer Tony Aponte. Former Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou, who invited all the welterweights to Hawaii, assembled the camp.
After getting up to 187 pounds while he pondered retirement, Penn says he’ll be at 175 the week of the fight -- “with abs.” That’s significant when you consider his past as a welterweight, where he’s typically weighed in at less than 170 pounds.
He’s also talking regularly about things like body fat percentages. His, he says, is currently sitting around 10 percent. He also posted a YouTube video to show his progress.
“I’ve never approached 170 like this,” Penn said. “The reason wearing [opponents’] weight was killing me before was because I was legitimately a smaller, fatter man. Now, I don’t see that as being a problem, especially on fight night when they are weak from cutting weight.”
His supporters will say that’s terrific, but will it matter? MacDonald will still likely enter the cage at least 15 to 20 pounds bigger.
When a smaller fighter moves up in weight, typically the keys to success are speed, elusiveness and endurance. Penn’s game, as dynamic as it is, has never been built around those specific foundations.
That will leave him a significant underdog next month (around 3-to-1, according to most oddsmakers), but it seems as though that’s the way he prefers it. He’s all but closed the doors to ever returning to lightweight. He's a welterweight from here on out -- and from his perspective, December will be the first time he or anyone else sees what he’s truly capable of as one.
“Let’s find out on Dec. 8,” Penn said. “It’s not going to be what everyone is thinking, 100 percent. It’s not going to be what he’s thinking. He’s going to be surprised when he sees me across the ring, guaranteed.
“The door [to my career] is pretty much closed if I don’t come out and perform. I have to go out looking at it that way. Keep that door open any way we can."