Like most, I’m anxious to know whether B.J. Penn will fight again.
Honestly, I didn’t take his hint at retirement this past October too seriously -- only because it came immediately after a very difficult loss to Nick Diaz and without a ton of conviction. He still has good years left. Very few pro athletes walk away from those.
When I met Penn for lunch on Friday in Las Vegas, I went in thinking he might not explicitly tell me, "I’m coming back," but I admit I expected something at least along those lines.
It’s been three months since the Diaz loss: certainly not an eternity but enough to dull the sting of defeat. And enough time, I thought, for Penn to start itching again.
After spending more than an hour with him, though, I can’t tell you whether Penn is retiring. But I can tell you he’s much more serious about it than I thought.
For the first time in more than a decade, Penn says he’s living a "normal" life. If you’ve followed his career, you know he’s not a guy who is back in the gym 48 hours after a fight.
Throughout his career, for better or worse, Penn’s approach to the sport has been to train hard for the fight, fight, then enjoy life ("party" is one way he described it) for six to eight weeks.
Right now, because Penn is unsure whether he’ll fight again, he’s not purposefully trying to live it up before heading to a grueling training camp. The result is that he’s living a normal life instead of one always on one end of the spectrum. And he likes it.
“I’m enjoying my time away from the sport. That’s where I am right now,” Penn said. “I’m living a regular life instead of living the roller coaster. I haven’t [lived a normal life] in 15 years.
“I’m trying to find myself a little bit -- not as a fighter trying to come back to the sport but just as a person.”
Penn says he’s still in the gym on a regular basis, but he's there strictly for his enjoyment of the sport. He’s not forcing himself to do the drills he doesn’t want to do, and he’s not putting his body through the rigors of sparring sessions.
When he doesn’t feel like going, he doesn’t. Although, he says, "usually I want to go."
Most of the time retirement isn’t on his mind, but it’s an impossible topic to avoid when every fan Penn interacts with obviously wants to know whether he’s done. When he does think about the sport and his career, he actually thinks more about the past than the future.
“I just honestly sit back and reflect and look at how it went,” Penn said. “I really do feel I could have done a lot better in a lot of different situations. I’m heartbroken with the way some of the fights went. The way my UFC 94 fight [against Georges St. Pierre] and my fights with Frankie Edgar went, I’m heartbroken about those fights.
“I feel I could have made better choices, but I don’t feel a major urge that I’ve got to go fix that right now.”
He was unaware of the recent comments made by UFC president Dana White on the promotion’s intent to hold a show in Hawaii as early as this year.
We talked about the chances the UFC would have selling out a 50,000-seat arena in Hawaii (pretty good, Penn and his brother J.D. thought, if B.J. is headlining), but we did so hypothetically. Even a main event in Hawaii isn’t a guarantee Penn would return.
“We would just have to sit down and talk about what made sense,” Penn said. “That’s amazing they are finally deciding to go to Hawaii, but I wouldn’t want to waste Dana’s time, getting his hopes up on something he wants to put together.”
I mentioned to Penn that if he does fight again, he should be certain that's what he wants. But does he worry at all about the time being lost while he’s deciding?
Penn is 33. He’ll turn 34 in December. Even if he ends up taking off only six to nine months and then returns, that’s still a significant chunk of time considering he’s not far away from an age where a reasonable decline in performance is expected.
He nodded and said he’s thought about that part. He'll have to live with it.
“That is something that either way, I’m going to have to accept,” Penn said. “I’ve thought about it, but even if you are in your physical prime, there’s still no sense going back if your head isn’t there.”
At the end of the day, I still believe what I did in the beginning -- that B.J. Penn will get in the Octagon again eventually. That’s nothing more than a guess, and right now, my guess on the topic is as good as Penn’s, which is as good as yours.
“I want to tell [my fans] that their guess is as good as mine,” Penn said. “I don’t know.”