Rory MacDonald sat on a stage in a nightclub in Montreal, dressed to the nines. The 23-year-old UFC star was answering questions from fans about his Dec. 8 fight in Seattle with the legendary ex-lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn.
MacDonald, who is one of the fastest-rising stars in the sport, never expected to stand opposite Penn in a cage.
Like most of the rest of the world, MacDonald thought he'd seen the last of Penn as an active fighter on Oct. 29, 2011, when Penn was blown out by Nick Diaz in the main event of UFC 137.
Penn said after the fight that he needed a long vacation, and every indication was that he had retired.
MacDonald recounted that when he got the call offering the fight with Penn, he was shocked. He, like most mixed martial arts fans and observers, believed that Penn was done and that the countdown to his selection for the UFC Hall of Fame had begun.
"I was like, 'Really?' " MacDonald said of his reaction when told Penn wanted to fight him.
Penn, though, not only opted not to retire, but also insists he's rediscovered his love for fighting.
His 2010 autobiography is entitled "Why I Fight," which is also a pretty fair question to ask a soon-to-be 34-year-old with a very un-Penn-like 1-3-1 record in his last five outings.
There are plenty of reasons not to fight – he doesn't need the money, his reputation as an all-time great is secure and there's no sense getting pounded on for nothing – but Penn's answer was very simple.
"You know, I just like it," he said. "I like fighting. I like going to the gym. I like the competition. I'm still just as good as anyone else, the top world-class guys. I can hang with them. I can do good with them.
"I was sitting around and I started thinking, 'Why am I not fighting?' I guess I should have changed the name of the book to, 'Why am I not fighting?' But I missed it and I am still young enough and good enough to do it, so I decided to fight again."
At his best, Penn is one of a handful of elite guys in the sport's history. He's one of the most physically talented men to ever step into the Octagon and remains one of only two fighters in UFC history to hold titles in two separate weight classes. Randy Couture is the other, which puts Penn in good company.
At his best, Penn was all but unbeatable. But he was never the most committed to conditioning, and, as the sport grew, that became an issue.
The image of Penn's battered face following his loss to Diaz is enduring, but what has been forgotten by many is how well Penn performed in the first round of that bout.
Penn and Diaz fought on even terms in Round 1. The difference was that Diaz kept up the pace and Penn couldn't.
Penn walked away, seemingly retired for good, after the Diaz beat-down. As the wounds healed, though, a thought washed over Penn: I'm better than this. Ultimately, that led him to come back, to prove a point. He doesn't have anything to prove to fans or media, though. He needs to prove something to himself.
"The way my last five fights were going, I hated that," Penn said. "The kind of losses I had, a draw, a decision [victory], I just didn't like how the fights were going.
"I can sit here and say I found a newborn fire and repeat all these clichés, whatever. I'm not going to do that. What I am going to say is that I'm enjoying this training camp. I did a lot of sparring and I began to enjoy that. It was tough to get in there after a year off, and my timing and everything took a long time to get back. But I am being honest when I say I've had fun."
If he can summon the skills that led him to become one of the elite fighters in history when he faces MacDonald on Dec. 8, it will be a boon to the UFC. Penn is a star whose name commands attention.
It's hard, though, to forget those desultory performances over the last several years.
Until he proves that he's the B.J. Penn of old, with the kind of fire he showed in impressive wins over Hughes, Diego Sanchez and Sean Sherk, his book won't be enough of an answer to explain why he (still) fights.
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