Wednesday, July 2, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The two UFC champions defending their belts at Saturday’s UFC 175, middleweight Chris Weidman and women’s bantamweight Ronda Rousey, were still in high school when B.J. Penn began his mixed martial arts career.
The responsibility to represent the sport’s suddenly fading past generation falls to the 35-year-old Penn, who was coined “The Prodigy” years before Rousey and Weidman had ever considered fighting, at this year’s International Fight Week. Penn (16-9-2 MMA, 12-8-2 UFC) returns from retirement to face Frankie Edgar (16-4 MMA, 10-4-1 UFC) in the main event of “The Ultimate Fighter” 19 finale Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
“This is what I’ve done my whole life,” Penn said on a conference call. “This is all I know. It comes down to having fun and doing what I love.”
Penn’s prominence allowed him to come back on his own terms. Edgar was the only opponent the former welterweight and lightweight champion wanted to break his hiatus against after a December 2012 unanimous-decision loss to Rory MacDonald.
Penn was so driven to avenge a pair of 2010 losses to Edgar, one that ended his title run and another in the ensuing rematch, that he pleaded with UFC President Dana White for the opportunity. He also agreed to drop two weight classes, to featherweight, in order to reach Edgar’s current division.
“The way I look at it is, I had never asked to fight Frankie,” Penn explained. “This is the first time I’ve ever asked to fight Frankie. When I first had to fight Frankie, he was really young. I was like: ‘Who is this guy? Let me check him out.’ Then he comes out and proves himself. Frankie is now one of the best of all time in the UFC.”
It was a rare that a fighter as highly regarded as Edgar had never coached on “TUF.” The UFC aimed to fix the anomaly by targeting Edgar to head its 19th season after he beat Charles Oliveira at last year’s International Fight Week.
Edgar told the UFC he liked the idea of the getting the increased visibility the show provided but heard nothing back for several weeks.
“I thought we were going to miss the opportunity just because we couldn’t get anyone to coach against,” Edgar said.
That’s when Penn, unbeknownst of the reality-show void, came out of his native Hawaiian blue asking White for a fight with Edgar.
White was receptive, though not certain Edgar would go for the proposal. Edgar, after all, believed Penn was in his past.
“I was definitely not expecting B.J. to be the guy I coach against,” Edgar said. “But (White) brought the name B.J. to me and I’m pretty easygoing, so I jumped to it and said yes.”
“I didn’t have to talk to nobody, call him back or anything.”
Part of the reason Edgar obliged so quickly was an understanding of Penn’s “competitive nature.” Edgar had once begged White for his own rematch against Benson Henderson two years ago.
It wasn’t as if Edgar had ill feelings about his time spent as Penn’s rival. The two fights remain highlights of Edgar’s career, as he controversially beat Penn by unanimous decision the first time at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi before smothering “The Prodigy” in the rematch at UFC 118 in Boston.
“Winning the second time was reassuring because everyone thought the first time was a fluke and I was able to get it done a second time,” Edgar said. “Maybe that one stuck out a little more for me.”
Both were equally painful to Penn, who’s been single-minded ever since booking the trilogy against Edgar. One of the last standing members of the UFC’s old guard of stars from a decade ago can’t look beyond the one fight he wanted.
“The answer is going to come out of first things first with Frankie Edgar,” Penn said. “Then, from there, we’ll see what’s next.”