Having just suffered one of the most bizarre and brutal beatings of his career at the hands of rival Frankie Edgar, Penn choked back tears, then broke down completely while lamenting his decision to return to the cage after a two year absence.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'Why did you step back into the Octagon after the beating Rory MacDonald gave you?" asked Penn.
"And the reason is, I really needed to find out that if I didn't make this night happen for myself, I would've always wondered and I would've always gone back and forth and beg Dana to let me back in. I guess I needed some closure."
That heart-rending statement came following an equally downtrodden Octagon interview with Jon Anik, wherein Penn admitted to the audience of the MGM Grand that he "never should have come back." And just a few moments later, a defeated, broken Penn made his decision to step away from the sport for good official. It may not have been the result he wanted, or one that felt like a fitting cap to a career that had seen him defy expectations and shatter the record books at seemingly every turn, but "The Prodigy" had gotten his closure.
But then, that's always the way it's been for Baby Jay — the highest of highs, the lowest of lows — so why should his midnight hour have been any different? Despite having accumulated fewer fights in his (then) 13 years as a professional than Melvin Guillard had by the time he was 23, Penn had experienced more ups and downs, more ebbs and flows, more failures and comebacks than fighters with 10 times his experience.
It was just a mile and half away from the Grand that Penn had first exploded onto the scene at UFC 34 on November 2, 2001. Stepping into the Octagon in just his third fight as a professional (all of which had taken place in the UFC), Penn opened eyes and dropped jaws with a stunning 11-second knockout of former Shooto champion Caol Uno.
The incredible finish would not only earn Penn a shot at lightweight champion Jens Pulver, but a place on the UFC's highlight reel for years to come.
Three years later, Penn would once again find himself at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, this time taking on welterweight champion and fellow future Hall-of-Famer Matt Hughes at UFC 46 on January 31, 2004.
In yet another revelatory performance, Penn would utterly dominate the all-time great in every aspect of the game, lighting Hughes up on the feet before slicing through his guard and submitting him with the kind of effortlessness most often seen in backyard sibling squabbles. It was a star-making moment for "The Prodigy," and one that should have preceded a long reign atop the UFC's most prestigious division (at the time, at least).
But, before he could even settle into his role as champion, Penn would leave the bright lights of the UFC behind for the greener pastures of K-1, citing an apparent lack of competition. It would be two years before he would settle with the UFC and make his return, and when he did, he found himself with anything but a barren welterweight landscape — one that had seemingly evolved in response to his impact upon it. Future kingpin Georges St-Pierre had emerged as the division's top contender. Hughes had righted the ship and returned to his rightful place at the top of the mountain.
And suddenly, like Karo Parisyan before him, Penn found himself struggling to keep up on natural ability alone.
Losses to both St-Pierre and Hughes and would follow in succession, forcing Penn to retreat back to the division on which he had first built his name.
Penn's path back to the lightweight title picture would begin through The Ultimate Fighter, where he would face off against Jens Pulver — the only lightweight who had defeated him up to that point — as coaches on the third season of the cornerstone reality series. When the two finally faced off at the show's finale, Penn would batter "Lil' Evil" from pillar to post. This was far more than a man evening the scales with an old rival, this was a future champion making his claim to the division. This was the beginning of "motivated BJ Penn."
For the next two years, there wasn't a fighter in the lightweight division who could even offer Penn a close match. Shutout victories over Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian, and Diego Sanchez would follow — only broken up by an ill-fated trip back to the welterweight division against St-Pierre — solidifying the Hawaiian's place as one of the sport's most formidable and enduring figures.
But, as we said before, the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. After being defeated in a surprise routing by Frankie Edgar at UFC 112, Penn would drop five out of his next seven contests — only briefly emerging to close the book on his rivalry with Hughes via a lightning fast KO win in 2010 (his last victory to date) — before deciding to hang his gloves up for good.
Which brings us to this weekend.
It would be a major undersell to say that Penn's sudden decision to come out of retirement last year and seek a third belt in the featherweight division didn't strike many of us as...odd. The man's legacy was already etched in stone at this point, and by his own admission, Penn had already seen his best days as a fighter. So why take a fight against not only one of the most dangerous fighters in the division, but one who stands to make far more with a victory than Penn would?
Maybe it's for a chance to "remember who the f*ck he is" again, as his new coach Jason Parillo has suggested. Maybe it's to seek real closure, the kind that he couldn't possibly have found in his uncharacteristically strange performance three years ago. Maybe it's because he's bored, and there are only so many pictures of Taro root that one can post to their Instagram before going insane.
Regardless, there's one thing that we can almost guarantee will happen when "The Prodigy" steps into the Octagon on Sunday...