If there is any doubt about how seriously B.J. Penn is taking
his move to featherweight, consider the fact that his newly signed
strength and conditioning coach Mike Dolce will be on a plane on
Saturday heading to Hilo, Hawaii to spend a week with him, six
months before Penn has to step on a scale before fighting Frankie
It is now that the process of reshaping Penn into a sculpted and
lean 145-pounder will begin, one that Dolce says will end in a
familiar sight: with gold around Penn’s waist.
“This is where he was truly meant to be,” he told
FOX Sports. “BJ Penn will be a three-division world champion
in the UFC.”
While Dolce now has a vested interested in Penn’s future,
he says this with as much conviction as he can muster, even raising
the stakes on the comeback by adding that the goal is
“Anything less, then we fail,” he said. “If
it’s anything less than absolute perfection, then we failed
at our job.”
The idea is to put together a kind of super camp for Penn.
Currently, the only publicly disclosed names involved are Dolce and
Andre Pederneiras, the wizard largely responsible for the success
of Brazil’s Nova União fight team, home to current UFC
champions Jose Aldo and Renan Barao.
The partnership between Dolce and Penn took root in nothing more
than coincidence. While the two had always been socially friendly
upon seeing each other at events, it was a July fitness convention
in Lake Tahoe that planted the seeds for a business relationship
when a mutual acquaintance, UFC Gym head Adam Sedlack, told Dolce
that Penn was coming and suggested they hang out. One evening,
Penn, Dolce and their wives did just that.
After some casual small talk, conversation inevitably turned to
fighting. Namely, Penn still wanted to do it. He still wanted to be
elite. He talked about fighting Benson Henderson, Frankie Edgar,
maybe even moving down to 145. As the discussion continued, Dolce
grew more enthusiastic.
“I could see the fire in his eyes,” Dolce said.
“I speak with a lot of athletes. I know how to read them. It
wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about fame, it
wasn’t about any of that stuff. It was just a man that wanted
to get back in there. He had the personal drive to get back in
there. I could see how bad he truly wanted it and that really
It didn’t hurt that Dolce was the perfect audience for the
idea. For one thing, he recognized Penn’s contribution as one
of the first real stars of the pre-Ultimate Fighter era. For
another, for years, he’s believed that Penn is the greatest
fighter that MMA has ever seen, arguing that Penn won not one but
two UFC championship belts while competing above his natural weight
class. After all this time in the business, Dolce can pretty much
visually size up anyone in front of him and tell them their optimal
fighting weight. As far as he’s concerned, Penn has always
been a 145-pounder masquerading at higher weights.
The pairing though, was not solely about his admiration for
Penn. After years of success in his field, Dolce can mostly pick
and choose who he wants to work with, but this was a special case.
Here is a legend, he thought, who is being implored to retire by
some of the sport’s observers as well as the UFC president,
but is only 34 years old. That didn’t sound right. Yes, Penn
had only won one of his last six fights, but in four of those,
he’d been at a huge size disadvantage. Imagine if he was at
his optimal size? It would be like removing a backpack full of lead
from off of his shoulders.
“He hasn’t taken a lot of damage over the course of
his entire career, but now is going to be the first time in his
career where he’s going to be the bigger man,” Dolce
said. “He’s going to be the stronger man when he lands
those concussive blows. He was fighting guys 20-30 pounds bigger
than him on competition night. At 145, he’s going to be the
monster in the cage. It’s going to bring out his best
version. At 155, he wasn’t cutting that much weight. He was a
little soft, a little heavy. He wasn’t as fast as he
could’ve been, should’ve been and will be. At 145,
Frankie Edgar will not have a speed advantage. BJ’s hands
will be just as fast if not faster, and he’ll have a
tremendous speed and force advantage.”
For the next week, the process of transforming Penn will slowly
begin. In their conversations, Penn acknowledged issues in past
camps that will have to be addressed this time around. For now,
Dolce will observe Penn’s lifestyle and offer some changes.
He’ll look into the smallest details, from wakeup time to
stretching to Penn’s support system. Even when he returns
back home to Las Vegas, the two have pledged an open-door policy
with each other, and eventually, Dolce will be one of Penn’s
coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. Essentially, he will immerse
himself into Penn’s world. That is the process that has led
to his clients achieving an 82 percent win ratio at last count.
While most of Dolce’s clients are young athletes on the
way up, this is a different case for him. This is Penn’s
redemption. A chance to quiet the critics, to avenge the losses
that haunt him, to prove the long-held belief that Penn is, as
Dolce claims, the best of all-time.
“This is a highlight of my career,” Dolce said.
“I’m being included in something with a living legend.
I have a humble opportunity to stand by his side as he prepares for
battle. This is very, very personal for me. His whole career, his
whole life has led him to this very moment. To drop to 145. To
challenge and defeat Frankie Edgar. To move on and win the
145-pound world title. And then he can do whatever he wants, walk
off into the sunset like a samurai and do whatever he wants to do.
My only fear, my only concern, is for Frankie Edgar.”