Dolce: Penn will be 3-division champ

BJ Penn and Mike Dolce team up for Penn's biggest challenge, dropping to 145lbs.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.


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 Edgar.

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 “absolute perfection.”

“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 excited me.”

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.”

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