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There are few people in the fight game with better highlight reels than B.J. Penn.
He knocked Din Thomas silly with a knee and blitzed Caol Uno in 11 seconds in 2001, both of which continued to make cameos in pre-fight promotional videos for the next decade. His list of rear-naked chokes alone is enough to get grappling nerds giddy. Takenori Gomi, Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian all ended up seconds away from sleep, usually after one of their arms was pinned by one of Penn’s legs. Even some of his losses have provided sensational moments: How he pieced up George St. Pierre on the feet for a round in their first fight, when he inexplicably slithered to take Hughes’ back and moved into a triangle in their rematch or how he pushed back a 218-pound Lyoto Machida with clean shots to the face in K-1. Of course, his best knockouts happened toward the end of his prime via a flying knee to Sean Sherk, a head kick of all things to become the first to stop Diego Sanchez and a 21-second drubbing of Matt Hughes in their rubber match.
That final Hughes fight aside, the last seven bouts of Penn’s career have mostly served to decorate the highlight reels of other fighters. This was especially true against Yair Rodriguez.
We all saw what happened at UFC Fight Night 103 on Sunday in Phoenix. The fight was as straightforward and predictable as it gets. There isn’t any need for a technical breakdown, no narrative worth unpacking that isn’t immediately obvious. A younger, faster, stronger, better fighter beat an old legend who had no business being in the cage with him. It was an opportunity for Rodriguez to pad his future promotional videos, and the young Mexican made the most of it. The aesthetic beauty of his offense was nothing short of spectacular. His kicks were lightning-fast and dead-on accurate. Visually, they were damn near balletic. Nearly every square inch of his foot found a home on Penn’s head at some point in the fight. It legitimately looked like he was using cheat codes from Tekken.
If you didn’t get a chance to see the fight, don’t worry. You’ll catch Rodriguez’s best moments before every fight for the rest of his career. The gorgeousness of his offense was only matched by the ugliness of what was on the receiving end. It was the type of fight that made even us die-hard fans of MMA momentarily reevaluate our fandom, the type of fight that makes it easy for outsiders to use the sport as shorthand for all things brutal and awful. To say it was hard to watch is an understatement on par with saying that Rodriguez is pretty good at kicking things.
That’s the fight game, though. This isn’t a case of Michael Jordan coming back with the Wizards and losing the final game of his career by 20 points. At least he got 15 points in that game. It would be a better analogy if, in his final game, Jordan went 4-for-22 from the field and left at the beginning of the second quarter after tearing every ligament in both knees. Excuse the basketball metaphors if that’s not your cup of tea: The image of Penn’s head getting dribbled off the mat hasn’t left me yet.
Penn doesn’t have to do this anymore. After the Frankie Edgar fight in 2014, he should have known better. Even after the back-to-back beatdowns from Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald the writing was on the wall, but at least it was somewhat understandable to want one more after those to see if the nails were in the coffin yet. The pieces Edgar left behind, however, should not have been put back together for another round. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but was anyone really surprised to see Rodriguez use the hall of famer as a warm punching bag? Did we learn anything about either of them we didn’t already know?
I’m not one to tell another man what he should or shouldn’t do with his life, and clearly the itch to fight is a stubborn one for Penn. Why not take it to the competitive grappling circuit? That would be a physically competitive outlet and a chance to refocus on the martial art that earned him his nickname and got his entire fight career started while simultaneously allowing him to avoid brain damage. Seems like a win-win. If, however, he still wants to make that undeniably epic walk to the Octagon -- to be the voice behind the face of the Hawaiian people in the fight game -- then it is clear what type of role he will continue to play in the sport. It’s an ugly role, and we have no shortage of evidence for it.
There’s not much left to say about “The Prodigy.” He inspired a generation of fighters and fans alike. He is the greatest lightweight ever, despite bouncing around weight classes to his own detriment. A Penn fight got people excited in a way that few others have ever been able to. I remember the distinct feelings I had during each individual fight. I’ve seen every one of them countless times and will continue to rewatch them, probably forever. However, I hope this is the last time I see Penn in the cage. The last several years do nothing to diminish his legacy; they just leave a really bad taste in our mouths. The torch has been passed down more than enough times to know that it’s time to move on.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.