B.J. Penn walks away as one of MMA’s most beloved figures. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
First off, you’re going to have to forgive me. This “Savage Truth” is going to be much longer than most. I feel the subject deserves the added words.
After taking a day to let it soak in, it still isn’t any easier to hear that B.J. Penn is walking away from the sport for good. Let there be no mistake, this is the right decision, but with Penn’s retirement, mixed martial arts is losing yet another seminal character that helped put it on the map.
It has been a little more than 13 years since I watched Penn walk to the cage at UFC 32 in New Jersey. I had heard all about the young Hawaiian over the past couple years. There was speculation about when the first American to win the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world championships was going to make his MMA debut, and when he did, it was in spectacular fashion.
Just eight weeks before my first up-close look at Penn, he smashed up Joey Gilbert in the opening round to win his first fight by TKO. It was the first inclination that this BJJ expert had a little more in his arsenal than just some submissions.
For a little context, imagine someone like jiu-jitsu star Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida deciding he was going to fight MMA, and after destroying a relatively unknown fighter in his first bout, he was matched up against Cain Velasquez. That is basically what Penn did. At UFC 32, he squared off with Din Thomas who, at the time, was less than a year removed from cementing himself as the top lightweight in the world with a submission win over future Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder and Penn nemesis Jens Pulver. Thomas was 12-1 at the time and had tested his mettle against some of the best lighter weight fighters of that era. He was no match for Penn. In less than three minutes, Penn left him motionless after a crushing knee and follow-up punches, reaffirming his moniker, “The Prodigy.”
It was at this time, around 2001, that the unrealistic expectations I and many others drew up in our minds for the career arc of Penn began to pick up steam. He was one in a long line of unbeatable fighters to come along and, despite the fact that everyone eventually loses in this sport, everyone went along with it anyway.
After a brutal 11-second knockout of Caol Uno at UFC 34, the stage was set for Penn to take on Pulver, the lightweight champion. Here he was, 3-0 with three brutal finishes and the title within his grasp. Penn was the pre-determined winner in the minds of most people.
However, the first cracks in the invincibility myth surrounding Penn began to show as the buildup to the January 2002 fight unfolded. Whispers about his preparations not being ideal surfaced the week of the fight. Others questioned his ability to persevere should he be forced to fight beyond the first round. Could he handle the pressure of a title fight? These were all legitimate questions that remained unanswered.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Connecticut with Jeff Sherwood, Josh Gross, Loretta Hunt, Sean Shelby -- he did not work for the UFC yet -- and his future wife, Helen Miller-Shelby, a former MMA promoter and manager. We discussed the Penn-Pulver fight, and we made our predictions. It came out 6-0 in favor of Pulver.
We all were looking pretty dumb as the second round came to a close with Pulver’s left arm about to be snapped courtesy of a Penn armbar. Luckily for Pulver -- and for the +330 bets placed by Sherwood and myself -- Penn was up against the cage and couldn’t arch his back for leverage. He was up two rounds to none and cruising.
Then something happened, and it would become a theme in Penn’s career. He started to get tired. Pulver had been through the grind before and drew on his experience. He chipped away at Penn, taking the third round and then the fourth. Suddenly, it was even going to the final period. Pulver was rolling now, and the desperation was apparent on Penn’s face and in his corner.
Pulver defended his belt with an epic come-from-behind win, and we all know how that ended. He would not fight again in the UFC for nearly five years. While he was out fighting around the globe, Penn put the pieces back together and earned himself a spot in the mini-tournament to replace Pulver, who had abdicated in favor or more lucrative opportunities. Penn rematched Uno for the lightweight strap at UFC 41. He did clearly win three of the five rounds, but alas, as we still see today, the judges in MMA are about as reliable as your local weather forecaster. The inexcusable split draw not only deprived Penn of his first title but also shelved the entire UFC lightweight division for more than three years.
After a quick trip back home to beat up top-ranked Japanese lightweight Takanorki Gomi in his family’s Rumble on the Rock promotion, Penn laid down the gauntlet and challenged UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes. Everyone thought he was crazy, except his Hawaiian brethren who made the trip to the mainland to see him scrap at the UFC’s first big Super Bowl weekend card.
I remember running into Matt Lindland outside of the Mandalay Bay sport’s book the night before the fight. He had been helping Penn prepare and asked Sherwood and myself what we thought about him dropping a dime on Penn to win. Penn was moving up 15 pounds to face the bigger and stronger champion. We both looked at him like he was crazy, and I told him to just flush it down the toilet if he wanted to waste it that bad. My advice could not have been worse.
Penn manhandled Hughes, as he blistered him with punches that rocked him a bit, pulled him to the ground and set up in his guard. He then passed and took Hughes’ back before sinking the rear naked-choke with just 21 seconds left in the first round. It was a huge upset and remains one of the more iconic fights in UFC history.
People around the sport had always viewed Penn in a different light because of his physical attributes and natural talent, but it was around this time that he began to find a newfound respect from his contemporaries. He never backed down from a challenge and he was the real deal when it came to being a fighter. Penn wasn’t performing for money; he came from a wealthy family. He wasn’t here for fame; he really never embraced that part of being a big star. He was as authentic as they come when it comes to the fight business, and those who did what he did recognized that.
I can recall talking to some of the sport’s best fighters on multiple occasions and asking them who their role models or heroes in the sport were. The most common answers were Randy Couture and Penn. That is pretty lofty company when it comes to MMA. Couture was the first big crossover star and Penn was the guy they all wished they could fight like: the unbelievable ground game, the granite jaw, the balancing-on-one-foot takedown defense and the powerful hands. It was quite a skill set and was envied by many.
Penn was at the top of the MMA mountain after his submission of Hughes, but then he went and did the unthinkable. He spurned the UFC and UFC President Dana White to sign with K-1 and became public enemy number one for Zuffa. While he was persona non grata in the UFC’s eyes, Penn forged ahead and fought four fights over the next 25 months under multiple K-1 banners. His most notable fight was his only loss -- a decision -- in which he fought future UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in an open weight match. Penn weighed in at 191 pounds, while Machida tipped the scales at 225.
Penn and the UFC patched up things in 2006, and he returned to face Georges St. Pierre in a welterweight title eliminator. After crushing GSP in the first round at UFC 58, Penn withered. He was taken down multiple times en route to a split decision loss despite putting a vicious beating on the soon-to-be champion.
In his next bout, Penn fell to Hughes in a rematch. It was eerily similar to his GSP fight, as he raced out to an early lead before succumbing late. Hughes became the first man to ever finish Penn -- a feat only matched by St. Pierre at UFC 94 and Frankie Edgar at “The Ultimate Fighter 19” Finale.
People were ready to write off Penn, but “The Prodigy” was about to cook up a little career renaissance by dropping back down to lightweight to avenge something that had bothered him for years, his loss to Pulver.
The two coached on Season 5 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and fought at its conclusion. Penn ran roughshod over Pulver in the season finale, and it served as a springboard to a title shot against former “Ultimate Fighter” winner Joe Stevenson. In a beatdown of epic proportions at UFC 80, Penn bloodied Stevenson so badly the Octagon looked like a horror movie set when he was done. The images of jets of blood squirting out of Stevenson’s head are burned into my consciousness forever. With the victory, Penn splashed his name into the history books as the promotion’s second two-division champion. The first? That guy named Couture.
He defended the title with another one-side walloping of former champion Sean Sherk, and then the big-game hunter in Penn bubbled back to the surface. He decided it was time to rematch GSP, who was coincidentally holding his old 170-pound title. UFC 92 was Penn’s chance at retribution; in his eyes, he never lost to GSP. He was looking to become the first fighter to hold belts in two UFC divisions at the same time. There was so much on the line. He came up short against one of the greatest fighters our sport has ever seen. His corner threw in the towel between the fourth and fifth rounds after GSP battered him for 20 minutes. It was apparent he needed to move back down to lightweight.
Penn defended his belt two more times with stoppage wins over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez before he tangled with Edgar in the United Arab Emirates in April 2010. Nearly nine years after he made his debut in the UFC, Penn lost another heartbreaker. Penn rushed out to an early lead in the fight, but, as he was wont to do throughout his career, he began to fade. Edgar came on strong and convinced the judges -- who I, and many of my colleagues, contend were wrong -- that he won the fight.
In hindsight, this was the moment when B.J. Penn ceased to be the special talent and became a fighter that was just like everyone else. It does not diminish the special career he had to say so. Everyone ages and all athletes struggle with what they are going to do when the body just can’t do what it has always been able to do in the past.
We saw it against Edgar on Sunday in Las Vegas. Penn’s mind was willing, but he just didn’t have what it takes to beat one of the best featherweights in the world. Could he hang around and beat some of the lesser guys in the division? Sure, but that is not how Penn has operated over the years. He has always looked for the biggest challenges in the sport and sought them out. That is just not an option at this point, and he has decided it is time for him to sail off into the sunset to enjoy his family and the fruits of many years of labor.
Some might think of Penn as the overmatched guy who stayed around too long, but I tend to think, as the months and years fade away, people will look back with fondness on the up-and-down path he cut through the sport. People don’t remember Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards; they remember all his rings with the Chicago Bulls.
I will remember Penn taking apart Hughes at UFC 46 and his brilliant run at lightweight from 2007-09 as the defining aspects of his career.
I talked to him a couple years ago about his plans for retirement. He wasn’t sure when it would come, but he was excited to get back to teaching jiu-jitsu and enjoying the art that had given him so much. Here’s to you, B.J., for all that you have done over the years, for all the people you have inspired and to you and your family’s future. Cheers, Hilo Boy, on a job well done. See you next July when you head into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Greg Savage is the Executive Editor of Sherdog.com and can be reached via @TheSavageTruth on Twitter.