B.J. Penn still loves to compete. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
GREG SAVAGE: The first live Ultimate Fighting Championship event I ever attended was UFC 32, and I was fortunate enough to see B.J. Penn fight in the second bout of his illustrious career.
Here we are 13 years later and it looks like “The Prodigy” is hanging up his gloves for good. I’ll never forget listening to other fighters talk about Penn and another legend of the sport, Randy Couture. The reverence with which some of the most talented and decorated athletes in our sport discussed those two was enlightening. Neither might have the most stellar record when it is all said and done, but they did so much to build mixed martial arts from the ground up. Penn is always discussed as one of the guys who did not live up to his potential, but I always look at him as one of the true greats of the sport. Not too many guys can say they fought from 145 pounds all the way up to heavyweight and against the type of competition he faced along the way. He was one of only two men to win UFC titles in multiple divisions, and he will assuredly head into the UFC Hall of Fame next July, if not sooner.
So long, Baby Jay, I wish you the best in all you’re future endeavors, and I thank you for all of your considerable contributions to the sport of mixed martial arts.
TODD MARTIN: To me, B.J. Penn’s career was defined by the hunt.
When other fighters were just looking to win or to prove themselves the best in their divisions, Penn was always looking for greater and greater challenges. It was part of what made him so beloved by his supporters. He would have fought anyone if they let him. People forget just how crazy it seemed that he wanted to move up in weight to challenge Matt Hughes for the welterweight title, and then he won in the first round. Sometimes he ended up chasing windmills, but if he had stayed in his safe zone, he would have been so much less compelling a character.
Ultimately, one of my enduring memories of Penn will be fighting a 225-pound Lyoto Machida. Can you imagine? A man able to make 145 pounds without difficulty decided to take on an undefeated future world light heavyweight champion. He didn’t win, but that wasn’t the point with Penn. The thrill was in the hunt, in the human pursuit of the seemingly unpursuable.
That was B.J. Penn, and he did it until the very end.
JEFF SHERWOOD: First things first: Even though B.J. Penn ended his career at 16-10-2, do not kid yourself; he is a legend in the sport. I remember hearing his name back in 2001 and trying to find out as much information about him as I could. Who was he? Where was he from? How good was he? The jiu-jitsu forums were buzzing about this kid. Soon, every MMA forum was buzzing, as well.
I remember the talk leading up to UFC 35. I remember talking to people who wondered how Jens Pulver, as the champion, could be an underdog. Why does everyone thing this young 23-year-old kid is going to come in here and destroy the champ? Well, he was a second away from taking the lightweight title from Pulver that night, as “Little Evil” tapped to an armbar after the second round expired.
I will always remember three things about Penn.
First, he was always mad at me. No matter when or where he saw me, he was mad. Even though he was mad, he would always have his reasons and explain to me why he felt the way he felt. I respected him for that. I did not always agree with him, but I respected him.
Second, Penn’s eyes: They just flowed with confidence every time you talked to him. It almost felt like a stare down. Even when you talked to Penn as a young kid, you could look into his eyes and just tell he was different. He was born to fight. You can talk to a lot of fighters and not come away with that feeling. He was doing what he loved to do and would rather fight than do anything else in the world.
Last but not least, I will remember his entrances. The UFC is not the greatest sporting event live, but there are certain moments you have to witness in person to get the full effect. I will never forget the first time I heard Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Hawai’i ’78” blaring from the speakers at a live event. I literally got goosebumps. I had no idea what it was or what it meant, but between those soothing sounds and Penn’s stone-cold-killer eyes, it was a special moment.
After the show, I went to find out what I had heard and why it had an effect on me. I became a big fan of Kamakawiwo’ole that night, and I became an even bigger fan of B.J. Penn.
TJ DE SANTIS: “I only want to be known as the best of all-time. Is that too much to ask?”
Rarely does anyone say that in a serious tone and not get laughed at. To me, Penn is a Bruce Lee-, Helio Gracie- and Muhammad Ali-type figure. Maybe he didn’t change combat sports or martial arts the way those men have, but Penn is an icon in mixed martial arts.
He was never content with just being good; he strived for greatness.
Early in his career, it became clear the Hawaiian was one of the best lightweights in the world. After Jens Pulver vacated the 155-pound title and left the UFC, Penn stepped into the lightweight tournament and marched his way to the final. He dominated Caol Uno at UFC 41, but the judges ruined the crowning of a new champion at 155 pounds by asking us to believe the fight was a draw. Yes, MMA judging was just as bad 10 years ago as it is today.
What did Penn do after he was robbed of validation? He sought out the man some people claimed was the best lightweight in the world and destroyed Takanori Gomi in less than three rounds. He later moved up to 170 pounds to challenge Matt Hughes, the best welterweight the sport had seen at the time. Penn destroyed him, too. Afterward, he went on a tour to conquer new challenges. He went on to defeat Duane Ludwig and two Gracies, and he even tried to slay “The Dragon” when he fought Lyoto Machida as a heavyweight. While “The Prodigy” failed to defeat the future UFC 205-pound champion, he did put up a valiant effort in going the distance and competing with the much larger man.
Penn is one of the reasons why following and covering MMA is fun. He refuses to subscribe to labels, whether it is as a lightweight, welterweight or even a heavyweight. Penn doesn’t care who you are or what you weigh. The only thing going through his mind is, “Just Scrap.”