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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight titleholder Rose Namajunas had some interesting things to say after her fight at UFC 237 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. That wasn’t surprising, as her honesty and willingness to be vulnerable have often led to interesting sound bites. This time, however, her thoughts were more broadly relevant than they immediately seemed.
“It’s just a huge pressure off my shoulders,” she said during the in-cage interview after her knockout loss to Jessica Andrade. This surprised UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, who was sitting cageside on commentary duty. “What’s the pressure?” he wondered aloud. “Not having the belt anymore? Getting rid of fight week? I don’t understand. We work our entire lives to get [the belt], right?” At the post-fight press conference, Namajunas was asked to elaborate: What exactly was the pressure? Fighting generally, or being the champion specifically? “I mean, yes, being the champ, I guess … but honestly, just the fighting itself is a lot. It’s scary. I mean, that’s why I do this. I want to face my fears.”
If they sound like contradictory sentiments, it’s because they are. “Thug Rose” is large; she contains multitudes. Yet there’s an undeniable truth in the tension between wanting to face your fears and being utterly exhausted by them. Being a fan of combat sports naturally leads to a lot of couch-courage, a false understanding that preparing for violence across several months for the sole purpose of applying that violence in real time -- in front of tens of thousands of people -- is normal. It’s not. Most people would have a panic attack if they simply had to give a speech to that many people. Risking bodily harm in front of a massive audience fanatically cheering for you to get hurt is immeasurably more intense. It is, as Namajunas said, scary.
The sofa psychoanalysis that it’s strange for Namajunas to feel relieved after losing may make sense coming from Cormier, but for the rest of us? Just ask yourself if you’ve ever felt nervous approaching your boss to get a promotion, or if you ever felt anxiety about making the first romantic move on someone. Better yet, ask yourself if you’re currently on your way to accomplishing your ultimate life goals, then listen to the endless excuses reflexively parade through your mind. If overcoming fears and insecurities were easy, then most of us would be pretty brave.
However, liberation comes with that risk, too. The profound discomfort of the cage is a radical contrast to the rest of life. It makes everyday stresses and struggles seem innocuous by comparison. What’s a busy day running errands compared to a sea of Brazilians chanting “you’re going to die” while someone is trying to separate you from consciousness? For Namajunas, who ultimately aims to live a peaceful and happy life, fighting is a way to explore who she is in tremendously trying situations and a chance to emerge from that self-exhumation as a better, more confident person. She fights to face her fears.
For B.J. Penn, however, it seems as if he fights for the opposite reason: to avoid facing the reality that he can no longer compete. For an all-time great who has been fighting for decades, the final curtain is likely much more dreadful than the opening bell.
It has been almost exactly 18 years between Penn’s first professional fight and his most recent one at UFC 237. That’s a helpful way of framing of his career: two distinctly different halves. For the first nine years, between May 2001 and April 2010, he was an absolute legend. He amassed a record of 15-6-1, and as most Penn fans will tell you, there are several asterisks buried in those losses, especially the draw. He won the lightweight and welterweight titles convincingly and only lost to fellow all-time greats, often in controversial or at least extenuating circumstances.
Yet the second half of his career has been entirely different. From UFC 118 to UFC 237, he has gone 1-8-1, losing in increasingly devastating fashion to increasingly lesser competition. With all due respect to Yair Rodriguez, Dennis Siver, Ryan Hall and Clay Guida, nobody would dream of vintage Penn struggling against any of them, let alone getting completely crushed by all of them. Searching for silver lining in a Penn fight is like searching for the most edible bite in a dogs--- sandwich. It exists, I guess, but is the piece of bread that smells least like expressed anal glands really better than simply putting the whole thing in the trash?
Penn’s predicament is not just that he can’t compete with even the low-end of the division anymore. It’s also simply pitiful to see him try. It would be one thing if he were an aging warrior who still put on exciting fights, even if he inevitably lost. However, these fights are horrible viewing experiences, too. There’s no aesthetic to appreciate, no dramatic intrigue or even momentary flashes of brilliance. Not since his bout against Nick Diaz in 2011 has Penn authored a single performance worth watching. His fight against Guida was his best showing in years, which is to say it was only moderately sad and embarrassing. At least he wasn’t doing the tippy toes thing.
Compare that to the main event between Andrade and Namajunas. The action was beautiful and technical and savage, easily deserving of “Fight of the Night.” It started with a striking clinic from Namajunas and ended with a slam knockout that, while briefly scary, is by far one of the coolest ways a fight can be finished. There were narrative allures to it, as well. It established a rock-paper-scissors between Andrade, Namajunas and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk -- to say nothing of the emerging threat of Tatiana Suarez. It posed questions about technique versus power, not that one matters more than the other necessarily, but it was a good reminder that both are equally viable paths to success. Overall, the fight exemplified how amazing and dynamic the sport can be.
There’s really only one reason why the UFC keeps booking Penn’s husk for fights, and to a lesser extent, the same can be said of Anderson Silva: He still has name value, and while it’s obvious he shouldn’t be competing against this generation of UFC fighters, keeping Penn around beats the alternative of having him contribute his recognition to a rival promotion. That’s the rationale anyway. You can decide for yourself whether that feels sensible or perverse, but there is definitely a right and wrong answer here.
None of this is new, but it is worth bringing up every time Penn fights until he finally faces his fears outside the cage. In the past, I’ve taken the gray road that I’m in no position to tell another man what to do with his life. Why does it matter to me? Can’t I just not watch his fights and let him do what he wants? Sure, but that’s a childish way to look at the world. If I see my friend repeatedly headbutting the wall to try and get inside his house instead of going through the open door right next to him, is it my place to tell him how to live his life? Can’t I just ignore him and let him do what he wants? Why do I care?
That’s the thing: I do care. Our personal investment is a big part of why we become fans. Penn expanded my understanding of what professional fighting was and hotwired my imagination for what it could be. He gave me countless hours of entertainment and a deep reservoir of inspiration from which to drink. I’ve followed his career for as long as I’ve followed the sport, and I feel connected to it. I experienced new emotional dimensions, the highs and lows of triumphs and defeats, vicariously through him. If only he could experience the hopelessness and frustration of his continuing urge to fight vicariously through his fans.
John Mayer wrote that “fear is a friend who’s misunderstood.” He’s right. Fear is a guide that shows us where we need to go in order to grow. For fighters like Namajunas, learning from fear means going back into the cage and overcoming the demons she finds there. For Penn, the most sensationally gifted lightweight the sport has ever seen, it means forging a new life outside of the cage, for good.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.