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As Junior dos Santos and Derrick Lewis faced off in the Octagon before their fight at UFC Fight Night 146 on Saturday in Wichita, Kansas, a thought occurred to me. Had this fight been booked 10 years ago, it would have been an absolute squash match. I don’t mean that simply because at this time in 2009 dos Santos was 2-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and 8-1 overall, while Lewis had yet to make his professional debut. I mean, if the “Cigano” that had just beaten Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve back-to-back in a combined 2:15 fought against the 2019 incarnation of “The Black Beast,” it still would have been a one-sided beatdown.
Of course, the dos Santos was still a slight favorite heading into their bout, and the former champion justified those odds with a vintage performance against a dangerous opponent. Still, considering how highly “Cigano” was regarded a few years ago, it was jarring to see how close the odds were.
For all the tiresome G.O.A.T.-of-the-day talk, dos Santos has long been an unsung contender for the title. He’s a special athlete for the heavyweight division, with skills to match. His title reign was short even by heavyweight standards, but he still holds the record for the longest winning streak in the division’s history, as he reeled off nine straight victories upon entering the promotion. That streak, by the way, included wins over four UFC champions -- Werdum, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir -- as well as 2006 Pride Fighting Championships open weight grand prix winner Mirko Filipovic, former International Fight League champion Roy Nelson and onetime UFC title contender Gabriel Gonzaga. Dos Santos didn’t just beat those nine opponents, either. He demolished them, finishing seven of the nine, with five first-round knockouts. He’s tied for the most knockout victories in heavyweight history, and at 35 years old, he has put together a three-win battering ram with which he’s banging down the door of a title shot.
Lewis, for all his accomplishments and heart, will not have the kind of legacy that dos Santos will, so why were the odds as close as they were? It was a mixture of the specific style matchup and recent history, as “The Black Beast” explained: “He’s not tough like he used to be. I believe he has a glass chin.” He wasn’t wrong to think that. After the legendary run that culminated in a single title defense, dos Santos hit a rough patch. He got brutalized across five rounds by Velasquez in their rematch, then proceeded to teeter-totter between wins and losses for the next five years, suffering three devastating knockout losses along the way. As new heavyweights arrived on the scene, it looked like dos Santos’ tenure as a relevant title contender had ended. In the last three fights, he has reversed this trend, looking like an evolved version of his vintage self in the process. It’s accurate to call this moment a career resurgence for the former champion.
Compare that to former lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn, who is booked for another loss -- err fight -- against Clay Guida at UFC 237 in May. In his heyday, the discussion about the greatest lightweights ever always focused on who was in the No. 2 spot. Penn was preternaturally gifted, a world champion jiu-jitsu black belt after three years of practice and a multi-division UFC champ before it was fashionable. For years, he was considered one of the finest boxers in MMA, and his big-game ambition was as legendary as his lackadaisical commitment to training.
Yet ever since losing the lightweight title to Frankie Edgar in 2010, Penn has not been the same fighter. His last win was against a clearly husked-out version of Matt Hughes eight-plus years ago. Since that fight, Penn has gone 0-6-1, losing in progressively lopsided fashion to progressively worse opponents. No one in their right mind would think Dennis Siver or Ryan Hall could stand a chance against 2009-era Penn, yet the former hung a 10-8 round on “The Prodigy” and the latter submitted him in half a round. Since 2011, Penn has won all of two rounds in seven fights. Anyone else would have been cut after this type of skid, yet for some reason -- probably a concoction of commercial viability and nostalgia -- Penn continues to get booked for fights.
Which brings us back full circle. Dos Santos with a full head of hair would have been a heavy favorite against Lewis, just as Penn would have been a sure-bet against Guida 10 years ago. Now, however, “Cigano” is putting the pieces of his career back together and looks primed to win the heavyweight title again, whereas Penn looks primed to disappoint and embarrass himself and his fans for a seventh consecutive fight. What’s the difference?
Age is a big part of it, as dos Santos is 35 and Penn is 40. Those five years are a big competitive difference. Their respective divisions are also significant. Heavyweight sees regular resurgences; just ask Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski, both of whom rebounded from prolonged losing streaks to get back in the title picture. The division is thin enough and the fighters strong enough that even the most lopsided fights on paper can be tossups. All it takes is one 265-pound power punch to lift an underdog to glory. That’s not the case at any of Penn’s preferred weight classes, where new up-and-comers are in abundance and power does not carry over into old age nearly as much.
Yet I suspect another explanation for why Penn is unlikely to see a resurgence, a variable that is specific to him: his natural talent. The ease at which he picked up fighting is what made him such a fan favorite. Talent can be a double-edged sword, though. As the prolific writer Haruki Murakami wrote in his memoir about running and writing: “Especially when [writers are] young, as long as they have a certain level of talent, it’s not so difficult to write a novel. They easily clear all kinds of hurdles. Being young means your whole body is filled with a natural vitality. Focus and endurance appear as needed, and you never need to seek them on your own. If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings. In most cases, though, as youth fades, that sort of freeform vigor loses its natural vitality and brilliance. After you pass a certain age, things you were able to do easily aren’t so easy anymore.”
Murakami goes on to explain that the less naturally talented are at an advantage in the end. They can’t lean on their natural gifts to get them through challenges, and so they are forced to develop their focus and endurance. These skills are not just controllable, as opposed to one’s intrinsic abilities; they are also flexible to change. Dos Santos was clearly a talented athlete when he arrived in the UFC as a 25-year-old but not to the ridiculous extent that Penn was. Few fighters are. However, he has been able to evolve in ways that Penn never could, adapting his skill set to match his fading athleticism. Penn still fights how he did a decade ago, but his body can no longer execute what his instincts command, and the older he gets, the less likely he’ll be able to author even a brief career resurgence.
For longtime Penn fans, the road to May 10 will be fraught with dread and anxiety. Conventional wisdom states that it’s not how many times you fall but how many times you get back up. This is certainly true for a lot of fighters, but sometimes you should stop getting up and stop putting yourself in the position to fall in the first place.
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.