BJ Penn: A Lesson in Greatness

When last we saw BJ Penn, the Hawaiian legend was battered and bloody and seemingly adamant about his UFC 137 appearance – a hard loss to Nick Diaz that left his eye purple and swollen – being his last trip into the Octagon. Then, days later, came the post on Penn’s website, saying he would take some time off and see where it goes from there. Which leaves us with what? A former welterweight and lightweight champ on the cusp of retirement? A warrior in the waning years of his career? Or simply a fighter who needs some time to reassess his place in the sport? I’d say definitely all of the above. Which isn’t to say Penn is washed up; he is, and will always be, one the best MMA has ever seen. To examine his triumphs, when fists were flying and chokes were constricting, is to be imparted with a lesson in greatness.

I was there when Penn first fought in the UFC, and remember clearly the hype that had surrounded him. He was some sort of jiu-jitsu prodigy (hence his nickname, “The Prodigy”), attaining a black belt in only a few short years and using those skills to kick ass at the Mundials in Brazil. So, while it was amazing that Penn’s first MMA fight ever was at UFC 31, most already harbored great expectations of him. And against an overmatched Joey Gilbert, he did not disappoint. Two crushing performances later (against Din Thomas and Caol Uno) and Penn was taking on Jens Pulver for the title.

Many measure Penn’s performances against those same high expectations, and use that as a gauge of his successes and failures in lieu of the usual “win/loss” method. That’s unfair. When Penn didn’t destroy the likes of Paul Creighton, Matt Serra and others, his victories in those bouts somehow meant less. But the fact is Penn won those fights, and he went on to handily defeat Takanori Gomi (considered Japan’s best at the time) and Matt Hughes (the UFC’s dominant welterweight champ). And he made it look easy.

What made the Prodigy’s victory over Hughes all the more impressive was the step up in weight class, and he continued the trend, taking on everyone from Rodrigo Gracie to Lyoto Machida (!) to George St. Pierre to Hughes again. However, it was a return to the lightweight division that reasserted Penn’s mastery of the game, and he redefined the word “murder” with the way he put away top competitors Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez.

If Penn retires, his record will stay at twenty-six fights, and his losses will have come at the hands of only the best – 155-pound champ Pulver, 205-pound champ Machida, 170-pound champs Hughes and St. Pierre, 155-pound champ Frankie Edgar, and Strikeforce champ Diaz. That’s one heck of a list of fighters to fall to, and there’s zero shame in it. Can he still compete with the sport’s elite, though? Only Penn can decide that, but worth noting is how many fighters can still be the best who saw their Octagon debuts in 2001 (answer: none).

But in the end, it shouldn’t matter. As a fighter, a TUF coach, and the subject of a New York Times Bestselling autobiography, Penn has done and accomplished so much in his years in the mixed martial arts. If he never comes back, then in a year or two we won’t be talking about how he lost to Edgar and Diaz. No, we’ll be talking about BJ Penn’s legacy.

That right there is greatness.

  • Awwaters

    Just re watched his destruction of Din Thomas and Uno dude was amazing at a young age and has gotten better with time. BJ Penn is a legend of this sport and I think he still has few good fights left in him. He may have lost on Saturday but Diaz couldn’t put him away and Diaz’s face didn’t look a whole lot better. I like BJ at 155 and think he should finish his career there. I would love to see Penn take on another Gracie before he goes maybe Royce catchweight at 142? Just a dream.

    • jim genia

      Did you get my book in the mail?

      • Awwaters

        Yes sir appreciate it. I’m about halfway through.

      • Awwaters

        Yes sir appreciate it. I’m about halfway through.

      • Awwaters

        Yes sir appreciate it. I’m about halfway through.

    • sam_snee

      fanboy

      • Awwaters

        Fan of MMA yes. Fan of making uneducated comments on the internet…no.

      • Awwaters

        Fan of MMA yes. Fan of making uneducated comments on the internet…no.

  • Anonymous

    hahaha do we have a teachers pet?

    • Awwaters

      Actually I’ve been critical of some of Jim’s articles, but am giving his book a fair chance as I have not read it yet.

      • Anonymous

        so then hows the first half?

        • Awwaters

          read it. I prefer not to judge a book until I read the whole thing I’ll let ya know.

  • Mr Kitty

    Thanks Jim, I needed an article like that get over my post ufc 137 depression. BJ has always been one of my favorite fighters and to see him get dismantled by one of my least favorite fighters and on top of that announce his retirement . . .  let’s just say I’ve been in a little funk. But you are totally right. BJ has only lost to champions and there’s nothing wrong with that. Great article.

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