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.