The universe is shaped exactly like the earth. If you go straight long enough you end up where you were.
- 3rd Planet, The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse 2000
The straight line. The unattainable line on the horizon. Flat line.
What we have witnessed this year is the horizontal trajectory of the skills of two of MMA's biggest stars. Although their path to this destination is completely different, they have arrived at the same place.
BJ Penn in the past has performed as an almost perfect tactician. As his career evolved it was never a straight line. It was a thriving heart beat, elevating at each turn. It all came to him so naturally that his dominance of the lightweight division became rote. His focus would shift and he would begin to hop around weight classes like Oprah with a hefty supply of Mallomars. Even Dana White, who BJ made lots of money for, started to become frustrated as he would hear requests from BJ to fight guys like Randy Couture.
"Me and B.J. have been bumping heads behind the scenes for years," White said. "This kid wanted to bounce around to all these different weight classes, he wanted to go to heavyweight and fight Randy Couture when he's got a 155-pound frame. Is he talented enough to do it? Absolutely. Does that mean he should do it? Absolutely not."
Eventually, BJ settled into the welterweight division for two stints. On his first go around he was chased out of the division with back to back losses to GSP, and the man he will face next month, Matt Hughes. He returned to lightweight and once again dominated. So much so that the drums for a GSP rematch from Penn fans became deafening. Do you remember the build to GSP v Penn II. Do you remember the fervor of the fan base leading to that fight? It was immense. Probably the biggest build the UFC experienced for a bout up to that time. But, in the second fight GSP left no room for debate. It became almost painful to watch as GSP ripped Penn's heart out round by round. Penn had some serious soul searching to do about his career. Rumors of retirement began to circulate. Penn reset and began to to cement his place as the greatest lightweight in history. He changed his training routine. He became focused. Once again he reeled off two cruel and devastating wins against Florian and Sanchez. The images of Sanchez's bloodied face is seared into our memories and most likely hangs on Bob Reilly's wall as exhibit A for why MMA should not be sanctioned in NY. The "aura" had returned. Then Frankie Edgar entered the picture. As the first fight unfolded we found an uninspired Penn get pushed around the cage. Questions about his desire started to circulate. Others said he was sick. Penn spoke about training harder than he ever had for the rematch. But, he did it in Hawaii. With his own team. He was heavily favored to regain his belt. Few, I think, believed Edgar could repeat his performance against Penn. Wow. Were we surprised. When fight night came it was clear that BJ did absolutely nothing to adjust to Edgar's style and he was flat out dominated. He looked demoralized from start to finish. The line of progress as a fighter had gone flat. This was all BJ was going to be by his own choice. He refused to evolve as a fighter. Evolution is cruel.
Now, we can never compare BJ Penn's technique to Brock's. If Brock had half of BJ's technical ability he would be unstoppable. Brock has a certain set of skills that he excels with. Aside from his inexperienced mistake in his first bout with Mir, those set of skills made him equally dominant as Penn's when fight night came. Sure his foot work looked terrible and he always looked awkward on his feet but he had a great game plan. Use his wrestling to take down his opponent and then melt their faces into the mat. With each win, culminating in his destruction of Mir at UFC 100, Brock seemed more and more invincible. That was until he got hit harder than he probably ever had in his life against Carwin. Then he got hit again and again. His shaky stand up defense and striking abilities had caught up to him and nearly felled him. The hole in Brock's game was blown through with a wrecking ball. Soon, a fight was set with the much more technically proficient, Cain Velasquez. Brock trained, trained hard. But, once again with his own team and only in the skill sets he already had. The hole that Carwin blew open Cain drove a tank through and pummeled the once seemingly invincible Brock.
I just got a message that said "Yeah hell has frozen over"
I got a phone call from the Lord sayin' "Hey boy get a
sweater. Right now!"
-Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse, 2000
These are two of the sport's biggest draws. The UFC needs them to succeed, they have invested heavily in them both. But, if they disregard that MMA today is in a state of constant flux , if they stay on the straight line, the flat line and do not evolve they will wind up right back where they are in defeat. And there really is no excuse for them not to evolve as fighters. Let's not pretend that Penn or Lesnar belong to a real MMA camp. They have their own camps they run. There are so many camps out there that offer training in a variety of disciplines. Just about every champ of every division, including Strikeforce, fights out of a camp that focus on a variety of martial arts. If you want us as fans to take you seriously as fighters then you have to show the dedication that is required to stay on top.
All the stars are projectors, Projecting our lives down to this planet earth.
-The Stars are Projectors, The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse 2000
We will get to see Penn soon in his rubber match against Hughes. Brock is medically suspended for 6 months but could be back sooner. The stars we look at in the sky are already dead. They are gone, extinguished. For Penn and Brock has their star faded and are they now merely projections?