Last time, we followed the Prodigy from the birth of his career to one of his proudest moments as a mixed martial artist: yanking the UFC welterweight title from Matt Hughes at the height of his dominance. Today I'll examine the disappointments of "Fat BJ Penn" and the gripping drama of his determined climb back to the top.
All data collected from a three-year sliding time frame
In 2005, Penn found mixed success outside the UFC. It was clear that he wasn't finding what he was searching for, and the lack of direction was taking its toll on his fighting spirit. Early the next year, an aimless and possibly humbled Penn buried an old hatchet and returned home to the UFC. His lost championship was obviously on his mind, but Dana White and co. wouldn't offer him a title fight after such a long absence. Instead they put him in the path of oncoming contender Georges St. Pierre. The ensuing battle must have given Penn nightmarish flashbacks of his long-ago loss to Jens Pulver, as he battered both men early, only to have them catch up to and surpass him in the end.
Penn wound up getting his title shot anyway, as an injured St. Pierre was forced to withdraw from his scheduled bout with once-again champ Matt Hughes. The opportunity ended up being a wolf in sheep's clothing, and Hughes survived some early danger before pinning Penn to the mat and finishing the fight with strikes to the face. The back-to-back defeats, combined with his still-relevant loss to Lyoto Machida, drag Penn's Adjusted Strength of Record to its lowest point to date.
After a very disappointing homecoming year, Penn took some much-needed time out of the cage to reassess his situation. It was one thing to underachieve with no goal in sight, but wanting something and not getting it was unusual for him. As luck would have it, Dana White came up with just the right thing to light a fire under Penn's ass: a chance at redemption against Jens Pulver, the very first man to deny him victory. The bitter rivals would coach opposite one another on the Ultimate Fighter television series, and settle the score in the main event of the season finale. The fight also gave Penn the opportunity to reinvent himself at his ideal weight of 155 pounds, which he did in stunning fashion. After losing the reality show in just about every way possible, Penn came to the finale in shape and in a bad mood, and Pulver didn't stand a chance.
While no one could be sure of it at the time, this was indeed the long-awaited return of the Prodigy, but he had a lot of ground to cover. The win over Pulver was his only fight in 2007, and his memorable first run in the UFC had long since faded into irrelevancy. By the year's close, Penn's ASR score had bottomed out for the second consecutive time, but his big comeback was already in motion.
With his complete dismantling of former champ Pulver, and Sean Sherk stripped of his lightweight belt following a failed steroid test, Penn happily found himself thrust into the title picture again. At the top of 2008, he squared off against Joe Stevenson for the vacant championship in a division suddenly brimming with talent. Penn handed Stevenson a rare kind of beating, leaving his fellow contender gushing blood and gasping for air. Next in line was a bitter Sherk, ready to reclaim the title after his forced absence. If Penn sympathized with Sherk's vaguely familiar predicament, he hid it well with another classic finish by way of strikes.
Triumphing over Sherk made it three home runs in a row for Penn, each showcasing the type of performances that stole the spotlight at the dawn of his career. He was well on his way to the heights of his former glory, but the sting of his last losses at welterweight had not yet faded. Penn would have to stay focused and keep putting wins together to reclaim his elite status.
One should never criticize another for being ambitious, but there are consequences waiting for those who brazenly dismiss their own limits. Penn let his new-found confidence get the better of him, and instead of cementing a legacy in his ideal weight division, he maneuvered himself into a rematch against welterweight boss Georges St. Pierre. The Canadian did Penn and his fans a service by giving his face and ego a substantial bruising, forcing Penn to accept (for the time being) his true home at 155.
The second loss to St. Pierre also delivered Penn to the greatest destination in his long and storied career. In the Spring of 2009, to prepare for his scheduled title defense against Kenny Florian, Penn began training with mad scientist Marv Marinovich, elevating his strength, speed, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness to levels he had never imagined. Penn demonstrated his second rebirth in as many years by fighting like a cornered wolverine against challengers Florian and Diego Sanchez, dragging them into the championship rounds, and cranking the heat even higher to secure highlight reel finishes. Penn looked like he could have beaten both men at the same time. The Prodigy was back, and with style.
As great a fighter as he is, Penn's arrogance is a ghost that just won't go away, and it's not the helpful kind that washes dishes while everyone is asleep. His pattern of misguided decisions is especially glaring when you skim through his fighting life the way we are now, and unfortunately it continues in 2010. For reasons unknown (and unimaginable), Penn parted ways with Marinovich's camp and reenlisted with his serviceable, but less inspiring, former strength and conditioning program. The results were maybe not predictable, but neither surprising. Most agree that the judges were alone in awarding Frankie Edgar the victory in his first title fight, but it's not up for debate that this was not the same Penn that murdered his last two opponents.
By the end of their immediate rematch, one thing had been made increasingly clear: BJ Penn can go wherever he wants, but the killer inside him, the Prodigy, won't always follow. It preferred the bright lights of the UFC, grew roots in the lightweight division, and flourished in Marinovich's Sport Science Lab. Although these conditions do not cast a favorable light on his upcoming tiebreaker with Matt Hughes, who knows what Penn could yet accomplish if he learns to respect his symbiotic relationship with himself? As fans, if not of the man, then at least of the sport, lets hope he's wondering the same thing.