"I don’t want to be known as a great fighter. I want to be known as the best. The best fighter ever"
Those are the words of a fighter that seemed focussed on legacy. When I talked to Penn before his second fight with Georges St. Pierre, his place in the sport's rich history was definitely on his mind. He was relaxed, sitting in the UFC media room and eating a bowl of fresh fruit, his bare feet propped on the table. But relaxed or not, this was an issue that was clearly on his mind.
We know what happened next. He was demolished by St.Pierre. Returning to lightweight, he subsequently lost twice to Frankie Edgar. His historical place, once so seemingly assured, was much less crystal clear. It was looking downright hazy. After all, a 5-5-1 record in title fights was hardly the accomplishment of a legend. I thought it was worth exploring where Penn fit in the big picture. Was he among the elite of all time? One of a handful? Or was he another great warrior who fell just short of immortality?
Response to my subsequent postfight piece on BJ Penn's historical legacy surprised me. In the aftermath of his second loss to Frankie Edgar, the truth seemed pretty apparent. BJ Penn, for all of his talent, has consistently failed on the biggest stage. He's succeeded as well - big wins over Matt Hughes, Sean Sherk, and Takanori Gomi. Enough so that it isn't ridiculous to consider him a potential all-time great. But those wins only gave us a tantalizing glance at what might have been. Because, more often than not, Penn lost when it mattered most. It's that obvious talent, Dana White told Kevin Iole in 2008, that makes Penn's failures so frustrating:
Some guys are born with God-given natural ability, but a lot of times, they're the hardest ones to get to train properly because everything comes so easily to them," White said. "And because of that, a lot of times they wind up (throwing) it all way. B.J. can do things that very few guys have ever been able to do in there, but he doesn't do it all the time because he hasn't dedicated himself to it.
White, as he so often does, has hit the nail on the head here. More on Penn's legacy, both as a fighter and a lightweight after the jump.
The revisionism of some Penn fans has been nothing short of amazing. Penn was a true phenom, a prodigy who dominated jiu jitsu competition and made a tremendous impact in his early Octagon appearances. But BJ Penn's initiial lightweight run in the UFC was ultimately a failure. How could it not be? When given the chance to win the world championship he couldn't get it done. He lost a decision to Jens Pulver at UFC 35 and fought to a draw with Caol Uno at UFC 41. Everyone was disappointed, including Penn.
It was his shocking upset of Matt Hughes that catapulted Penn into the realm of legend. Unfortunately, it was a win he couldn't seem to build on. He spent several years in kind of a netherworld, fighting for neither Pride or the UFC, biding his time in his brother's promotion or bouncing around weight classes for K-1.
When he made his Octagon return in 2006, it was still all feast or all famine for the talented fighter. He still couldn't quite put the pieces together. He felt destined for success, but his dreams fell hard against rising star Georges St. Pierre and against Hughes in a rematch. Penn said he had only himself to blame. He wasn't serious enough about being great, not serious enough to turn his potential into performance:
"The second Hughes fight was a huge reality check," Penn said. "But it didn't hit me right away. When I first got home, I was still in the bars; I was still hanging out and was doing a bunch of things. I wasn't in the gym. Then, on my birthday when I turned 28 (Dec. 13, 2006), it was time to get serious, time to wake up."
Just like it had when he left to face Hughes for the first time at UFC 46, the lightweight division chugged along in Penn's absence. No one had really caught the eye of the sport's fans in America. The UFC, looking to change that, brought him back to the division with a splash - a long awaited rematch with Jens Pulver and a prime coaching slot on The Ultimate Fighter 5. Pulver, like Penn, had feuded with the Zuffa brass. His own journey around the sport's fringe promotion had been less succesful than Penn's. Pulver, simply put, had fallen on hard times. His comeback had already been derailed by an unknown Joe Lauzon. A Penn win was a mere formality.
What followed was like a hot knife slicing through butter. Penn's lightweight legacy was cemented in his next few fights. He beat Joe Stevenson for an interim title after champion Sean Sherk was suspended for steroid use, then wrecked Sherk to solidify his status as the division's best. Some would argue that the best lightweights were actually fighting in Japan, where the top fighters had all congregated after the UFC shut down the division when Penn failed to thrive there years earlier. But with a win in his pocket over Japanese kingpin Takanori Gomi back in 2003, many gave Penn the benefit of the doubt. He was the best, building his legacy, the one so important to him.
Penn though, Penn dreamed big. Being the best lightweight, cementing that status by taking on all comers, wasn't enough for him. He wanted more. He talked about winning titles all the way up to heavyweight, becoming the sport's only five division champion. He talked about going up to welterweight again. More than anything, he talked about Georges St. Pierre.
St. Pierre had become the sport's top star while Penn was securing his lightweight title. Their first match had been close, a razor thin margin separating the two men. Penn didn't want to be the best lightweight, to prove that beyond dispute. He wanted St. Pierre. And he got him. St. Pierre toyed with Penn in the welterweight star's most transcendent performance. Penn had the potential to be great, but he looked true greatness in the eye that night - and had no answer for it.
After beating reality stars Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, Penn ran into another fighter who seems to have solved the BJ Penn riddle. Frankie Edgar outworked Penn for five rounds to win a close decision at UFC 112. The loss got people thinking again about how to rate Penn, how his career was stacking up as he passed thirty and headed towards athletic irrelevance.
Yahoo's Kevin Iole put it best before the second Edgar fight:
...it’s time for Penn to back up his words and produce.
His potential has brought him to the threshold of greatness. But if he wants to be great, if he wants to inducted one day into the UFC Hall of Fame, if he wants to be recalled years from now as the greatest lightweight champion in UFC history, he needs to quit promising to live up to his potential and finally do it.
If he loses to Edgar, perhaps it’s time to look at him as a good fighter – perhaps a very good fighter – concede that we were all wrong and drop the "greatness" label.
Penn, though, is just 31 and has a lot of time to still ultimately become the fighter so many believed he would be.
It’s all up to him.
BJ Penn's legacy was up to him. He held it in his hands. And, as happened time and again, he dropped it. We watched it shatter as Frankie Edgar left Penn standing beltless and looking foolish, on the losing end of another title confrontation. The questions have been answered. BJ Penn was amazing. But he wasn't one of the greats. Potential matters. Performance matters more.