Our BJ Penn discussion this week had been interesting to say the least, but I still think we are talking past each other. I love BJ Penn. I was rooting hard for him against Edgar like I've cheered for him over the course of the decade. I believed in his ability to be one of the pantheon of greats. This is what I wrote for Heavy last year after a UFC source told us they were going to ask BJ to move back to welterweight after he "cleaned out" the lightweight class (oops!):
Penn is finally in a place to solidify his status as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He is clearly the best lightweight of all time, but he needs to put his stamp on that division with a long and unequaled title reign. Instead, sources inside the UFC tell Heavy.com that the master plan for Penn will include a move back to the welterweight class in 2011. Penn won’t be allowed to make his mark at his natural and appropriate weight. He will be asked, once again, to put his superior abilities to the test against bigger and stronger men. Penn, if the UFC follows this course, will be remembered as a great fighter, but not an all-time great. If he follows his true path, as the unbeatable lightweight he truly is, he will be remembered as a legend. Which would you rather be BJ?
The problem is, he got the opportunity and couldn't make the most of it. He's still a great fighter. But when you look at that first tier, the pantheon, the very top guys, he just doesn't belong anymore. Royce Gracie, Frank Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, Fedor Emelianenko, Matt Hughes, Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre. All have an amazing track record of success when the fights mattered most (and even Chuck is questionable on this list). BJ Penn had the talent to be in that group, but things didn't fall into place for him. He sticks out like a sore thumb.
I'd place Penn on a second tier of greats. Nogueira, Sakuraba, Randy Couture,Wanderlei...still Hall of Fame stars, but not the Babe Ruth's and Willie Mays of the sport. It's not damning. It's just how things have shaken out. It's a great group of fighters - but still a step behind the pantheon. I don't think this is unfair, illogical, or "fighter bashing."
I haven't talked to Penn since this fight, but I don't think he would put himself among that first group. He was very conscious when we did speak before the second St. Pierre fight of his legacy. He understood that he had not maximized his potential. That he had partied too much, trained too little. And he knew that he had lost some of the biggest fights of his career. That's why he was so determined to turn over a new leaf.
It's amazing that some of you have responded with such vitriole, defending a fighter who has said the same things about himself. That's what makes BJ such a special person - he had the self awareness to recognize his career hadn't gone the way he hoped. And he made some changes. I hope they pay off for him. He's 31 years old. And, here's the thing not being discussed much: when he took the fight to Edgar, looked for the takedown, and went after him on the mat, he did well.
He's BJ Penn. At some point he decided he was a boxer. He's not. He's the greatest grappling talent of a generation. When someone slaps him in the head and reminds him of that I think we still may see great things. At least this fan is hoping we do.