When your talent is so prodigious that those around you have no other choice but to coin you "The Prodigy," the word potential probably becomes a familiar one.
For BJ Penn, it also became a double-edged sword: before fights, us fans lavished praise on BJ's limitless potential, bestowing the word on him like we were crowning a warrior Prince of MMA; after fights, us fans kicked the dirt of his potential back in his eyes, cutting him down with the very same sword we used to build him up.
Fair or not, the result of these expectations is that the height of BJ Penn's successes have always been measured against the depth of his failures - resulting in one of the most puzzling legacies in UFC history. After all, who else's career could feature titles in two divisions, eleven title fights total, four title defenses and a litany of classic fights, yet still be considered (at least partially) disappointing?
Yet, that type of seeming contradiction seems only fitting for a fighter who defined himself through resistance. A legitimate star in the UFC with an almost irrationally loyal fanbase, BJ seemed to deliberately avoid capitalizing on that fame - as if it somehow made him a lesser warrior. A fighter with almost incomparable natural gifts, BJ scoffed at the notion that, in this new 'MMA,' the strength of one's muscles need to match the strength of one's resolve. And despite fight after fight proving as much, BJ recoiled at the suggestion that he gave up on fights.
On Saturday night, however, standing broken beside Joe Rogan, Penn seemed to resign himself to the truth: while he is one of the most talented fighters alive at the beginning of a fight, he will quit so long as you push him; while he was one of the most talented fighters alive at the beginning of his career, he quit when you pushed him.
As a fan who formerly delighted in watching BJ fail, I had visualized Saturday night before: the glorious day when the defiant Hawaiian would finally succumb to the weight of reality, admitting defeat at the hands of his own resistance to change. Instead, like the trajectory of BJ's entire career, the reality of the moment did not meet my expectations.
Rather than reveling in BJ's concession of defeat, I was like a child who just killed its own goldfish: by the time I understood what I had done, it was too late. Watching BJ's sullen goodbye brought me no satisfaction, for I was filled with regret.
Two days later, I find myself gripped by the same irrational desire to see BJ fight that I used to lament in his fans. I now want him to succeed, to find an immutable desire to fight, and to rise over the crest of expectations and assume his place as, "The Prodigy." Unlike those original fans, however, my irrational desires are tempered by reality: BJ Penn met my expectations on Saturday night, and MMA is worse for it.