A two time UFC champion. One of only two men to hold belts in two different weight classes. A fighter who has fought everywhere from Lightweight up to Heavyweight against the best in the world. And now, he's gone.
B.J. Penn, one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, has retired. After a decision loss to Nick Diaz at UFC 137, Penn quietly stepped away from the game, bringing his 10 year, 26 fight career to an end. There's no question that he accomplished much in those years, but where does he stand in the all time ranks?
Penn entered the sport as a dynamic 22 year old... well, "Prodigy." It's a fitting nickname, given to Penn after he became a top ranked jiu jitsu competitor a mere three years after he started training. With that background, he came to MMA, immediately diving into the UFC and challenging for a world title less than a year after his debut. Of those early fights, it was Penn's 3rd fight that really turned heads - a blistering 8 second destruction of Caol Uno that remains one of the sport's all-time great highlights. Based on the strength of that win, Penn challenged Lightweight champion Jens Pulver in what was only B.J.'s fourth fight. Pulver outpointed Penn, earning a unanimous decision victory.
Most fighters would take a decision loss to the champion in their fourth fight as a positive accomplishment, but Penn had loftier goals. Right from the beginning, he stated that his goal was not simply to be champion, but to be the best ever. Losing was not a part of the equation for him, and the Pulver loss was a shock to the young fighter. When Pulver left the UFC, Penn had a second shot at the now vacant title, but once again was thwarted when he and Uno battled to a Draw. Penn was frustrated, but as it turned out, he was also on the verge of his greatest glory.
More on the career and legacy of B.J. Penn in the full entry.
After the Uno fight, the UFC began disbanding the Lightweight division. Penn took a fight outside the company, defeating top Japanese Lightweight Takanori Gomi. Penn then returned to the UFC and was surprisingly given an immediate title shot at Welterweight champion Matt Hughes. This despite the fact that Penn had never before fought at Welterweight. Hughes at the time was absolutely dominant, on a 13 fight win streak that included 5 straight title defenses. He was a heavy favorite, but Penn shocked the world by taking Hughes's back and choking the champion out in the first round. Finally, B.J. Penn was a champion. But the celebration didn't last long.
Penn left the UFC over an ugly contract dispute, citing a lack of competition for him in the company. Over the next two years, he fought around the world anywhere from Welterweight to Heavyweight, facing men like Renzo Gracie and Lyoto Machida.
In 2006, Penn returned to the UFC, touting himself as the real Welterweight champion. Unfortunately, his Welterweight return left something to be desired, as he dropped back to back fights to Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes before leaving the Welterweight division to return to Lightweight. After a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter and earning revenge by defeating old rival Jens Pulver, Penn got his third shot at the Lightweight title. He faced Joe Stevenson for the vacant title, choking Stevenson out in a brutal bloodbath to claim his second UFC championship.
Penn would prove to be the most dominant Light weight champion to date in the UFC, defending the belt three times, all in impressive fashion, before being upset by Frankie Edgar in two straight fights. During that title run, the wandering eye of Penn returned. Unhappy with simply ruling over the 155 ranks, Penn moved up to challenge Georges St. Pierre, for GSP's Welterweight title. The champion vs. champion fight was huge, but in the end, once again Penn could not topple his old foe.
After the Edgar loses, he returned to Welterweight for one final run, going 1-1-1 against Hughes, Diaz, and Jon Fitch.
When you look at these accomplishments, there can be no question that B.J. Penn is a Hall of Fame fighter. And yet, his career still leaves a lingering air of disappointment. Why?
Perhaps it's the lofty goals B.J. set for himself early on. Not just greatness, but THE greatest. That's a high bar, and Penn never cleared it. But it's more than that. It's also the feeling that maybe, just maybe, he could have cleared it. What if Penn had not left the UFC after losing to Hughes? What if he hadn't moved up to fight in divisions that allowed him to go easy on his training? What if, every time he had stepped into the cage, B.J. Penn had been dedicated and focused and had fought up to the potential he showed in many of his fights?
"[T]he thing with BJ Penn is sometimes you don't know what BJ Penn will show up to the fight. If he's well prepared or injured - I don't know. Sometimes, I saw him perform very well at the best of his ability he's the best guy. But when he doesn't perform at the best of his ability he can be beat." That's the reality of B.J. Penn as spoken by a man who knew it well - Georges St. Pierre.
In the end, B.J. Penn managed to be two seemingly contradictory things - one of the best the sport has ever seen, as well as a man who never quite lived up to his fullest potential. It's a career 99% of fighters would be proud to have. For Penn's sake, I hope he's in that 99%.