"Sean Sherk, your dead!" - BJ Penn
I still hold UFC 84: Ill Will in the top five of shows I've ever watched live. There wasn't a single bad fight on the main card, and the prelims had Shane Carwin and Dong Hyun Kim's debuts in the UFC. And of course, Jon Koppenhaver got put to sleep as well. First was Thiago Silva's mugging of Antonio Mendes, then Tito Ortiz's drama with Dana White was coming to an end at the hands of Lyoto Machida - and Tito almost got the last laugh. As the night when on, my buddy was filling me in on the background. Gouvia and Reljic went to war in an awesome fight, and then Wanderlei Silva just savaged Keith Jardine (that knockout is what got me hooked). Then came BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk.
I'm assuming that most fans know what happened between Penn and Sherk but in case there are newer fans that didn't, here is a brief recap. The UFC's lightweight division died back in 2002/2003 when a mini-tournament for the belt ended in a lame 5-round draw between Penn and Caol Uno (Din Thomas and Matt Serra where the other two) and Penn moved up to welterweight, shocking the world and beating Matt Hughes for the belt. Penn then bolted over contract issues and fought in K-1 in Japan (including a 205lbs fight against Lyoto Machida!) before returning at welterweight against Georges St-Pierre. In 2006, the UFC brought back the lightweight title and pitted Sean Sherk and Kenny Florian against each other - with Sherk taking it by grinding Florian into the mat for five rounds. Penn decided to settle on old score with Jens Pulver at coach a season of TUF, then defeating his rival and announcing his return to 155lbs. A month later, Sherk defended the title against Hermes Franca successfully, but both champion and challenger both tested positive for steroids. What happened then was a protracted legal fight between Sherk and the California State Athletic commission that exposed corruption and/or incompetence within the CSAC, but Sherk was never proven to have been innocent either and he was stripped of the title. At UFC 80 in England, Penn turned Joe Stevenson into a horror movie outake and choked him out (with blood literally spewing out of Joe's forehead) to take the title.
Now we had a champion who never beat the ex-champion, and an ex-champion who never lost his belt. And then Penn turned on the magic. Hyping a fight like Chael Sonnen before there was the Chael Sonnen we know now . . . Penn called out Sherk for being a cheater and said he never had to cheat to win anything. While Penn talked and talked, Sherk stewed and trained (Google "Sherk caveman workout" to see what I mean). The hatred was plain as day, and for the first time the UFC lightweight division had a real title FIGHT, with two men who had a rightful claim to the belt and both who were considered the top of the division. And just remember who Sean Sherk was - he was the first guy to take Matt Hughes five rounds (as a blown up welterweight). In fact, at the time of Sherk's fight with Penn the only men ever to beat him were Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre See here (watch the first minute or so):
When I learned all (or most) of the background, I was amped - and honestly I was rooting for Sherk b/c I thought Penn was an asshole. And then the bell ran. You saw what Nick Diaz did to BJ Penn last Saturday? That's what Penn did to Sherk in 2008. Sherk insisted on keeping the fight standing, attempting to box with Penn, and in this I learned the secret about MMA. Just because you have muscles doesn't mean you punch harder. Penn touched Sherk's face over and over, bloodying the ex-champ and swelling his face like a watermelon. This night, BJ Penn put it all together. Sean Sherk was known for his unlimited gas tank while Penn was (and still is) know for always gassing badly, not this night. Penn wore down Sherk. Constantly throwing punches and missing while getting tagged over and over will destroy your cardio. Sherk refused to do what he does best, the double-leg into destroying opponents on the ground. He refused to even attempt takedowns. And Penn just destroyed him, as one-sided a beatdown as there was. And the end was epic and a perfect representation of Penn.
A tired, bloody, and beaten Sherk reeled backwards and bounced against the cage, then came forward putting his head down attempting perhaps to finally take Penn down. BJ, in a perfect example of the incredible fighting instincts he has, ran in and threw a vicious knee that caught Sherk clean on the jaw and punished him with more punches. Sherk lay slumped against the cage. The only thing that prevented the ref from stopping the fight was the bell ringing before he got there. Penn looked at Sherk, waved his hands in the air, and declared the fight over himself. The referee would agree. Sean Sherk, the proud champion who steamrolled through 32 of 35 fights before this, lay on the ground completely destroyed.
BJ then runs over to Sherk and wipes his blood onto his hands and licks it. He owned him now. And then what does he do after that?
He called out Georges St-Pierre.
That moment was the apex of Penn's career. Never was he more athletic, well-conditioned, destructive, and brash. Never was he more BJ Penn. And that fight, he was truly great. He was, for one fight, the fighter we all know he should have been his entire career. Penn was never able to sustain his greatest, to live and breath an obsession with perfection the way GSP and Anderson Silva and Randy Couture did. The BJ Penn that demolished Sean Sherk might have been the greatest fighter on the planet at that moment. Its sad, in retrospect, that in many ways Penn's greatness came from him coasting in his natural ability, and one wonders might have been had he applied himself the way St-Pierre and Couture did in terms of living and breathing this.
At UFC 84, BJ Penn made me an MMA fan.