This date in MMA history four years ago - 6/23/2007 - UFC held its TUF 5 Finale.
The card featured the traditional mix of Ultimate Fighter competitors, the show's finale, and various stylistically TV-friendly bouts. But the highlight of the card for most MMA fans had nothing to do with TUF itself (except that the two combatants had coached season 5) - the main event was "The Prodigy", BJ Penn, in a rematch against former (and inaugural) UFC lightweight champion "Lil Evil" Jens Pulver.
The two men had fought before - five and a half years before, at UFC 35. Pulver had won the UFC's first-ever lightweight championship at UFC 30, defended it once, and faced undefeated (3-0 with 3 stoppages) hot prospect BJ Penn for his second title defense. The course of events that night would remain a part of the narrative surrounding BJ Penn for years to come - that he was insanely talented and athletically gifted, but lazy, unfocused and undisciplined. Withstanding a strong start from Penn, the underdog Pulver survived to claim a close 5-round decision and retain the title, handing BJ his first loss.
Years later, Penn was still very bitter about this. The bad blood became mutual as Pulver reacted to his perception that Penn was questioning, if not the validity of Pulver's win, then his viability and legitimacy as a champion. Both men agreed to coach season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter, with the two coaches contracted to square off in the live season finale on Spike TV.
On the night, it was all BJ Penn in a one-sided drubbing of his old nemesis. Penn outstruck Pulver on the feet, took him down multiple times at will, passed guard, achieved mount, threatened Pulver with multiple submissions - and that was all in the first round. The second round was no better as Penn again took the fight to the ground, securing Pulver's left arm with his own leg in a hallmark Penn maneuver, and sank in a deep rear naked choke. BJ famously held the choke long, not letting go immediately following the tap and the referee attempting to extricate him from the submission hold.
This fight stands in retrospect as a hallmark fight in MMA history because it represented the return of Penn to the UFC's lightweight division for the first time in over four years, and marked the start of one of the most intimidating displays of divisional dominance in recent memory.
Up next for "the Prodigy" was a lightweight title fight against Joe Stevenson at UFC 80. Champion Sean Sherk had recently been stripped of his title after testing positive for steroids in his title fight at UFC 73, so Penn vs. Stevenson was for the vacant lightweight title. Stevenson was on a four-fight win streak with three early stoppages heading into the title tilt with Penn.
With Sherk commentating alongside announcers Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, Penn put up another devastatingly one-sided performance, taking Stevenson down immediately, transitioning from dominant position to dominant position on the ground, and opening Stevenson's forehead wide with a huge elbow with less than a minute remaining in round 1. With Joe bleeding as though from a "broken fire hydrant" (Rogan), BJ landed more shots from top position as the round ended. A determined Stevenson came out to start round two, but after getting outboxed on the feet for a couple minutes, BJ put Stevenson down with a left hook, jumped on him, and in short order trapped Stevenson's left arm in the same fashion and sank in a rear naked choke. A shockingly bloody Stevenson was forced to tap out. With this victory Penn had won two UFC titles in two weight classes (he won the welterweight title at UFC 46) and now possessed the lightweight championship that he had coveted for years.
The obvious followup chapter was to fight the returning Sean Sherk, who after serving his mandated suspension, challenged BJ for the title at UFC 84. With Sherk typically implementing a strongly wrestling-based style of takedowns, positional control, and grinding punishment, this title fight followed a course surprising to most. Sherk attempted a takedown early, which was stuffed, and following that the fight was conducted entirely on the feet, essentially a kickboxing contest. Sherk displayed impressive in-and-out quickness, but it was Penn landing the more numerous and effective shots through one round, two rounds, three rounds. Then, with under 10 seconds remaining in round three, Penn knocked Sherk down with a right uppercut-left hook-flying knee combo, punctuated by some hammer fists as the bell sounded. The flurry left Sherk unable to rise to return to the corner between rounds, and the fight was stopped. Penn had now avenged his first loss, won the title, and defended it, all in crushing fashion.
But his reign of terror at 155 pounds wasn't finished yet. Following an unsuccessful one-fight return to welterweight against champ Georges St. Pierre, which with a win would have awarded Penn two belts simultaneously, BJ returned to lightweight to face top contender Kenny Florian at UFC 101. Florian was red-hot, having won 6 straight with 5 stoppages over the likes of Joe Stevenson, Roger Huerta, Joe Lauzon. Kenny was the first man in Penn's streak to put up a decent fight. The first round was contested relatively evenly on the feet until the closing seconds, when Penn staggered Florian with an overhead right and flying knee that buckled him as the round wound down. The story of round two was Florian trying repeatedly without success to take BJ down, making him work along the fence, while BJ connected much cleaner in the striking exchanges. The third round was similar to the second. The fourth round proved to be Kenny's last stand, as Penn took him down early in the round and, after dishing out ample ground and pound from half-guard, Penn mounted Florian, quickly took his back and sank in the mata leao.
But if Florian had provided Penn his stiffest test during the run, BJ's next fight - a title defense against Diego Sanchez - was one-sided from the opening bell to the end. Penn came VERY close to finishing Diego in the first minute of the fight, dropping him with a right counter and knee to the body and jumping all over him with a series of vicious unanswered shots to the head. By a miracle Sanchez kept his consciousness long enough to survive that flurry, but the night didn't exactly improve for him. FightMetric had Penn outstriking Sanchez a lopsided 150-8 over the course of the fight and stuffing 27 of 27 takedown attempts, resulting in an overall Effectiveness Score of 466-59. Diego was simply outclassed in every way in one of the most one-sided title fights in recent memory. While the outcome was never in doubt, BJ put the exclamation point on in the fifth round, finishing Sanchez via cut stoppage that began with a monster head kick, opening up a huge gash on Diego's forehead.
Nothing, as they say, lasts forever, and nowhere is that truer than the sport of MMA. Frankie Edgar finally put a stop to Penn's reign of terror at 155 pounds with two consecutive decision wins over The Prodigy, the second much more decisive than the first. Since then, BJ has returned to welterweight, starching his old nemesis Matt Hughes in 21 seconds at UFC 21 and fighting top contender Jon Fitch to a hotly-debated draw at UFC 127.
Whatever the future may hold for Penn, though, he treated MMA fans to a heck of a ride with his championship-level 5 consecutive dominant victories at lightweight - a run which began four years ago today.