It used to be widely believed among the medical profession that women had fewer ribs and teeth than men. Medical literature and popular opinion held these to be sacred facts. The source of these beliefs could perhaps be traced back to the Bible, or Aristotle, or the entrails of slaughtered goats- it doesn't matter. What matters is the fascinating fact that for centuries it didn't occur to anybody to simply double-check this easily debunked myth. An opinion bandwagon is a powerful thing to resist, and I'm reminded of this when I hear the standard spiel about B.J. Penn.
He is a preternaturally gifted prodigy, it is said. If only he could have found his motivation, he would have been the greatest MMA fighter of all time, it is said. Had he perhaps not succumbed to the urgings of his courageous heart and fought men much bigger than himself, his pedestrian fight record would have reflected his true greatness, it is said. In summary, among his fans and those who have clambered atop this opinion bandwagon, his lacklustre record and losses to top-tier competition are somehow irrelevant facts to be explained away by the simple explanation that he just didn't try hard enough.
It would be to easy to argue against this position by trotting out B.J's record, or detailing the murderer's row of opponents that have defeated him. It would be likewise facile to point out that if he is indeed one of the all-time greats, then all the men who beat him fair and square should likewise be accorded that honor. But where's the fun in pointing out the obvious? It's more interesting to point out how the very reasons given for B.J's supposed underperformance versus his potential are actually concrete proof that he doesn't- and never did have- greatness in him.
Penn was asked the predictable question recently of why, when he decided to return to MMA after a self-imposed exile, he chose to fight a larger welterweight in Rory MacDonald. Why couldn't he fight at lightweight, where he would presumably be fighting men closer to his size? This question arose from the frustration of his fans who wonder why he keeps hamstringing and handicapping himself by not training hard enough, or fighting bigger men. What they probably didn't see is how BJ's answer revealed the unhappy truth.
"I'm almost 34 now, and I don't see the point in eating chicken salad and training six hours off of that," he said. Those words said it all. Translated, what B.J was really saying was: "I'm just not tough enough to put myself through the rigorous preparation that my peers put themselves through." Seen like that, a lot of things Penn has done in his career can be seen as part of a pattern- his insistence on training at home instead of making the hard pilgrimage to a tough external training camp for example, or his quitting MMA after a thorough drubbing by Nick Diaz.
What these show is that Penn simply doesn't have that fortitude, toughness and indomitable spirit that separates great champions from everybody else. It was this toughness that allowed Muhammad Ali to absorb 8 rounds of brutal punishment from the younger, stronger and monstrously ferocious George Foreman before rallying and knocking him out. It is what kept Anderson Silva in the game after being smothered over four and a half rounds and pounded with over 300 punches by Chael Sonnen, before pulling out a last-minute submission victory when lesser mens' spirits would have faltered. It is what allowed Jon Jones to fight back to victory after having his arm brutally armbarred by Vitor Belfort.
You either have this quality or you don't. If you don't, you thrive and soar when a fight goes your way, but crumple and falter at the first signs of adversity. You look good when you win, but pathetic when you lose. You seem impressive when you clearly dominate your opponent, but against a great obstacle, you cannot reach deep to muster that valiant effort that gives you the win over great opponents, because there is nothing to reach for. You will look brilliant against lesser men, but impotent against the top-tier. You will quit when the going gets tough.
The test of whether this describes Penn will be this Saturday. Perhaps he will earn a swift and impressive victory. More likely, he will find himself at the center of a maelstrom of youthful and unrelenting savagery. This test of fire will reveal the true mettle of the steel at the core of B.J. Penn. It will either be proved to be unbreakable tempered steel, or shown to be a flimsy alloy.
The idea that women had fewer ribs and teeth than men was finally debunked when somebody decided to count womens' teeth. After that the facts were a little more difficult to deny than before. On Saturday, Rory McDonald will helpfully check the facts about B.J. Penn's greatness. And maybe- finally- the truth can replace the myth.