Following his loss to Matt Hughes, BJ Penn was being given another shot at UFC relevancy, but this time in the Lightweight division. His opponent was Jens Pulver: the man who was the first Lightweight UFC champion, and the only man below 170lbs to beat Penn.
The fight itself was a dominating performance. Although it wasn't exactly shocking. Pulver was already on the decline, going 3-3 before his bout with Penn. Though losses to Takanori Gomi, and Hayato Sakurai were nothing to be ashamed of, it was more than a little curious to see Penn and Pulver coaching people like Joe Lauzon: the then unknown who knocked out Pulver at UFC 63. Penn took care of business, similar to how he took care of Andy Wang on the show (easily one of the best seasons of TUF ever). There was a modest controversy: some felt Penn held on to the choke too long. He had also curiously let go of an armbar earlier in the fight, making the whole bout look akin to the UFC's version of the nature channel, where the sea lions (Jens) are treated like the GI Joe's of a firecracker obsessed 12 year old's backyard.
Meanwhile, in an athletic commission far, far away, Sean Sherk would be stripped of the LW title after testing positive for Nandrolone: a steroid with less cosmetic side effects that stimulates red blood cell production and bone density, and has claimed 11 MMA scalps and counting. This set the stage for Penn to potentially claim the LW title, this time against Joe Stevenson.
Stevenson was on a tear with wins over Yves Edwards, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Melvin Guillard, and Kurt Pellegrino. It wasn't the greatest resume, but he had a solid win streak in a division where win streaks are harder to come by. UFC 80 happened, and so did this crime scene. The fight itself isn't as memorable as the ending, nor was it as memorable as Penn's post-fight antics, which saw Penn licking Stevenson's blood off his gloves. Penn was never much of a talker, but that never meant he had nothing to say. Fans wanted to see Penn vs. Sherk, so Penn infamously called him out, exclaiming in front of all the fans of Newcastle upon Tyne..."Sean Sherk, you're dead!".
Death did, indeed, become of Sean Sherk at UFC 84.
Sherk was impaled by a flying knee. At this point, you can understand why Penn felt like he had unfinished business at WW. Georges St-Pierre was the champion, who Penn nearly beat, and the Lightweights were no match for Penn. As I noted in an old profile of K-1 bad boy Badri Hari, there's a universal instinct to a fan's imagination in building upon an athlete's success with the expression "if only..."
Penn could have one of the true greats, on par if not greater than the likes of GSP, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, etc. But such a notion ignores the fact that Penn's drive never existed in a vacuum. Only a fighter willing to take on HW's, LHW's, and WW all timers would have been able to make short, dominating work against fighters like Sherk, Kenny Florian, and Diego Sanchez in the fashion that he did.
Unlike Penn's other departures to different weight classes, Penn's rematch with GSP was anything but a diversion. The build up, displayed on Countdown, to their bout was as effective as anything the UFC has ever produced: a reminder of how exciting the sport can be when we get high profile matchups with plenty of time to let the anticipation simmer.
During the countdown, Penn has a sincere moment during the 8:40 mark where he reflects on what the GSP rematch means. Penn's personality and demeanor isn't exactly a rubik's cube of psychological machinations. But there's a lot going behind his classic fidgety assertiveness when he appears to dwell on his legacy while struggling to articulate why.
While Penn would go on to defend his LW title two more times, I'm not sure one could say he ever really recovered from the GSP loss. Sure, this is all conjecture when it comes to prying into a man's psyche using a keyboard for linguistic war, but Penn retired with a 1-5-1 record in his last seven bouts. Only his thrilling bout with Nick Diaz really stands out as the last time Penn had another brilliant performance festering beneath the surface.
As with any former champion, fans and observers love to discuss legacies. Especially in a sport like MMA, where people are often light on attention spans, and eager on proclamations. As I've stuck the word "objective" in the title, it's worth even just a semblance of an attempt at doing so.
BJ Penn's Lightweight record is 11-3-1 (with two losses going to one fighter). He defended his belt three times as UFC champion (a record that hasn't been eclipsed, though it has been tied by Benson Henderson). His Welterweight record is a less impressive 3-5-1. His Middleweight record is 2-0, and his LHW/Openweight (?) record is 0-1 (lest I forget his Featherweight record: 0-1). A 16-10-2 overall record is not exactly what legacies are made of. A lot of fans feel like Penn should be judged by his LW accomplishments. After all, 54% of his bouts were fought at LW. But then 32% of his bouts were fought at Welterweight. So we can't just pick and choose.
Penn probably won't go down as the greatest LW champ ever. He defended his LW belt three times. Even though that streak hasn't been eclipsed, it's tied with Benson Henderson, and maybe Frankie Edgar has a little asterisk there for not losing his title in three defenses. Granted, Penn's wins were more dominating, so I'm not making the argument that these men were as good. It's just that his LW record won't go down in history as especially amazing.
As a great WW, he was anything but. Three of his WW bouts were for the title, so that's a nice consolation prize, but hardly historical. So just what is Penn's legacy?
Perhaps it's this. Penn has something on paper few men can boast: he's only the 2nd fighter to win titles in more than one weight class (Randy Couture beat him to it). That is an accomplishment few fighters can compete with, and something that likely won't be eclipsed as divisions become more established. MMA is a sport light on history, so to define it feels like a betrayal of the rich traditions other sports enjoy. This isn't MMA's fault, nor is it Penns. So is there anything else?
"The reason I want this fight is because I don't know how I'm going to win."
A lot of fighters will go down as great athletes, and great men of their divisions. Fedor will be always be hailed as the greatest HW ever. Anderson Silva, the greatest MW, and GSP, the greatest WW. But perhaps there is something to be said for competing outside of your comfort zone; to challenge yourself without the limitations of sports.
For all the rules and regulations that are ingrained into MMA to make it approximate what a sport looks like, fighting itself is inherently crude, and vulgar: a reminder that stretches back five million years ago that the mechanics of interest create the impulses of conflict. Fighting is defined not by boundaries, but by volition. Perhaps this is the compliment we owe BJ Penn: constantly ignoring boundaries, he was fighter first, and an athlete second.