The Objective Retrospective: A Brief History of BJ Penn's UFC Departure and Return

Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting

In part two of the objective retrospective, we reflect on BJ Penn's journey to Japan, and his bout the members of the Gracie family. Was this where Penn lost the allure, or strengthened it?

In Part 2 of this trip down memory lane, I'll focus primarily in his detour following his debut, and his time spent in Japan and outside the UFC. Check out Part 1 if you can't read enough about Penn.

Fans who weren't familiar with Pride Fighting Championships wouldn't understand the allure of going to Japan in retrospect. While Penn never actually fought for Pride, Japan was the main game in town for premier mixed martial arts. Pride's intros are the stuff of legends.

At the same time, K-1 was dabbling in mixed martial arts, and put together K-1: Romanex at Saitami Super Arena only 4 months after Penn won the UFC Welterweight title. The card itself was pretty fascinating, as some MMA fighters took on kickboxers in mixed rules bouts. Lyoto Machida fought the imposing Sam Greco. Josh Barnett fought Rene Rooze. Genki Sudo bowed before Royler Gracie's corpse (this was after coming out to Sepultura: seriously...Sudo was a damn boss). Kazayuki Fujita stole Bob Sapp's lunch money before it was what all the cool kids began doing.

And then there was Duane Ludwig, who Penn would fight. Beating Ludwig doesn't seem like a big deal now. But at the time, he was fresh off two very big wins: beating Jens Pulver at UCC 12 (Pulver was on a nice run at the time, and this was all before Pulver would fight Gomi), and Genki Sudo at UFC 42 where he made his crane stance famous (something that always grated me because I felt like Sudo was up on the cards).

For fans who have always been with Penn every step of the way, the Ludwig fight more than any other illustrated just what Penn was capable of when it kept his strategy in the cage/ring simple, stupid. Ludwig was a seasoned striker. So instead of trying to outbox Ludwig, Penn proceeded to take him down, cut up his guard Michael Myers style, and choke him out all in under two minutes. Finally he appeared to deliver on the promise of what he was capable of when he fought for efficiency rather than eccentricity.

After beating Ludwig, he would go on to face three much larger foes: Rodrigo Gracie, Lyoto Machida, and Renzo Gracie.

For those who haven't seen his bout with Rodrigo, there's not much to report other than watching Penn cap the fight off with a jumping head stomp (strikes to the head of a downed opponent were legal). Rodrigo was an undefeated prospect at the time, and coming off a huge win over Hayato 'Mach' Sakura. And then there's the infamous Machida fight. Everybody's already familiar with this bout, so let's skip to the part where we dwell on the butterfly effect on what might have happened if Penn fought his original opponent: Kazayuki Fujita. As ESPN's Brett Okamoto recounts:

One largely unknown fact about the fight is that Penn actually wanted to fight Japanese heavyweight Kazuyuki Fujita. He eventually settled on Machida.

"In reality, BJ wanted to fight Fujita," Machida recalled. "Fujita and I had the same management back then. He didn't want the fight and said, ‘Lyoto, you go.' That's how BJ ended up fighting me."

When reminded of this, Penn shrugs as if a severely bloated lightweight wanting to take on a full-size 240-pound heavyweight is a perfectly normal thing.

"We were thinking we would be faster, right?" Penn said. "That was the thought."

For a lot of fans, that looked like the easier fight in retrospect. Both fights were nuts, even without hindsight though. Machida's mystique and all of the soundbites concerning his "elusiveness" were established early and well before Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg began torturing said adjective. He was 5-0 at the time of their bout, and had already beaten Rich Franklin (who already had UFC wins under his belt, though he wasn't yet the TED darling he is now), and Stephan Bonnar. Fujita, while never a real challenger, was nonetheless riding high in defeat after giving Fedor Emelianenko fans a scare when he had him doing the fish dance for a brief moment. These were not gimmie fights for men in their division: in this case Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight, respectively, let alone a blown up 155 pounder.

But this was B.J. 'the Prodigy' Penn. And who knew that Penn would put in a very respectable performance against the former LHW champion, and former MW title contender.

One of the takeaways from this fight was something present in his next bout against Renzo: fighting to his strengths. Like his bout with the other Gracie, you won't want to spend 20 minutes of your time checking out the whole thing, but Penn secured mount with a spiffy guard pass from side control.

His overseas bouts are fascinating for the irony they represent: despite not settling into a specific weight division against specific opponents, he fought with a sound strategy each time, looking to keep the fight on the ground where he seemed at his best, and trading only in spurts.

For observers who like order, and hierarchy, Penn's trip to Japan seemed like a pointless diversion. What does he have to gain by fighting whoever is willing to sign on the dotted line? Here's a fighter who seems destined for great things with an ability few fighters possess. Why squander it? Why not build on something meaningful? It's true that in the grand scheme of things, these fights didn't account for much. No one will remember his fights with the Gracies, and even his bout with Machida is seen more as a noble curiosity rather than an accomplishment that can compete with his WW title.

Perhaps Penn was listening to those whispers.

He found his way back into the UFC, and into the WW division for UFC 58 and UFC 63. He lost to Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes. They were thrilling bouts, in addition to being competitive. The former was famous for being controversial in the eyes of some (along with highlighting the fetish of fans who like scoring bouts under "Pride rules" in non-Pride bouts), and the latter is often disregarded due to Penn's injury.

I think any fan owes themselves a rewatch of Penn vs. Hughes II. It's a fantastic bout full of action that cemented Hughes' durability, setting the stage for the perception that GSP would have a tough time beating the long reigning WW king for their rematch.

This was Penn at the end of Act II. For all of his talents, he was just another guy in the WW division waiting in line. Perhaps this is where Penn had lost his allure in the eyes of some. 'Congrats Baby Jay, you proved you could not get killed against bigger fighters, now get back to work' the chants went. For others, this simply set the stage for his legacy, however uniquely defined.

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