I suppose it's like the ticking crocodile, isn't it? Time is chasing after all of us.
- J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
We like to quantify greatness. We're not just interested in who is the "greatest of all time", we want to be able to count from #1 to #2 to #3. In combat sports, we count up wins and losses, weigh up methods of victory and strength of competition.
B.J. Penn was once in the conversation as one of the greatest in mixed martial arts history. A week ago, he stepped into the cage for what everyone hopes was the last time, and fans and analysts find themselves looking back on it and trying to enumerate exactly where he fell. How great was he? What number would he get assigned?
From the moment he burst onto the scene, long before I even started watching MMA, it was obvious that the Hawaiian was shockingly talented. He's often held up as a man who never lived up to that early potential, despite winning belts in two separate weight classes. That this criticism is, on balance, probably justified tells you something about just how astonishingly talented he really was. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt within a few short years, and a brick-fisted yet technically sound puncher with an iron jaw and preternatural takedown defence. When he first appeared, he was like nothing anyone had ever seen.
So he achieved a great deal, but perhaps not as much as he might have. Why? His work ethic couldn't be described as stellar, but there remains an incorrect perception of the Hilo Kid as someone who was lazy... and he wasn't. Truly lazy people just don't attain his heights, and the footnotes of MMA's short history are littered with fighters who had physical gifts equal to Penn's. He may have looked indolent next to workhorses like Frankie Edgar or Georges St-Pierre, but he wasn't so much lazy as he was spoiled. Too fast, too tough, too rich, too damn good for his own good.
Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked
His actual name is Jay Dee Penn, but everyone knows him as BJ (for "Baby Jay"), or The Prodigy. Names that inevitably dated themselves as the years rolled on and on. There's a grain of truth here though: MMA is a sport with more than its fair share of man-children looking to make a simple imprint on the world, like a fist plunged into wet sand. Boyish sobriquets make good markers for notable cases of arrested development. If you or the people around you define you by things like youthfulness, then, well, there's probably a reason for that.
One of the youngest members of the Penn family, he always fought like a kid, as though the array of violent gifts and talents bestowed on him were toys that he was just plain thrilled to be playing with. That they coalesced into a frighteningly integrated fighting style was almost incidental.
When he began his MMA career during the UFC's first major growth spurt, there were already others who would clock up cold mathematics, the addition and subtraction of where to take a fight and how to build up to a win. Never Penn. In his best moments- the flying knee against Sean Sherk or the head kick on Diego Sanchez, or the virtuosic chain of events from scramble to punch to back-take to submission against Matt Hughes which simply was MMA- BJ Penn was a long, long way from plodding quantification.
Conceptually, advanced technique is often married to an abstraction of mechanical sterility. As one of the best early technicians in MMA, there was nothing of that in Penn's fights. Watching him batter himself in the face or lick his opponent's blood off his gloves was to see a man mainlining the savage and untrammelled joy of adolescence.
This notion of the unfettered lends itself to his career at large. All fighters have that streak of insane confidence which allows them to step into a ring or cage with someone who wants to beat or choke them unconscious, which tells them that they can defeat anyone in the world. Most recently, for example, we have Ronda Rousey's famous Cain Velasquez proclamation.
However, almost everyone has some kind of tempering process which tells them that maybe... it's not actually such a great idea...? Some qualifying rationality which sorts the numbers and says that 170 is a bigger number than 150, and that 220 is much bigger still.
Penn just didn't seem to care. When the struggling UFC lightweight division collapsed, he went straight to 170lbs and submitted submission grappler and pound-for-pound great Matt Hughes inside a round to take the belt. He demanded more money from the UFC and then promptly left to fight in a number of strange contests in Japan, culminating in a fantastically bizarre heavyweight bout with the karateka Lyoto Machida. Coming back, he lost to Hughes, fought the great Georges St-Pierre to a standstill and finally claimed the lightweight strap against Joe "Daddy" Stevenson in a bloodbath.
He's been a fascinating case study in agency, in ways we're not likely to see again. He came from a wealthy family, and was wholly un-reliant on fighting for a living. He started out when the UFC wasn't the looming monolith that we see today, so he just went off and fought whoever and wherever he wanted. There are others in combat sports who have been famous for being uncontrollable, but behind Tyson there was Cus D'Amato or Don King, over Nick Diaz there was Cesar Gracie. Who stood behind and over Penn? He marked his own strange adventure through mixed martial arts like a Lost Boy in Neverland, beholden to no-one.
BJ Penn is a fighter
This is said a lot. Specifically, it was reiterated many times in the run-up to his final fight against Frankie Edgar. It doesn't seem quite right though, or at least not in all the nuanced senses of what the word "fighter" means. It's mostly correct: he was a professional pugilist, he would fight any human being you put in front of him, and in his wins he was in his element as much as anyone ever is. However, I think people like to use it so much because... we like Penn. Laying the term over him enables blunt semantics to describe some of the best things about him while covertly cloaking some of his flaws.
Outside of the literal meaning, it's normally held to refer to someone who takes adversity and battles back against it, and Penn did not deal well with adversity at all. He never won a fight where he lost an early round. He was unholy tough, gifted with an adamantine chin, and in all his sojourns across the breadth of six (SIX) weight classes, he wasn't once knocked down. But whether it was conditioning or mentality, if he didn't start off winning, he'd slowly drift out of the fight. He'd keep fighting back, but you could see him throwing those straight and technical punches with the desperate timbre of someone trying to hit back at their playground bully.
Farewell to lightweight
Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness
After he became the lightweight champion, Penn still clearly wanted another crack at GSP at 170. The now-welterweight champ had outpointed Penn over the last two rounds, but Penn had hurt him on the feet and broken his nose. In the rematch St-Pierre, who was younger, bigger, stronger, and more disciplined, came in with a perfect gameplan, wearing Penn out and crushing him on the ground. The final indignity came when BJ, who had mocked St-Pierre as a "quitter" prior to their showdown, was forced to retire on his stool at the end of the fourth. It was the kind of beating which many men would not have recovered from, mentally as well as physically. Yet when Penn returned to lightweight he put on career-high performances, dominating Diego "The Nightmare" Sanchez and Kenny Florian.
It was the fight with Edgar in Abu Dhabi which marked the beginning of the end. Frankie, an undersized, gritty lightweight who had battled his way to a title shot on equal parts merit and being fun to watch- he jumped the queue ahead of Gray Maynard, a man who had already defeated him, because Maynard was seen as boring. Edgar was a prohibitive underdog.
Throughout the fight Penn consistently landed hard shots on the challenger, who peppered him with weaker punches. When the judges called the fight for Edgar, it was hailed as one of the worst screw-jobs in recent memory, and scheduled for an immediate do-over.
Pundits and betting lines largely favoured Penn to right the wrong, but he stepped out for the rematch looking like a man operating under some heavy gravity, dazed and sluggish, unable to rouse himself to anything beyond the simplest physical reactions to external stimuli. It seemed like almost everyone had believed he would win, except BJ himself.
Edgar ran rings around him. Before their first fight, Penn had generally dominated fighters his own size and lost to those who were bigger and more powerful. That he'd been beaten by a man who was smaller - confusing and unjust as the loss was - seemed as though it had somehow thrown a wrench into that mentality which had always feasted on being the underdog or the dominant force in the cage.
So he went back to welterweight. It was a terrible idea.
The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.
It started off well. He fought Hughes again. On the downside of his own career and reinvented into a clumsy kickboxer, the former champion became easy meat for Penn's counterpunching. Unfortunately, the win reinforced the idea that Penn could hang at welterweight.
Then came the slide, and the final array of beatings. The problem increasingly came that there had been little construction process throughout Penn's career. He'd been so instinctively good that he'd never had to go back and rebuild elements of his style. Mentality and approach is something which is manufactured in the same way as muscle, with boring, endless repetition.
Throughout this disastrous run, elements of his game would flare back up, and he'd have brief and tantalizing success. Then, unable to sustain against bigger and more disciplined fighters, it would be brutally snuffed out. Against the wrestler Jon Fitch his long-dormant takedown and offensive jiu-jitsu game surged back into life, taking him two rounds. He ended the fight pinned to the mat, thrashing like a fish under the butcher's knife. He outboxed volume puncher Nick Diaz for a round, and finished absorbing a hideous array of punches to the head and body against the cage wall.
One of the likeable things about Penn was how easy to read he was, from that determined, tough-guy scowl he'd wear in the cage to his easy, slightly mocking laugh. In defeat that transparency became difficult to watch. After these fights, you'd see him studying the kaleidoscopic bruises coating his face and body, gazing up at the giant video displays in the arena; bigger-than-life punishment painted in panoramic Technicolour for everyone to see. You could read that wounded, incredulous hurt in his eyes: "What did I do to myself?"
He retired after the Diaz fight: "You know what? I've got a daughter and another daughter on the way. I don't want to go home looking like this. I'm done."
Then he came back.
Rory MacDonald was a fighter who, like BJ himself in an earlier time, had been hailed as one of the next generation. He was probably less innately talented than Penn, yet he was better coached, more disciplined, and far bigger. In this fight, there was no success from Penn, as the younger fighter simply dissected him from outside the Prodigy's jab.
He retired afterwards.
Some more unyielding numbers regarding a slice of Penn's welterweight career, and something to try: tap yourself on your arm, count the taps (1...2...3...) and stop when you get bored. How far did you get? How high did the numbers go? Then, imagine that they weren't gentle touches, but blows from a pro fighter who was much bigger than you.
Penn's second fight with Hughes; his fight with Diaz; his fight with Fitch; his second fight with GSP. His fight with Rory MacDonald. According to Fightmetric.com, he took an even one thousand strikes in those contests, no more and no less.
Then he came back.
The UFC announced that he was going to be fighting Edgar again, after the two of them would coach a series of the shambling corpse that The Ultimate Fighter reality TV franchise had become. As Edgar had moved down a weight class after losing his belt to Benson "Smooth" Henderson, the fight would be contested at featherweight.
The potential drop to 145 lb. was disquieting. If you were a fan of Penn, you had probably been clamouring for him to drop to from welter to lightweight for years. This necessitated dropping past lightweight. For someone who had always hated to cut and whose entire fighting style hinged around enjoyment, the decision to undergo the brutal physical whittling which constitutes a two-class, 25 pound drop sounded... bad.
Imagine: you have an incredibly talented but listless friend, and you tell them again and again to cut their hair, start a career. The next time you see them, they've shaved their head bald and are working blank-faced in a dead-end warehouse job. It was what you wanted, sort of, but it was too far.
Before the fight, Penn spent time training at Andre Pederneiras' Nova Uniao. Debatably the best camp in the world, and certainly the best for the lower weight classes, "New Union" is at MMA's cutting edge, a factory for producing hungry, disciplined young killers, and the home gym of Jose Aldo. Penn had keyed in on the first Edgar fight as the point where everything had gone wrong. This was his chance to rewrite history. If the complaints had always been that he was fighting at the wrong weight class, that he trained at his home gym instead of getting out to harder and more disciplined camps, then he'd make up the extra ground by dropping two weight classes instead of one, and he'd train at the best camp in the world.
There was a route to follow to undeniable greatness- all Penn had to do was beat Edgar. After that, given his name, and the irresistible comeback narrative, he'd be next in line for a title shot, and becoming the only man to win belts in three weight classes.
The moment he came out to the cage, all those possibilities disappeared. He had almost always been a little soft in past fights. A tall lightweight but with a slight, childish roundedness. A pudgy welter.
Normally when fighters cut significant weight they come in looking chiseled and defined as the excess water between skin and muscle has been sucked away. The featherweight BJ stepped out looking like a Jain monk, bandaged up tight in his own skin. In the past, he had paced the cage like a savage. Now he simply looked sad, eyes peering out small, dark and worried from inside their unfamiliar bony grottos. As Bruce Buffer called his name he bobbed up and down, looking off into the distance. There was a strange and sacrificial air to the whole thing, like the smell of pear-drops and ketosis.
The fight, or what passed for it, began. Penn stood tall in a bizarre tip-toed stance, the imitation of the Nova Uniao fighters worn awkward and ill-fitting; an aging popstar trying his best to dress like the cool kids. Beyond that, there was nothing. No twitch of talent, not the slightest flicker of what had been. His rubber-limbed ability to stop takedowns, his boxing, and his slippery guard game were all gone so completely that it looked like they had never been there at all. The man who had looked as though MMA was as natural to him as breathing appeared as though he simply had no idea what to do.
He was run over by the smaller fighter, taken down and beaten on repeatedly. When he was hit he blinked, puzzled. He had been bruised and battered in fights before, but now his ferociously tough skin, pulled taut, snapped and tore, and Penn's blood spattered onto the octagon floor for the first time. Mercifully, Herb Dean put a stop to it after three rounds.
In the presser afterwards, Penn was asked how he thought the fight would affect his legacy. 13 years deep in the fight game, and an old, old 35, MMA's own Peter Pan sunk his head into his hands and burst into tears.
Reaching for greatness
Why this eulogic, funereal discussion of Penn? He's not dead. He's just retired. But that's how we see fighters who depart on the brutal losses which wind down almost every career. Their retired selves inspire the warm and slightly distant affection we have for actors who once played beloved characters. St-Pierre, who retired on a win, caused almost no retrospective, elegiac writing, in part because... we never saw him die.
We shouldn't feel too bad for Penn, much as his "death" was particularly hard to watch. He moves on with his money and fame intact. The possibility of him passing through the depressing meat-grinder of smaller shows seems far away. Even our sadness for him becomes difficult to quantify- it's normally at least partially anchored in a sense of responsibility for having been the viewer, the raw material which enabled this path, but Penn is as personally responsible for both the good and the bad of his career as anyone we ever saw.
What of his legacy? Where's his place in history?
It's secure, I think.
Floyd and Manny; GSP and Silva. We desperately want champions and fighters to reach out for greatness, and Penn did that. Looking back on the past, we'll never have to try and imagine what a hypothetical matchup between the greatest lightweight and the greatest welterweights of their era looked like, because BJ Penn was crazy and fearless enough to disregard the weights of probability and mass, and just show us.
Penn had a different problem- he reached out for greatness too much, with the stubborn, willful insistence of a boy reaching out for the cookie jar, getting his hands slapped aside again and again by the uncaring simplicity of the way things are. This should and does not discount those times when he undeniably grasped that greatness.
Trying to put a number on exactly where he comes in the pantheon of the best of all time is a harder proposition.
But BJ was never much for numbers anyway.