It's hard to say whether BJ Penn was a greater victim of public perception, his own ambition, or as is often said motivation. The five-time UFC title contender, and two-time champion was hardly short on accolades, but his dogged pursuit of goals outside the lightweight division left him with a career dotted by losses. It also left him with a lot of stories about work ethic and how he didn't necessarily have a ton of it.
He was an elite talent from 2001 to 2011, a strong and notable decade long career for any MMA athlete. However, in the minds of many fans, and in an interview from Dana White with TMZ, he's still the first name that comes to mind for many when they think "guy who could have been better":
"That's a loaded question," White chuckled when asked to name an underachieving fighter. "Listen, there's guys and girls that probably don't reach their potential, because they don't... BJ Penn.
"BJ Penn probably should have been one of the best ever, to ever live, to ever do it. But, BJ was so talented, you know. I just... I don't know. I think BJ, in his own words, would go back and do things differently if he could."
Still, White was quick to agree that at the end of the day, Penn was "awesome." Which is at the heart of what makes his legacy so strange. Is it really fair to call Penn an underachiever? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle; between trying the impossible and not doing the essential. However you slice it, though, so many of the results were still exceptional.
BJ Penn was, at the root, the best lightweight in the world from 2003 to 2010, between his draw against Caol Uno, and controversial first loss to Frankie Edgar. He may not have the perfect record to back up that claim, but it's not really a claim any other fighter can make. Well maybe Takenori Gomi. But of course, Penn beat him.