The second UFC pay per view I ever watched was UFC 84 in 2008 when BJ Penn faced Sean Sherk for the UFC Lightweight Championship. Being young and uneducated, I looked at Sherk, this musclebound cardio machine who looked like a midget version of Brock Lesnar and I said “this guy’s going to destroy this chubby Hawaiian.” This was before I knew who The Prodigy was. Six years later, I watched with anticipation at a comeback and then watched in sadness seeing him get dismantled and beaten into retirement by Frankie Edgar.
Years from now new fans of the sport will look at the UFC Hall of Fame online and look at the win-loss record of BJ Penn and say “16 wins 10 losses. What’s the big deal?” They will be like I was. BJ Penn was always more than meets the eye. His legacy is much more than wins and losses. He was quite simply, the toughest, most fearless fighter the UFC ever produced.
Before Penn ever even put on a pair of gloves, before he could buy a drink, he was a legend. His nickname The Prodigy came from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world where quite frankly, he was the LeBron James of the martial art. He received his black belt in the art at the age of 20. Three weeks later he would win the Mundials World Jiu-Jitsu Championship; the SuperBowl of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The Prodigy was born.
From there, having no professional combat sport experience and based on his raw talent in Jiu-Jitsu alone, he was signed by the UFC to help build their new 155 pound weight class. He would go on to win his first three professional fights all by knockout or TKO. He was the most naturally talented martial artist the UFC had ever seen.
Penn would later go on to win the UFC Welterweight Championship in a shocking upset of dominant champion Matt Hughes only to leave the UFC to seek greater competition in his weight class and beyond. This was a guy who was willing to fight anyone at any size. He was as old school as they come. It didn’t matter how big his opponents were, Penn lived by the belief that martial arts was about the smaller guy overcoming the bigger guy through technique and discipline.
Penn would return to the UFC to his roots at 155 pounds where he became only the second man to win two UFC titles in two different weight classes by winning the Lightweight Championship. He would defend that title three times all by submission or knockout before dropping the title to his greatest adversary, Frankie Edgar; a man who would go on to defeat him two more times and ultimately lead the Hawaiian to retirement.
In 28 fights, Penn never was knocked down, never knocked out and never submitted. We rarely saw the man even cut. As the blood ran down his face in the third round against Edgar on Saturday, we all watched in disbelief and sadness as we all knew the inevitable was coming. Herb Dean the referee even seemed hesitant to step in and stop the fight. Even he had to know this was the end of a great career and the last fight of MMA’s true warriors.
At the post-fight press conference, Penn was asked what his lasting legacy would be. He said that his legacy will be his fights on highlight reels before he pushed the microphone away, pulled his hat down and sobbed.
Penn’s legacy is written in the emotion he displayed at the press conference. He was a passionate fighter who simply loved to fight. Penn came from a wealthy family in Hilo, HI. He didn’t have to fight, but he wanted to simply because he loved it. His passionate fans knew this, other fighters knew it. When Penn came to fight, smacking himself in the face on the way to the ring as Bruddah Iz’s music of his homeland blared from the arena speakers, the fans would go crazy because they knew that when BJ Penn showed up to fight, they were going to get their money’s worth.
Laziness and a dedication to the kitchen more than the gym may have been the undoing of Penn’s later part of his career, but his fans didn’t care. He didn’t look like the most athletic guy. He looked like a normal tough guy who loved to fight, and people loved him for it. He was the living embodiment of dedication and passion in the Octagon. He built the lighter weight classes and made them profitable. He reminded other fighters of why they got into the sport to begin with. You ask any professional fighter who they loved watching fight, BJ Penn will always be one of the fighters they name. Even the greatest of all time Anderson Silva calls BJ Penn the greatest pound for pound fighter of all time.
BJ Penn may go down as the one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time with one of the worst records. It doesn’t matter. A fighter is not remembered by his record. Sugar Ray Robinson lost 19 times in his career; Muhammad Ali lost his final two fights as did Mike Tyson. Penn was a warrior worthy of the same mention as all of those fighters. When Penn fought, the losses didn’t matter to him, nor did his critics. He once said, “birds fly, fish swim, I fight. This is what I do.” Yes you did BJ, and it was beautiful.
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