BJ Penn’s Career Has No Storybook Ending
After a year of false starts, BJ Penn returns to the cage Sunday night in Phoenix for the first time in two-and-a-half years. The past three times we’ve seen him, the earliest of those bouts dating back more than six years, he’s been badly beaten. He walked away from the sport bruised, cut, and battered – a complete reversal from how he walked into it and for a time, ruled over it.
Following each of those last three fights, Penn sauntered away from the cage as if he was doing so for the last time. Each bout got progressively worse for him until he made what seemed to be a definitive retirement call in the aftermath of his third fight against Frankie Edgar. The UFC inducted him into their hall of fame the following year, bringing a sense of finality to the decision. But Penn has never been able to stay away. He first planned to retire after his fourth fight, a title match against Jens Pulver, but he lost and didn’t want to go out without the championship. Later, he envisioned retiring following his 2009 rematch against Georges St-Pierre as a double champion, but a loss derailed his plans again. Beginning with his loss to Nick Diaz in 2011, he continually and openly flirted with retirement, but was always drawn back in.
Penn has been searching for a storybook ending since he entered the sport 16 years ago. First, he was to retire as the guy who won the world title in four fights and would go down as the biggest “what if” in MMA history. Losing to Pulver changed his vision of a perfect ending. By the time he won the welterweight world title in 2004, and later the lightweight title in 2008, simply being the world champion wasn’t a strong enough ending. He wanted to be remembered as the best ever. In his mind, taking the welterweight title from Georges St-Pierre meant achieving that. After he was outmatched there, he returned to lightweight and turned in some of the best performances of his career, but a combination of overconfidence, undertraining, aging, and the overall evolution of the sport soon found him on an irreversible skid from the top.
Penn’s latest return is the product of his most recent vision of a storybook ending: winning a world championship at featherweight, and retiring as the only man to win major championships in three weight classes. He left his safe haven in Hawaii, for the Jackson/Winkeljohn supercamp in New Mexico to lend authenticity to his goal. “I believe with Greg Jackson’s help I can get that done, and I believe that I will be able to walk away the only man with three titles in three weight divisions.”
It’s a delusional goal without a prayer of coming to fruition. Penn is winless since 2010 and 38 years old in a division in which speed is a critical factor. Penn’s career, more than most, has been fueled by either borderline or full-blown delusional aspirations that led to both great accomplishments and baffling decisions. That is why the strong reverence felt toward him among those who followed his career is not understood by those who missed it and see only a middling 16-10-2 record. Penn continues to chase his storybook ending, and therefore unprecedented greatness, because he knows no other way. Everything he has ever worked for has been to retire on his terms with a belt around his waist, and he’ll continue to chase that until he’s forced to stop.
He returns against Yair Rodriguez, a dynamic 24-year-old striker who is a borderline top-15 featherweight. When Penn first announced his return, he was matched with Dennis Siver, and later Cole Miller after Siver went down with an injury – two manageable and reasonable opponents for a formerly top fighter coming off an extended absence. Then a criminal allegation (he was never criminally charged) and six-month suspension for using an IV delayed his return. Whether it was the UFC or Penn that became impatient, someone surely did, because he was then matched with top-five contender Ricardo Lamas, but that fell through in October and he’s left with another dangerous opponent in Rodriguez.
All of Rodriguez’s fights have come in the years since Penn’s last win. He is taller than Penn, his reach is slightly longer than Penn’s, he’s faster than Penn, he’s been much more active than Penn, and his striking attach is much more diverse than Penn’s, who rarely kicks. It’s easy to see how a striking battle could turn south for Penn. The ground game is a different story. Penn’s top game is among the best in the history of the sport, with tremendous guard passes and control. If he can take Rodriguez to the floor, Penn can end the fight. Perhaps he’ll take the fight to the ground. Perhaps he’ll choke Rodriguez out as he did to others in the best performances of his career. It would be a nice way to go out, but it wouldn’t be the end.
Whether it’s on Sunday against Rodriguez, his next fight against a stronger contender, or even a title challenge after that, Penn is going to dive into dangerous waters and he’ll come out bruised, cut, and battered. In his past two fights, Penn showed nothing at any point to make anyone believe he still had the ability to be a world champion again. Fighters simply don’t regain that ability at the age of 38. Penn is just one more of too many legends that chased a grand finale and wound up with a series of bad endings.