"When I first started fighting I thought I was God's gift to fighting... I thought I would go 100-0 with 100 knockouts. I look at my record and I can't believe that I have six losses. It just blows me away." - BJ Penn
When BJ Penn enters the Octagon Saturday night in Boston, it will be the first time in more than two-and-a-half years he has done so without being the UFC Lightweight Champion. Penn first claimed the vacant title at UFC 80 back in 2008, eviscerating Joe Stevenson over two brutal rounds before sinking in a rear naked choke. The current champion, Frankie Edgar, took the title from Penn with a razor-thin decision victory at UFC 112 in April.
That loss in Abu Dhabi was Penn's second defeat in his natural weight class, the first in seven years and nine fights since the young "Prodigy" lost to Jens Pulver in 2002. Now standing at 11-2-1, Penn's record at 155 pounds is still by far the strongest in the history of the division. He has defeated lightweight champions of three distinct eras: Sean Sherk, Takanori Gomi, and Pulver in a rematch. Up until the loss to Edgar, it seemed as if Penn's grip on the division was ironclad. Using speed and deft footwork, Edgar scored enough points in the judges' eyes to defeat a lethargic champ in the stifling heat of Dubai.
Many are of the mind that it was that Middle Eastern heat, or perhaps a fluky illness that kept Penn from delivering one of his usual electrifying performances at 155 pounds. But what role might lack of motivation have played in Penn's atypically sluggish performance? Is it possible that "The Prodigy" overlooked Edgar as just another stepping stone in the crafting of his legacy?
It is commonly known that BJ Penn is a fighter who places great credence on how grandiose his chapter in MMA's history will be. Prior to his title defense against Diego Sanchez last December, Penn said:
"My motivation, at first, it was about the belt. Every champion, after holding the belt for so long, they start to look for other goals, other belts. You really want to go down (in history)...
"They talk about the great boxers in the past. You want them to talk about, when UFC is very big and everybody's making millions of dollars a fight, you want to be one of those guys that they say ‘It's because of him, it's because of guys like this, is the reason we're all making millions.' "
Penn has long felt that his path to immortality requires conquering multiple weight classes. His wanderlust among the disparate divisions of Mixed Martial Arts can be largely attributed to a fight more than six years ago. In 2004, a young, fresh-faced Penn dethroned the greatest welterweight fighter of all time-Matt Hughes. The victory came at a time when Hughes was ranked near the top of any estimable pound-for-pound list.
Five of Penn's next six fights were outside the lightweight division; he amassed a middling record of 3-3 during that two-year span. The wins came against Duane Ludwig (the only fight at lightweight), Renzo Gracie, and Rodrigo Gracie (the latter two at middleweight). His losses were in a rematch with Hughes, a hotly contested fight with Georges St. Pierre, and an open-weight match with future light-heavyweight titlist Lyoto Machida.
Penn's uninspiring record (3-4) outside of lightweight perhaps speaks to the fact that his ambition exceeds his ability. That's not a knock on Penn; true to his nickname, he is indeed prodigiously talented. But even for the United States' first truly great jiu-jitsu player, size has been proven to matter. Against the 220 lb. Machida, Penn faired surprisingly well. It is the pair of matches with St. Pierre, however, that have indicated Penn will struggle against equally gifted competitors who are naturally larger and stronger.
And yet, that is something Penn refuses to acknowledge. Since losing to GSP for a second time at the start of 2009, Penn has consistently expressed his desire for a rematch with the current welterweight champion. He would fend off lightweight after lightweight and claim it was just another step toward GSP. And then he ran into Frankie Edgar.
Penn has focused so intently upon writing his legacy across multiple weight classes that he has lost consolidation of his own. A loss on Saturday would still leave him as the greatest lightweight thus far, but would it be long for Edgar to surpass him? On the cusp of title contention are undefeated Gray Maynard (already with a win over the champ) and Kenny Florian, who Penn may have already defeated but has since developed into one of the most complete fighters in the world.
Though far from telling the whole story, his career record isn't sterling at 15-6-1. He is indeed one of only two fighters in UFC history to capture the championship of more than one division, the other being Randy Couture. A series of losses now, however, could leave BJ Penn as the fighter most remembered for letting his ambition get the best of him. At 31 years old, Penn has but a little more time in his athletic peak, much of which was squandered meddling around in the higher weights.
Just five months ago, there was talk of Penn "lapping the division" and requiring another foray into heavier classes for a proper challenge. Now, as the lightweight title challenger, Penn must place his inter-divisional aspirations on the back burner and reclaim his throne at 155. If Penn is to continue building upon his coveted legacy he must first, as the old adage says, "do no harm". The most crucial aspect of that is reclaiming his championship on Saturday in convincing fashion.