Suddenly Soft-Spoken, BJ Penn Tries to Return Emphasis to Fighting Roots

BOSTON -- At 31 years old, BJ Penn feels time slipping away. Almost a decade ago, he was a 22-year-old wunderkind who seemed like the one-man evolution of a nascent sport. Since then, at times, he was the guy who seemed to come up short in the big fight. Later, he became a two-division champion. Now, he's practically an elder statesman.

For all his prodigious talent, Penn has had the epic career to go with it, though this "epic" has as much to do with peaks and valleys of high drama as it does the casual "epic" currently tossed around by this generation to signify something amazing. Penn's most recent setback came in April, when he was upset by massive underdog Frankie Edgar in Abu Dhabi.

Since then, Penn's been preternaturally quiet. This is the guy who told Georges St. Pierre he was ready to fight "to the death," told Sean Sherk he'd punish him for using steroids and once spent a whole season of "The Ultimate Fighter" antagonizing Jens Pulver. Yet, in the leadup to his rematch with Edgar, Penn's had surprisingly little to say. And when he has spoken, he's been alternately self-critical, self-aware and, at times, brutally blunt.

If there's been one theme Penn's tried to get across in the last two weeks, it's that he's re-finding himself as a fighter. He seems to be convinced that he got too caught up in marketing and promotion and all the other things that go along with being a professional athlete. He came in a natural fighter, and that's the way he wants to go out.
I don't want to be labeled a champion; I just want to be labeled a fighter.
-- BJ Penn

"I love it. I love to be a contender," Penn said on Wednesday. "After I beat Frankie, I know it's UFC policy that I have to take the belt, but I just want to be a guy who fights all the best fighters, you know what I mean? I have eight belts at home, no disrespect to [the UFC belt], but I just want to be a true fighter. I don't want to be labeled a champion; I just want to be labeled a fighter."

What exactly Penn means by that and how it applies to his UFC 118 fight on Saturday night is anyone's guess.

Does it mean he plans to eschew technique and instead instigate a brawl? Some believe that might be an easier road to victory for Penn (15-6-1), who has the power edge in the standup department while Edgar has the superior speed.

Perhaps it means forgetting about game plans and going on instinct. Or maybe it's more of a mind-set; he has repeatedly made reference to his early days in the UFC, when he truly was more of a "fighter" than a mixed martial artist.

On the other hand, Penn admitted that he's had his problems ("I think at certain times I have lived up to expectations, and certain times I definitely haven't," he said at one point), but offered no explanations or apologies, saying, "The pressure people put on me makes me who I am. I regret nothing. Every time you lose, you come back stronger."

Still, this fight is something of a crossroads for Penn, who has made no secret of the fact that he hopes to be remembered as the best lightweight in MMA history. His first run as a 155-pounder was dominant. Since coming back to the lightweight division in 2007, he's 4-1, but a second loss to Edgar would badly damage his argument as the greatest lightweight ever.

It would also make him 5-5 over his last 10 fights, a record that while tinged with losses to greats like Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes, looks rather ordinary on paper.

Penn, though, says that's not going to happen.

"I feel I'm going to blow a lot of people away Saturday," Penn said. "They're going to be surprised by who BJ Penn is."

And given this new approach, just who is that?

"I don't know," Penn said. "This is him right here. I guess I don't know what to say to that."

If there was a quintessential moment of this new Penn outlook, it came when he was asked to judge, on a scale of 1-10, where he thought his performance will be.

"I think sitting here right now and ready to perform on Saturday, I think I'll be at a 9," he said.

What fighter wouldn't say he'd be a '10' on fight night? But those are the kinds of answers you get from the Penn of 2010. No more trash-talk. These days, instead of self-promotion, it's self-awareness. After all these years of wild declarations and trash talk, he'll let the picture he paints on the UFC canvas speak for him.

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