Sometimes being a prodigy can be both a blessing and a curse. Phenomenal inborn talent often leads to singular achievements in life, but it can also breed complacency and stagnation. When a gifted individual begins to view his talent as a birthright rather than a tool in need of diligent maintenance, it seldom ends well. All too frequently a portion of this miraculous inborn ability ends up squandered and we're left wondering what could have been.
Case in point, B.J. Penn. Despite the Hawaiian's legendary accomplishments, a vexing series of what if's will always be hanging over his career.
What if he took his training more seriously and perpetually honed his skills against the best training partners in the world? What if he kept in shape year round? What if he spent the majority of his career at lightweight rather than making repeated attempts to fight at higher weight classes despite diminishing returns? What if he worked harder on his conditioning before he took on fighter X, Y, or Z?
That's the thing with hypotheticals though. They make for interesting speculation but they don't change the facts. And the fact is B.J. Penn's career is dotted with questionable choices and moments where he failed to live up to his potential. At times it's almost seemed like "The Prodigy" had been his own worst enemy.
The question is what makes him repeatedly fall short of actualizing his full potential?
Birth of a Prodigy
Perhaps a look at Penn's successes will make his shortcomings easier to understand. This is a guy who began training BJJ in 1997 and went on to win the black belt division in the 2000 World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. A three year turnaround from beginner to world champion is an almost unfathomable achievement in any sport, but for the 21 year old Penn it became merely a part of his then-coalescing identity as an adult. He was "The Prodigy" - of course he could achieve what normal men deemed impossible.
Penn was given even more reason to believe in his talent when he transitioned to MMA in 2001. He made his debut in the UFC and starched his first three opponents by first round knockout, including a particularly memorable KO of Caol Uno that saw Penn sprint out of the cage and run to the back after dropping the beleaguered Japanese fighter like a sack of potatoes. With his combination of knockout power and world class jiu jitsu Penn was living up to his presumptuous nickname.
He ran into the first stumbling block of his career less than a year after his debut when he fell short in a bid for the UFC lightweight title against champion Jens Pulver. From there the Prodigy rebounded with a pair of victories before fighting to a controversial draw in a rematch against Caol Uno for the vacant UFC lightweight championship. It may have been a disappointing outcome for Penn, but he was about to make up for it in a big way.
First he submitted Takanori Gomi - at the time one of the best lightweights in the world - in what was his biggest win to date. What happened next would help define his career.
Pride of a Champion
Penn returned to the UFC and challenged Matt Hughes for the welterweight title. The champ was riding a thirteen fight win streak heading into the bout and had defended his welterweight strap five times since capturing it from Carlos Newton at UFC 34. Hughes was in the zone as champion and appeared unbeatable. Before the fight he mentioned how disrespectful he considered it for a smaller man to move up in weight and challenge for his belt. He planned to "make an example" out of Penn in order to keep anyone else from being so foolhardy.
It didn't work out that way. Penn came out and steamrolled Hughes en route to a first round victory via rear naked choke. Once again the Prodigy found himself a world champion after just three years in a sport, but what made this victory all the sweeter was that few gave him a chance against the dominant and much larger Hughes.
Penn fought to hold back tears as Bruce Buffer announced him as the new champion. When Dana White attempted to strap the belt on him Penn was so overcome with emotion he fell into a swoon. By the time Joe Rogan approached him for the traditional post-fight interview he was openly weeping tears of joy.
"I know I'm the best," he told Rogan, "He couldn't even take me down."
It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Penn's tenure in the sport at the time and just may be the highlight of his career to this day. Unfortunately, it also planted a seed that caused him to squander precious years of his career fighting larger opponents.
The Japan Years and the Prodigy's Return
Despite his outpouring of emotion after winning the belt, Penn never defended his UFC welterweight title. Instead he headed for Japan where the money was better, and in true Japanese MMA fashion fought in a number of weight classes - all of them above his optimal home at lightweight. Penn went 3-1 in his time away from the Octagon, with his lone defeat coming at the hands of future UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida (Yes, a future champion at 155 pounds was fighting a future champ at 205 pounds. Ah, Japan in the mid-2000's).
This is where the confidence garnered by Penn's early success in BJJ and MMA started to work against him. When he returned to the UFC in 2006 he faced Georges St. Pierre in a welterweight title eliminator for the right to face champion Matt Hughes. Penn came into the fight looking a bit soft around the midsection but it didn't seem to be a factor at first. The Prodigy bloodied St. Pierre's nose and busted the future Under Armour model's face up in the opening frame.
GSP took over in the second round, but Penn still held his own. The third round saw Penn start to fade and GSP begin to turn on the heat. St. Pierre convincingly won the round thanks to some of the trademark takedowns he would later become world famous for, including an absolutely beautiful slam where he ragdolled Penn like a practice dummy.
It was a less than auspicious return to the company for the former champion, but it wouldn't turn out to be as big a setback as it seemed at first. In a classic "only in MMA" moment, Penn ended up facing Hughes for the belt anyway due to St. Pierre suffering an injury.
One might think an undersized challenger going into a title fight would make extra certain his cardio was in top form - especially after a loss where his lack of conditioning played a major factor in the outcome - but this would prove not to be the case for the Prodigy.
Penn once again came on strong and outworked Hughes early. However, by the time the third round rolled around Penn was a dead man walking. His hands were down like those of a sleepwalker, he was breathing with the belabored breath of a Labrador Retriever, and he barely attempted any offense. The Prodigy was completely out of gas, but unfortunately for him, the champ was still running on a full tank. Hughes picked Penn apart and pounded him out for the TKO.
It was a great moment for Hughes in that he finally avenged his loss to the only man to beat him in five years, but for Penn it had to be a bitter pill to swallow. He lost in humiliating fashion to the man he had formerly defeated on the greatest night of his career. What did his victory over Hughes in the past mean now that longtime champ had proven himself the better man in the present?
Worst of all, deep down Penn must have known he only had himself to blame for not training harder.
The King Ascends His Throne
After the loss Penn rebounded with a much-needed move back down to lightweight and a rematch against Jens Pulver. The outcome was radically different from their first fight and Penn steamrolled the obviously outclassed Pulver.
The Hawaii native followed the victory up by making short order of Joe Stevenson in a fight to crown a new UFC lightweight champion ( the title had been vacated after Sean Sherk tested positive for anabolic steroids).
Finally, after enduring so much heartbreak at higher weight classes, Penn was once again a champion.
A convincing victory over former champ Sherk put a stamp on Penn's claim as the best in the world at 155 pounds. He was looking like he might be unbeatable at lightweight, and the timing couldn't have been better. The UFC was exploding on pay per view and Penn was proving to a new generation of fans why he had earned the nickname "The Prodigy."
So what did he do next? Why he did what any dominant champion who was reigning over one of the deepest weight classes in the sport would do: he moved up to welterweight in order to rematch Georges St. Pierre.
Their second meeting wasn't at all like their first for Penn; it was much, much worse. For four rounds the noticeably larger St. Pierre had his way with a virtually ineffective Penn. GSP put such a one sided beating on Penn that the Hawaiian's corner threw in the towel after the fourth round.
Penn's face had been beaten to gruesome pulp, but the pain must have been nothing compared to the injury suffered to his pride after being manhandled in a manner unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
In fact, Penn even contemplated retirement after this fight, despite still holding the lightweight title. That alone tells you hard he takes loses.
Penn eventually dealt with the loss by putting the retirement talk aside and defending his lightweight title in emphatic fashion against top contender Kenny Florian. He followed that up with a successful defense against Diego Sanchez where he busted up the former Ultimate Fighter winner's face even worse than his had been mangled at the hands of GSP.
Once again, Penn was riding high; once again his overconfidence got the best of him.
The Downward Spiral
Penn's next title defense was against unheralded contender Frankie Edgar at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. Few gave Edgar a chance against the dominant champ, and it appears Penn took him lightly as well. He looked noticeably slower in the fight. It appeared his conditioning wasn't up the task of going five hard rounds outdoors in the sweltering desert.
Unfortunately for Penn, his opponent had no issues adjusting to the desert heat. All night long Edgar was just a step or two ahead of the Prodigy. In the end it proved to be enough to garner the underdog from New Jersey a unanimous decision over the exhausted legend.
Penn's lack of preparation once again cost him when it mattered most.
Edgar won a rematch in even more emphatic fashion than their first meeting. During the fight it appeared Edgar was in Penn's head and as a result the former champion couldn't get anything off. He didn't look like the killer who had been running through the lightweight division like a chainsaw through cheesecake. Something was off and it made him a shadow of what he once was.
Since the loss he hasn't been the same. When your entire identity is wrapped up in being the best, how do you deal with it when reality smacks you upside the face with the sobering knowledge you aren't anymore?
Penn's answer to this conundrum was to return to welterweight in order to face the aging Matt Hughes in the rubber match of their legendary series. It was a spectacular moment for Penn. He came out and KO'd the former dominant champ in the early seconds of the first round in a rapid fire manner reminiscent of his earliest wins in the UFC.
While it was unquestionably a great night for Penn, ultimately it didn't lead anywhere. Hughes was only a shell of his former self by that point and only fought one more time after the loss. Penn went on to tie perennial welterweight contender Jon Fitch in a decision many thought should have been a victory for Fitch (incidentally this was yet another fight where Penn looked great in the first round before the wheels fell off in the second and third).
Now Penn is just a little over a week away from making a long-awaited comeback to the Octagon against ultra-dangerous welterweight Rory MacDonald. Considering the fact that Penn's lone win at 170 pounds in the past six years came against an aging legend who is now all but retired, MacDonald would seem an odd choice for an opponent.
The last time Penn was relevant at welterweight was around the time the first season of The Ultimate Fighter premiered so why come out of retirement to face a fighter many consider the future of the division? It's especially baffling when you consider Frankie Edgar isn't at lightweight anymore.
The thing is, this has been B.J. Penn's M.O. for years. He doesn't want to face anything but the best because he genuinely thinks he is up the task of scrapping with anyone on Earth. However, despite his lofty goals he doesn't want to work any harder than he absolutely has to in order to get ready for a fight.
There's a thin line between supreme confidence and outright hubris, and for the preternaturally talented it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. B.J. Penn's natural talent was enough to make him a truly great fighter, but the fruits of that very talent gave rise to an overconfidence which led him to repeatedly squander his gifts.
In a way Penn's willingness to fight much larger men is admirable. It's no doubt a testament to the warrior spirit that made him a legend. However, fighting larger men is one thing when you're a Frankie Edgar who trains like his life depends on it, but it's an entirely different thing when you're so talented you think you can coast by on natural ability alone.
Despite recent talk of how MacDonald "lit a fire under [his] butt" by questioning his conditioning, the fact that Penn was even walking around with what he estimated - hopefully inaccurately - to be 40% body fat after signing the bout agreement is a huge red flag heading into this fight. As is the fact that Penn decided to come back to welterweight because he felt more comfortable there than lightweight.
If Penn wants to know why he isn't talked about in the same conversation as GSP, Anderson Silva, and now Jon Jones as one of the pound for pound best fighters in MMA, there's a part of his answer right there. A big piece of what makes these three athletes the best of their generation in their respective weight classes is that they aren't content to stay in their comfort zones; they are always pushing themselves to transcend their limitations and improve as mixed martial artists.
For all his once limitless potential, can B.J. Penn honestly say the same?
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