In the end, was it really worth it?
Leading up to last Saturday's UFC on FOX 5 all B.J. Penn could talk about was how he wanted to rewrite his legacy. The former two-divisional UFC champion was angry his name didn't come up in discussions about the greatest fighters of all time anymore and he wanted to prove this omission was a grave mistake. He was motivated, in shape, and chomping at the bit to get back in the Octagon and scrap. For Penn, his comeback represented a last chance to prove to the world - and perhaps more importantly to himself - that he was still relevant and not just a legend whose day in the sun had irrevocably faded to twilight.
Then Rory MacDonald beat the hell out of him.
It wasn't so much an athletic contest as it was a slaughter, with the once mighty Penn playing the part of sacrificial lamb. Although Penn showed flashes of what made him great in the first round - most notably when he did his trademark pogo-stick jump on one leg as MacDonald unsuccessfully attempted to take him down - the outcome was never in any doubt. MacDonald bullied the Prodigy around worse than a middle schooler trying to extract lunch money from a hapless third grader. At one point in the second round an unresponsive Penn covered up and appeared to be out on his feet as MacDonald unloaded with a series of brutal strikes in rapid fire succession. Referee Herb Dean was seconds away from stepping in and putting a merciful end to the punishment, but somehow Penn managed to gut through and hang on till the end of the round.
Not that it mattered though. In the closing frame of the fight the battered Penn was reduced to little more than a barely mobile target for MacDonald to style on with impunity. MacDonlad was so dominant that on two separate occasions the usually reserved Tristar product broke into the Ali shuffle, drawing forth a hailstorm of boos from a partisan audience who wanted to see the former Prodigy return to his bygone glory days. The uncharacteristic showboating served as the exclamation point on a performance that heralded Rory MacDonald's arrival as a legitimate top star. It was also a bit of a slap in the face to Penn, highlighting just how ineffectual the former icon had become.
After a showing like that it wasn't surprising when UFC president Dana White called for Penn's retirement during an interview with Ariel Helwani on the Fuel TV post-game show. It's tough to watch a legend of the sport get knocked around like a human heavy bag.
This is where It's tempting to roll out the cliche narrative of the aging warrior "going out on his shield" in a noble last stand against the vanguard of the new breed, but I don't think that's applicable in this case. While Penn undoubtedly showed the heart that made him a legend by refusing to quit while being brutalized by the younger MacDonald, the real story in the fight was that of a 168 pound man being dominated by a ridiculously larger opponent who likely outweighed him by 20 to 30 pounds on fight night. What else would you logically expect given the size differential between the two?
On the Road to the Octagon special hyping up the fight, Penn opined that martial arts is all about technique overcoming superior size and brute strength. This may have been true when he was breaking into the sport in 2001, but in 2013 it's no longer the case. Today everybody at the elite level in the UFC is technically advanced. Gone are the days of much smaller fighters finding pathways to victory through holes in larger opponents' games. That's why people who walk around near 200 pounds like Rory MacDonald go through the suffering of cutting weight: it gives them a competitive advantage they wouldn't have fighting at their natural weight against larger men who are cutting down to meet the divisional limit.
The frustrating thing here is that Penn knows this is how the game is played. For whatever reason though he was once again unwilling to play along. Was Penn's insistence on making his comeback at welterweight hubris? Obstinacy? Laziness? A foolhardy miscalculation? Or maybe some mix of all of the above?
Perhaps we'll never know what made Penn decide to come out of retirement and fight an opponent who realistically looked at least two weight classes bigger but in retrospect it seems a baffling choice for a man who wanted to prove he was one of the all time greats.
That's what made this fight so exasperating to watch. Sure, MacDonlad looked great in victory, but so what? Was it really that impressive to see him dominate a much smaller man who was coming into the fight with over a year of ring rust? Did the beating Penn suffered at the hands of the emergent superstar prove anything other than the same lesson we've seen reinforced time and again about how a good big man almost always beats a good little man? If this comeback was about B.J. Penn writing the last chapter of his legacy, why didn't he give himself a better opportunity to show what he was made of by making the sacrifice of cutting down to his optimal weight class?
In a way though, maybe Penn did end up cementing his legacy on Saturday night. His wasn't the storybook career of an Anderson Silva or a Georges St. Pierre, but rather it was one consisting of peaks of awe-inspiring achievement and valleys of squandered talent. Penn had all the tools to build a solid resume as the greatest lightweight of all time if he had only remained diligent in his training and kept within his natural weight division. Instead he'll be remembered as an immeasurably gifted fighter who failed to make the most of his inborn abilities.
Penn's goal in coming out of retirement may have been to remind the world how great he was, but instead he once again left us wondering what might have been. As frustrating as it is for all of us who will never have an answer to that question, it must be infinitely more troubling to Penn himself.
That's the thing with regrets though: by the time we realize our mistakes in life, it's often too late to do anything about them.
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