For as long as he lives, B.J. Penn will be remembered by those who saw him for a mix of otherworldly talent, an infuriating inability to reach his vast potential, and a courageous willingness to confront giants. History suggests that is unlikely to change now, even if Penn has returned from his premature retirement with the hope of changing public perceptions of him; even if he sounds as excited and motivated as ever. The fact is, unless he bucks the astronomical odds to follow Randy Couture and fight into his 40s, the majority of his career has already been written and cannot be erased.
This is not to dismiss his past exploits or to say that Penn will not or cannot author any future moments of greatness. Though in MMA terms he's been around seemingly forever, he is days away from his 34th birthday. As Anderson Silva continues to show, the greats are sometimes able to extend their shelf lives past expected expiration dates. As Couture proved when he beat Tim Sylvia, they are capable of bucking the odds and the years in spectacular fashion. And Penn was, at least in talent, an all-time great. The thing about him is that his record does not reflect that, and that it doesn't really matter.
The MMA world was instantly smitten with him when he debuted over 11 years ago with a cherubic face and killer instinct, the perfect blend of technical mastery and violence delivery. He was, like the volcanoes that populate his home state landscape, simultaneously graceful and terrifying. He was also just as unpredictable. As time went on, the running question became what version of B.J. Penn would show up to compete. There were always two: the steamroller that could move up in weight and run through all-time great Matt Hughes at UFC 46, and the guy who could walk in as a big favorite against Caol Uno and lay an egg. There never seemed to be a rhyme or reason for either.
If Penn had two fatal flaws, they were his ambition and inability to properly prepare.
The first should not be held against him. In fact, it was Penn's greatest gift to the sport that he was always willing to take on the greatest available challenge, no matter how much circumstances tilted the odds in his opponent's favor. When he fights Rory MacDonald at Saturday night's UFC on FOX 5, it will mark his 27th pro fight, and the 12th bout fought above his natural weight class of 155. Say what you will about his won-loss record, but that is not likely something we will see anytime soon at the highest levels of MMA.
The second is less forgivable. It's something Penn has made passing reference to several times in the last few days.
Most of us will never know what it's like to have Penn's talent at anything. He is, by most accounts, a fighting savant. But most of us understand the feeling of going into something unprepared. Penn always believed that his natural talent and fighting spirit would win out, but he has repeatedly found out that especially against bigger foes, that was not the case.
Yet repeatedly, we've been sucked into his vortex, believing in his conviction. Just two weeks ago, he released a 25-second video that showed an in-shape Penn shadow boxing in his yard. With a quickness, the clip fired up the masses with the belief that Penn is truly bringing his best game to the octagon.
Is he? Who knows? His confidence certainly seems real. At Thursday's press conference, Penn traded words and glares with the intense MacDonald, warning him that he "better be ready to back up everything you said."
MacDonald believes that Penn's stated reason for returning -- to re-enter the discussion of the sport's all-time best -- is not reason enough to re-enter a sport so physically demanding.
"If that is his motivation, I think it's going to get him hurt," he said.
Everyone needs his own source of motivation. Many fighters start hungry, with only the intent of putting food on their table. Once they've accomplished that, there must be something more, whether it's being the best of the division, or being the best of all time, or cold, hard, cash. By most accounts, Penn has enough money to coast through a comfortable life in the Hawaiian breeze, so if he is fighting for legacy, that seems reasonable enough.
We just don't know if it's actually enough to make a difference in this fight, at this stage of his career. Once again, Penn is fighting above his natural weight, against a fighter a decade younger than he is. MacDonald fights with a fury that recalls the early days of Penn, who was out to savage his opponents en route to victory.
Penn isn't just going against size, he's going against hunger and talent and history. He hasn't had his hand raised in victory in two years.
So that's where we are right now. Penn has most of his history already written. His successes can not be ignored; his failures can not be erased. Days shy of his 34th birthday, he's not old, but far from young, certainly past the age of a "Prodigy." Couture won a title when he was a decade older, and Silva still boggles our minds as he nears 38. Penn could end up doing something just as outrageous or he could fizzle out and fade away, remembered as part highlight reel, part cautionary tale. Either way, this is the beginning of his ending.
This is Penn's last stand. The hype has long passed, leaving debate in its place. Supporters and critics are there in equal numbers, so the deciding vote is his, to be cast by performance. At least those of us who watched him all along know the truth, that wins and losses are not the sole measuring sticks of a man who deserved the title "fighter" like few others did.