LAS VEGAS – When asked to describe his best moment, B.J. Penn was thinking the reporter meant specifically of Sunday night -- a night he had nothing to offer the quicker, younger, better prepared Frankie Edgar.
"Walking out probably," he said.
Everybody laughed. That was the moment of levity in a time of brutal, inevitable truth. Penn, one of the UFC’s more recognizable figures, who carried titles in two different weight classes and an appetite to fight in any that would house him, retired from MMA after getting thoroughly taken apart by his last nemesis Edgar. There was a sadness to it, because he meant it this time. He meant it. There was a sadness to it because the fight game is cruel not just in its violence, but in not being able to keep up with it.
And Baby Jay’s right.
When he walked out to his traditional Israel Kamakawiwo’ole song of Hawaii that one last time (with a little remix twist) it was electric at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. People stood up, as they usually did, as part of the ceremony. Penn always could captivate the imagination of the fight fan, the man with freakish flexibility known as "The Prodigy," in part because of his willingness to scrap. In part because he grew up in front of those fight fans, wearing leis and bouncing on dainty ankles, standing in against the best of the best for 13 years.
Penn fought in 11 title fights. He defended the lightweight belt three times with a foray to welterweight to rematch Georges St-Pierre in between (he lost). He won the welterweight belt against Matt Hughes at UFC 46, probably his most memorable moment (he was later stripped of that belt when he went to K-1). He fought Lyoto Machida (!) in Japan while there. He wanted to fight Tim Sylvia, the UFC’s heavyweight champion, a year later, but was never granted the request. When he beat Diego Sanchez, opening up a chasm on his forehead that stretched towards the hairline, Dan Hardy turned to me and said, "that cut is so deep you can see his thoughts."
That was his the last fight of dominance; that night in Memphis it felt like Penn could go on forever. Then Edgar came along.
Edgar took his belt in Abu Dhabi, and reinforced things four months later in Boston. After that happened Penn began searching for a new identity -- or trying to rediscover an old one. Though he did score a 21-second knockout of Matt Hughes in the trilogy fight at UFC 123, the embers were losing the glow.
Penn knew it, we knew it, Dana White knew it…but there was a reluctance to accept it. There was a reluctance to see Penn go, because he truly embodied the silly overused cliché that we embarrass ourselves uttering so many times about lesser fighters. He embodied the warrior spirit. As Dana White said, he helped build the UFC. And he did build the 155-pound weight class. He built captivation, as well. People cared about B.J. Penn.
"My best moment in the UFC, I guess now that I look back, I guess my biggest accomplishment is the two belts in two weight classes," he said in the funereal TUF 19 post-fight presser. "I really wanted to see if I could make it three, but you know, you’re talking about the best guys in the world. You look at somebody like Frankie Edgar and you think, ‘oh, that little guy,’ this and that. But these guys, they want it. And even if you’re sitting there and you think you’ve figured something out, or got something you’re going to surprise somebody with, the first thing you’ve got to do is have more heart than these guys."
After coaching opposite Edgar on the last season of The Ultimate Fighter, Penn was trying his luck as a featherweight to see if he could make one last good run. He couldn’t. From the opening bell on Sunday night, Edgar beat him to the punch. Penn, who at UFC 84 out-boxed Sean Sherk to the point of wincing frustration, came in upright, leaving himself vulnerable for takedowns. There were no lunging, timely knees, like the one he downed Sherk with, or the flying one he dodged from Caol Uno all those years ago. There was just the flickery Edgar with the grim task of beating him to the punch, pounding home a point that this was it.
As referee Herb Dean came in closer in the third round, just as the blood was beginning to seep into Penn’s eyes, there was a moment you knew he was about to not just stop a fight, but pull the plug forever on one of the game’s greats. It was poignant. Dean hovered for a few moments, and when he finally did call off Edgar he came in so slow. Merciful, and slow. And then it was over.
"When the blood started going in my eyes and everything and the fight started getting real tough, I realized it takes a high, high energy level to compete with the top people in the world," Penn said. "You can have every technique figured out, and you can have this and that and all your theories ready to go, but the bottom line is you need a high energy level to compete against these guys. They’re very hungry. They want to be the best. I could sit here and say a thousand times that the sport passed me by, but it’s just there are just such quality people in the UFC at the moment."
In the end, Penn said he had to take this fight for a sense of closure, or else he’d forever wonder if he could have kept going. He couldn’t. When asked what his defining legacy will be, he tried to answer that the best he could given the still dawning reality of himself in the past tense.
"My lasting legacy now is just going to be in highlight reels," he said. "And Dana gave me an opportunity to work with the UFC gyms and do different things so I can continue to feed myself over…"
Here he put his head down and began to cry. He kept his head down.
"He’s one of the best 155 pounders of all time," White intervened. "He built that division."
Tears. Applause. Reverence. Emotion.
And so it was that one of the fight game’s most compelling fighters walked out the same way he walked in.