Up-and-coming athletes in any sport are often labeled as having a great deal of potential, which essentially means they are athletically gifted. If coupled with experience and hard work they will someday be among the elite in their respective sport.
This is the ultimate compliment for a young athlete. Some, like LeBron James, succeed in living up to their full potential and meet these high expectations. For others, however, the label can be a kiss of death. Just ask Kwame Brown or Ryan Leaf who both fell victim to the curse.
B.J. Penn isn’t the LeBron James of MMA, nor is he Kwame Brown or Ryan Leaf. He’s somewhere in between like the majority of fighters, but he quite possibly could have been LeBron James.
Penn was the very definition of potential in the MMA when he burst onto the scene in 2001. He rolled through his first three fights by KO or TKO over Joey Gilbert, Din Thomas, and Caol Uno, and was appropriately given the nickname "The Prodigy." The MMA community anointed him "the next great thing."
After his first three fights, Penn went through a number of career highs and lows, successes and disappointments, for the better part of the next five years.
Over those five years (2002-2006), he won a championship fight, defeating Matt Hughes at UFC 46; lost a championship fight to Jens Pulver at UFC 35 for lightweight title; fought to a draw for lightweight championship against Caol Uno at UFC 41; defeated arguably the greatest lightweight in the world in Takanori Gomi; and fought at four different weights (155, 170, 185, and 205).
During that time, Penn accumulated a record of 10–4–1, a respectable record for any MMA fighter. However, it’s not the track record of a fighter with so much potential, who was more physically gifted than any other MMA fighter and had the ability to possibly be the greatest of all-time.
The bottom line is that his early success came on pure talent alone. He started taking his skill and his opponents for granted. It was easy for him. He had knockout power in his hands and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt on the ground, but, as it would turn out, his physical tools far outweighed his mental strength.
MMA fighters will tell you that the mental aspect of fighting is more challenging than the physical. It’s a full-time job doing nothing but training day in and day out.
It takes strict discipline and a huge amount of time and sacrifice. Couple those factors with the pressure of being an MMA "prodigy" and the combination took a toll on Penn. He didn’t train as hard as he should and he thought he could slide by. He was unmotivated and lost his burning desire be the best.
He was essentially the kid in high school who studied two hours a week and received straight As while, on the other hand, you were studying eight plus hours and maintaining a C average. It caught up to him over those five years until June of 2007.
June 23, 2007 was the date of the Ultimate Fighter 5 finale and Penn was slated to fight a rematch with Jens Pulver—the man who triggered the roller coaster ride back in 2002. He dominated the fight with Pulver winning on a second round submission. He looked like new man, an early version of himself. He appeared extremely motivated and extremely dangerous. It was a full circle moment in his career.
Where had this elite talent been for the past five years? If he had this mindset during his entire career would we be talking about him as the greatest MMA fighter of all-time? I find myself wondering what might have been.
In retrospect, he hasn’t lived up to all the hype that had him pegged as an MMA god. Regardless, he is in the process of cementing a legacy and he still wants to go out as one of the best lightweights ever.
He’s learned many lessons during his career and has overcome adversity. He has a lot to fight for: pride, his legacy, his family, and his fellow Hawaiians who look to him as a hero.
On May 24, 2008 at UFC 84 Penn will set out to defend his UFC Lightweight Championship against Sean Sherk.
When "Hawai'i '78" by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole blares over the speakers at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, a man on a mission will walk out. A continuing mission to prove to everyone he is indeed the prodigy.