Sometimes, when I remember that BJ Penn has lost four of his last six fights, it honestly gives me a moment of pause.
It’s not that I don’t know the record of Penn backwards and forwards, because I do. Yet in spite of that, it’s hard to reconcile how a fighter of his skill and sheer talent has amassed so many losses.
Perhaps it is because I was an avid fan of the sport when he burst onto the scene, watching him rip through a level of competition that was honestly well beyond his reach, at least on paper.
But no matter where my perspective comes from, the truth is Penn has not done as well as expected.
Of course, there is a fair amount of rationalization available; over half of his losses have occurred fighting much larger opponents. His detractors like to waive this off, dismiss it as nothing more than an excuse.
However, were any number of today’s popular fighters fighting above their natural weight class, they would be praised for their daring and desire; their losses weighed with far more respect.
Now Penn is coming back to the sport. He will coach on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter against the man who took his lightweight title away from him, Frankie Edgar.
While some are glad to see him come back, his return is being met with no small degree of sarcasm from most MMA fans and more than a few journalists.
The reason for his comeback is being dismissed by many as nothing short of denial.
“Yeah, I want this Frankie Edgar fight worse than anything. He should have never beaten me. That guy can’t beat me.”
That guy can’t beat me.
But he did, twice. Neither loss was a beating, per say, but Edgar won each decision by implementing a stick-and-move game plan that Penn just didn’t seem to know how to deal with.
And thus he is back, as an underdog; but is he fueled by denial, or is it nothing more than determination?
It’s always been a little bittersweet to see how former champions are treated by the majority of the public when they attempt to regain what was once lost.
Yes, a healthy degree of skepticism is appropriate, but to mock them for their desires is just ignorant.
A former champions desire to fight again is nothing more than a byproduct of the heart that saw them become champions in the first place.
It’s easy to give up, especially in a sport where there are so many ways to lose. But they didn’t give up. That’s how they got the championship in the first place.
They fought for it, and won.
They may not get to keep the title forever, but to expect them to go quietly into history, to give up the fight when the desire is still there is nothing short of expecting them to give up their passions.
We want fighters to dare to be great. We want them to fight hard and to keep fighting hard when the going gets tough. We have even dubbed it “Championship heart” as a clear indicator of the basic conviction that is mandatory for a fighter to surpass his peers and become the best.
And for a good while, Penn was not only the best in his division, but one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
Obviously he wants to fight again. Even now with so many saying he just can’t do it.
But is that enough?
We’ve heard it said many times: “BJ Penn is in shape and he’s going to be the best he’s ever been,” or some variation on that theme. It’s become a kind of running joke that brings his detractors no end of fun when you consider the punchline is the silence that precedes the laughter.
Of course, his last four fights have been at welterweight; a division ill suited for him. In his younger days, jumping up in weight to challenge much larger fighters wasn’t as bad because he was young, fearless and wildly talented.
In many ways, it always seemed his campaigns at 170 were a cry of defiance in the face of growing older. But now, Penn isn’t a young lion anymore. As a fighter gets older, talent just isn’t enough and being fearless sometimes leads to hubris as age sets in.
Penn’s time in the welterweight division was important simply because it was something he needed to do.
Now that he’s returning to a lighter division, it would seem he has reconciled with his past and wants to prove his detractors wrong.
In fact, it seems like he’s always been fighting to prove the naysayers wrong.
They said a little man couldn’t move up in weight to take out the juggernaut that was Matt Hughes. Penn did it and defeated him in a single round, making it look like child’s play.
They said a little man couldn’t go up in weight and hope to hold his own with legitimate middleweights, yet he faced and defeated Rodrigo Gracie at middleweight by unanimous decision.
Then, he even fought at light heavyweight against Lyoto Machida, who weighed in at over 200 pounds come fight night. He lost the bout via unanimous decision, but Penn gave Machida all he could handle, more than anyone would have expected of a man who was fighting at lightweight 17 months prior.
Now, “they” are at it again, saying Penn is washed up and done and should just retire. While speaking freely and harshly is a right “they” have, expecting him to listen is, thankfully, contrary to our experience.
But now, going down in weight, we will see Penn once again plunging into uncharted territory. Just because he will be the naturally bigger man in more than a few bouts doesn’t mean victory is a given.
The men he will be facing, fighters like Edgar, are fast and fleet of foot. If Penn wants to match them, he will need to hone his body so it is equal to the task. He will need to be in the best shape of his life just to keep up with his younger opponents.
Can he get into that kind of shape?
Sure he can, but it is going to require his utmost dedication. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore. He cannot assume his talent, skill and experience will carry him to victory if conditioning fails him.
Penn is a fighter, and fighters heed the decrees of their heart, which is exactly how it should be. Maybe Penn really is too old to fight anymore and maybe he isn’t, but to mock his desire is to mock what makes the fight game so great.
So, is it denial or determination that is bringing him back?
It’s probably equal measures of both, to be honest. Fighters by their very nature deny convention. To fight in a cage in front of millions of people is not a natural act. It is that denial which walks hand-in-hand with the daring required to step into the cage in the first place.
And the determination? Well, that can be summed up in the credo he has upheld his entire career.