TUF 19 Finale: On Frankie Edgar, BJ Penn and the Horrible Clarity of Hindsight

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TUF 19 Finale: On Frankie Edgar, BJ Penn and the Horrible Clarity of Hindsight
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today

A third fight between Frankie Edgar and BJ Penn never made much sense.

Less and less so every second they actually spent together in the cage.

Edgar was declared the winner on Sunday after three miserable rounds of lopsided action, but even he didn’t feel much like celebrating. He’d battered and humiliated fan favorite Penn en route to a TKO in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 19 live finale, and he understood it brought a melancholy end to a weekend of UFC events on back-to-back nights.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” Edgar told play-by-play announcer Jon Anik after it was finally over. “I said I wanted to finish him because he’s never been finished and (because of) how tough he was, but I almost feel bad about it.”

Edgar was already 2-0 against Penn, having defeated him in a pair of lightweight title fights during 2010. Leading up to this bout Penn had been idle, all but retired for the last 19 months, on the heels of consecutive welterweight losses to Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald.

Yet earlier this year the 35-year-old former multidivisional champion asked for another chance at Edgar, this time at 145 pounds, and when UFC President Dana White obliged him, there wasn’t much outcry. It was an unorthodox booking, but because of his legendary status and lengthy resume as an elite fighter at 170 and 155 pounds, people were curious to see what Penn could bring to the featherweight division.

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He's always been that kind of character, after all, continually doing the impossible.

Penn is the guy who beat Matt Hughes for the welterweight title in 2004 and gave a fledgling Georges St-Pierre all he could handle in 2006. The guy who was stripped of the UFC title over a contract dispute and fought in Japan and Hawaii without much care for his weight class, including facing a 225-pound Lyoto Machida in a catchweight bout. The guy who ruled lightweight with an iron fist from 2007 to 2010.

Unfortunately, that guy was nowhere to be found on Sunday, and White reportedly walked out before the fight was over.

Once it was, Penn re-retired on the spot.

“I shouldn’t have come back,” he said to the adoring crowd at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. “I shouldn’t have been in the ring tonight to compete with a top-level (guy) like Frankie Edgar.”

Penn looked uncomfortable with his decision to return from the opening bell.

He came out of his corner standing straight up and down, shuffling listlessly on the balls of his feet. His previous career was typified by his ferocious, heavy-handed striking, but on this night he seemed tentative, throwing mostly ineffectual single counter strikes against Edgar’s high-octane combinations.

It almost appeared as if Penn wanted Edgar to take him down, but once the fight hit the mat, he had little to offer from his back, either.

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Edgar was simply too fast, too well-rounded and too motivated. For perhaps the first time in his career, Penn seemed to shrink from the moment. In the third stanza, Edgar tossed him to the ground with a foot sweep and opened a cut over his left eye with a series of elbows. He continued to pour on punches and elbow strikes until referee Herb Dean stepped in to call it off with 44 seconds left in the round.

And then we sighed. With relief. With sadness.

At some point in there, it had dawned on everyone that this fight had been a very bad idea. In fact, it’s hard to remember another bout where the regret was so immediate or pervasive. This was not just a mismatch that caused fans and analysts to cringe. In retrospect, even Edgar and Penn seemed to realize, too late, that this was a fight that didn’t need to happen.

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Maybe one of the reasons it seemed so shocking was we’d partly forgotten exactly how good Edgar can be. He’d also been out of action exactly one year, and in the interim, perhaps we allowed ourselves to disregard his elusiveness, smooth transitions from striking to grappling and ability to launch multipunch combos and then glide out of range before his opponent can return fire.

All of that was on display this weekend and it made a sad end for Penn—especially the foot sweep, which reduced the bout to an ugly incident of playground bullying by the time Edgar used it to put him down the last time.

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A true pioneer of the sport, Penn was emotional at the post-fight press conference when asked about his legacy, setting down his microphone and resting his head on his arms.

White filled in the blanks for him, saying Penn would go down as one of the greatest lightweight fighters of all time and a guy who helped build the UFC. The gathered media applauded the suggestion, and this time nobody complained about a lapse in journalistic integrity.

It may have been a bad idea to put this bout together, but even in the bitter end Penn said it was a fight he needed. He had to prove to himself he no longer belonged in the cage with the world’s best fighters so he could retire with no regrets and no unanswered questions. Certainly, after the 13 years he’d given to this sport, we owed him that much.

For his part, White said he didn’t regret putting Penn and Edgar together for a third fight, regardless of the outcome. The UFC boss said he’d sit down with Penn and his family to talk about the future but clearly indicated that he won’t fight in the Octagon again.

“I’d regret making another one,” White said.

So would we. So would everybody.

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