It's hard to leave behind seats so close you can literally reach out and touch the fighters as they walk out of the UFC Octagon. But leave them I did, abandoning press row for the long hike up to section 205 at the very top of the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Most of the time I'm able to keep my journalist face on, especially when sitting among my peers. I admit that mine isn't as good as some others—Fox's Michael Chiappetta, for example, never seems to change expressions over the course of five hours. I admire that restraint but could never replicate it.
Especially not when BJ Penn is fighting.
My relationship with this sport will always be that of a fan. This isn't a vocation. It's a passion—and Penn is one of my early favorites. As I've watched this sport grow into the behemoth it is today, he's been there, a constant presence, a steady rock in an industry of constant change.
I don't know BJ Penn. I don't want to. He's from a time before I had to put a mask on and pretend I didn't care who won or lost, before I had ever met an athlete and had any illusions of heroism shattered by real-life human flaws. Together we've shared the pain and joy of a tumultuous career.
And so I made my trek to 205. My friend Jeremy Botter was there to meet me. He understood, though we didn't really discuss it. I had been with him in Atlanta where his friend Miguel Torres met an awful end at the hands of Michael McDonald. I had seen his own mask fall off as we sat together in the press box. So I knew there would be no judgments.
Surprisingly, I didn't feel much as Penn was annihilated by Frankie Edgar. Hope can be a cruel poison, but I don't know that I ever got mine up. Even when a fat man took his shirt off to lead loud cheers for the pride of Hawaii, I never really believed.
In my heart? Maybe. But my head has seen too many older fighters try to tap into a well that has long run dry. As soon as Penn stood up on his tippy toes, looking more like a ballerina than a boxer, I knew it was over. Both his career and the last link to my time before this was my profession, when I was allowed to hoot and holler to my heart's content.
Penn retired after the fight, admitting he should have probably never come back—but needed to know that in his bones before he called it a career.
"The biggest regret would be if I didn't get in the ring tonight," Penn told reporters after the fight. "I'd always kick myself in the butt and complain to Dana White and complain to everybody 'Man, I could have done it again.' Now I know for sure I can't."
One day, likely soon, Penn will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Future generations will look at his pedestrian 16-10-2 record and wonder why we held him in such high regard. But we'll know.
It's for the way he sprinted from the cage after knocking out Caol Uno in a matter of seconds at UFC 34.
For the way he walked into the ring against an enormous Lyoto Machida, fear nowhere to be found.
For the time he answered a pedestrian post-fight interview question with the simple command "If you wanna know more, go to BJPenn.com."
For the way he rearranged Diego Sanchez's face, making his mean mugging all the more comical.
One by one the icons of a simpler time are leaving us. All of our ties to the sport's formative years will soon be gone. Penn was among the last of the old guard still standing. His void will never be filled.
In a world of corporate sponsors, podcast guest spots and Fan Expos, BJ Penn never really quite fit in. He loved the fans, but the glitz and glamour was clearly not his style.
BJ Penn wasn't meant for modern mixed martial arts. He was exceptionally athletic but never an athlete. Never one for the gym, he wasn't the best at exercising. He was a fighter. Who but a fighter would lick an opponent's blood from his gloves with such glee?
It's moments like that, when we are both repelled and amazed, that made Penn so special. Moments like that compelled me to get up from my seat. And I'm glad that I did—so I could stand up and cheer BJ Penn one last time.