Saturday night in Boston Frankie Edgar retained his lightweight UFC belt via unanimous decision by frustrating, exhausting, and demoralizing BJ Penn. Looking like the only fighter to improve since their previous bout, Edgar was faster, crisper, and more energetic than Penn.
BJ, on the other hand, seemed to have learned nothing from his title loss months ago. Penn looked like a sparring partner for a jumpy, dynamic, and almost casually confident Frankie Edgar.
Upon walking into the ring, Penn had a depth of focus that seemed inhuman and frankly, scary. Edgar bounced into the octagon looking like he was about to go for a workout. Up until 10 seconds into the bout, the aura of invincibility surrounding Penn seemed to foreshadow an inevitable comeback victory.
But Edgar began to float into and out of Penn's reach and to outscore the former champ. Penn was flat-footed while Edgar looked like an upside down bungy-jumper with his incessant and visually confusing—and therefore highly effective—bob n' weave. The crisp snap of Edgar's kicks and punches did not always land but they did keep coming.
Penn, on the other hand, seemed content to react to Edgar, appearing to look for that one lucky combo to rattle and slow down the buoyant Edgar—a combo which never came. Edgar did not manage to overwhelm Penn, but he did outscore him and force him to play at his pace. Penn stuck to mostly countering Edgar. Always a bad game plan for a challenger.
Although the actual punch count would have been in Edgar's favour by slightly less than a dozen, the lightweight champ had the more stunning shots and took Penn down three times and kept the Hawaiian prodigy on the canvas for minutes on end.
Penn managed only two takedowns but he had to scrap and scramble for them and both were eventually reversed or escaped from by Edgar. In the end, Edgar did not finish or overwhelm Penn, but he stunted and confused him much more soundly than in their first match.
The biggest disappointment for BJ fans should not be the final outcome but the road to that outcome. BJ had a ferocious vibe as he entered the octagon. If only he had fought as ferociously, Penn fans would have a certain satisfaction to help nurse their disappointment.
But within a minute of this rematch, it appeared Penn's gameplan was not proving difficult for Edgar and Penn went into an Edgar-Penn I trance and marched himself to a predictable technical defeat. The Randy Coutures, Chuck Liddells, and Matt Hughes of the sport lose, but they do so only after letting it all hang out.
When a gameplan is not working, you do not become your opponent's sparring buddy, coasting to a comfortable defeat and avoiding drama and trauma. You dig deep and you try everything...EVERYTHING in your arsenal. Both the well-practiced and the spontaneously created come out and you fight for your title, career and legacy. True champions have heart. That kind of heart.
Unfortunately, this was distinctly absent from BJ Penn on Saturday night. In the prefight interviews from his fight camp, Penn stated that he surrounded himself with sparring partners that were not "here to hurt me." Perhaps this was a strategic mistake.
That kind of fight camp may make for good friendships, but it isn't the cauldron from which you can forge a comeback. Between the fourth and fifth rounds, Penn's corner was not giving him D-Day instructions. There was an awkward silence and someone said something along the lines of "hey, he stole [the belt] now you go get it back."
This is barely motivational to someone currently frustrated by a guy who has already beat him only several weeks ago. What BJ needed from round two onward was a consistent dose of reality. "Hey, Penn. You're the better fighter, but you're not fighting like it. You need to risk getting knocked out by letting your hands, feet, knees, and elbows go. Now."
The overall disappointment is that Penn is a better fighter than Edgar. But the size of Edgar's heart and the depth of his will were twice that of Penn. And it was enough to turn off Penn's will to win.
BJ is an emotionally motivated fighter. He is not quiet and cerebral like Couture and he is not relentless like Clay Guida. Purely emotional fighters can ride a tidal wave of optimism when things are going their way. But they can crash stunningly when their bubble is popped by stubborn opposition.
Penn is naturally too small for welterweight. He was born for the lightweight arena. If he wants to be champion again he has all the talent he needs. But does he have the heart?