As far as I can tell, there are two camps of loyal B.J. Penn fans.
The first has been enjoying antics from "The Prodigy" since his initial days with the Ultimate Fighting Championship or even earlier. The second group is of a newer vintage—its members probably hopped on the bandwagon in a steady stream starting around 2006.
The former UFC welterweight and lightweight belt-holder gave the masses plenty of reasons to join the mobile party.
There was his quixotic charge at the UFC Welterweight Championship as he re-established himself in the organization's landscape, which required him to get through top contender Georges St-Pierre and win a rematch with UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes. Penn could accomplish neither feat—an injury to GSP gave him a shot at both—but the willingness and performances endeared him to many.
There were also Baby J's entertaining stint on "The Ultimate Fighter" opposite Jens Pulver, his subsequent and inevitable dismantling of "Little Evil" in a triumphant return to lightweight, and then his long-awaited ascent to the 155-pound throne against Joe Stevenson in January of 2008.
Regardless of when this late-arriving throng finally did come aboard, I'm betting it's in full panic right about now.
Edgar Pierced Penn's Veil of Invincibility
The hero has lost two fights in a row to the same adversary, no less. Even worse, Penn was flat-out dominated in his rematch with UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar. "The Answer" had more than one for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace when he out-boxed, out-wrestled, and basically out-classed B.J. to retain the title at UFC 118 in Boston.
The fact that B.J. Penn couldn't beat a fighter who had his full attention and for whom the future Hall of Famer was patently motivated is troubling. The fact that Penn turns 32 in December makes it doubly so.
It's not outrageous to suggest that "The Prodigy" is beginning a permanent and irreversible wilt.
After all, he's in a division that places an extreme premium on speed with competition that's getting thicker, younger, more dynamic, and generally more dangerous as the popularity of mixed martial arts continues to soar. Age and evolution conspire to form a killer combination that has taken down many a monument in this planet's history.
An ominous observation when we remember "The Hilo Kid" has never been confused with the hardest workers in the sport.
But let's also remember that first gaggle of Penn groupies—the more grizzled variety.
Consistency, Thy Name Is NOT B.J. Penn
Those of us who've been on the ride for the long haul have seen this or something very similar before from Baby J; call it an extended mental vacation.
If there is such thing as an MMA diva, B.J. Penn would have to be considered one of the first. He's a mixed martial artist in the truest sense—a sincerely gifted practitioner who authors painful masterpieces with his hands, elbows, arms, and legs.
When he feels like it.
And, like many extraordinary artists, he's a little touched.
Consequently, what motivates you or me might not motivate B.J. Penn. Shoot, what once motivated that B.J. Penn might not motivate this B.J. Penn. His commitment to the sport and performances in it can be unpredictable and frustrating if you count yourself amongst his faithful.
You can always see the talent, but the interest isn't an attendant constant.
History of Mystery
When the younger version made his UFC debut, "The Prodigy" took the lightweight division by storm. After three impressive finishes—the latter two of which came against respected lightweights in Din Thomas and Caol Uno—he was ready for his first title shot. However, a lackluster performance against Pulver would end in a five-round loss via unanimous decision to a vastly inferior antagonist.
Apparently awakened by defeat, Penn would win two more matches (including a UD over Matt Serra) before another lull resulted in a five-round draw in a rematch with Uno for the vacant lightweight title. It had taken him 11 seconds to knock out the Japanese fighter in their initial meeting, but he couldn't even gain the upper hand in points during a 25-minute bout.
The story has repeated itself since then, as well.
Baby J eventually became the UFC Welterweight Champion by submitting Matt Hughes in 2004, but got bored with Dana White's organization so he jumped ship and instead fought the UFC in court.
He looked to have turned the corner in victories over Rodrigo and Renzo Gracie at middleweight as well as a mind-boggling, unanimous decision loss to Lyoto Machida where "The Dragon" weighed 220 pounds. Yet that air of ambivalence returned to taint his consecutive losses to "Rush" and Hughes.
So the Obvious Question Is...
Is Penn done?
Or is he just playing possum again, waiting for another divine wind to spark his MMA fancy?
There are genuine signs to believe it's the latter—"The Hilo Kid" seemed to find homes for his kicks on the rare occasion he threw them against Edgar. Additionally, he had a substantial advantage when he initiated hostilities on the ground i.e. when he took Frankie down instead of vice versa.
And there is simply nobody capable of grappling with him at 155 pounds, possibly at any weight.
In other words, "The Prodigy" didn't look like he was pulling out all the stops in a futile attempt to solve "The Answer" so much as stubbornly insisting on using a game plan that wasn't going to work.
It looked like Baby J set out to beat Edgar in a specific way to prove a point rather than to win a professional engagement.
Given all that was at stake—jewelry, money, pride, etc.—such an approach would be very strange.
But strange is not impossible.
And, as B.J. Penn has shown ever since his UFC debut in 2001, neither is out of the question.