BJ Penn is going into UFC 123 this weekend as a man looking to find himself. He has lost his last two fights, both to Frankie Edgar, and wants to get back into championship contention. He will take on Matt Hughes, who has been part of two of the more notable fights in Penn's career. Before Penn can move forward it is time for us to look back at 10 of the moments that have defined BJ Penn's career in MMA.
BJ Penn began his MMA journey training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 1997. It was three short years later where Penn made his mark by winning the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt division at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. He was the first non-Brazilian to ever win the championship. His performance here led to his being courted by UFC and he would move on to make his mark in MMA.
After the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championships, Penn made his debut in UFC at UFC 31: Locked and Loaded against Joey Gilbert. Not a great first opponent for Penn but he had to make a name for himself before he could do anything else and that's what he was able to do here. Penn got the TKO victory near the end of the first round by pummeling Gilbert and forcing the referee to stop it. Just like that Penn was on his way in UFC.
BJ Penn came into UFC 35 as the favorite over Jens Pulver, the UFC Lightweight Champion. This was going to be Penn's moment where he would win his first UFC Championship in just his fourth professional fight. Unfortunately for Penn this just wasn't his night. He was close, at the end of the second round he was able to lock in an armbreaker and Pulver tapped. However, the round ended about two seconds before the tap. Penn got frustrated and basically stopped going in the final round. He lost via decision.
In January 2004, BJ Penn was 7-1-1 and was putting on some terrific performances inside the octagon. However, he had one glaring omission from his very good body of work: Championship Gold. He had two chances at the lightweight title and lost one fight to Jens Pulver and fought to a draw with Caol Uno in the finals of a four man tournament for the vacant lightweight title.
This night, in 2004, would be Penn's night to remember as he fought Matt Hughes. BJ Penn was a lightweight moving up to fight the dominant champion in the welterweight division. But the new weight class didn't matter as Penn absolutely destroyed Hughes and won via submission near the end of round one.
After Penn won the Welterweight championship he decided he needed a new challenge: Enter K-1. The Japanese kickboxing company was the challenge that Penn was looking for. In his third fight with the company he would take on Lyoto Machida in an open weight class fight.
Penn fought at 191 pounds, Machida at 220 pounds. Even at a nearly 30 pound weight disadvantage Penn was able to hold his own and stick with the much larger Machida. Penn would go on to lose the fight via decision but he continued to show his ability even against a fighter who has significant size advantages over him.
After two years in K-1, BJ Penn and UFC were able to come together once again in 2006. In his first fight back Penn would take on Georges St. Pierre in a number one contender fight for the welterweight championship, the same title that Penn vacated when he left UFC in 2004.
The fight was really, really good with back and forth between the two men. In the end, GSP scored the split decision victory over Penn and earned the next title shot. Interestingly enough, GSP would get hurt during training and Penn took his place against Matt Hughes. Despite Penn dominating the first two rounds, a rib injury near the end of the second cost Penn in the third round and Hughes to retain the Welterweight Championship.
After losing consecutive fights to GSP and Matt Hughes, BJ Penn went back to the division that he started in: lightweight. His first fight back in the lightweight division was against Jens Pulver in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 5. Unlike their first encounter some five years earlier, Penn absolutely steamrolled Pulver. He came out attacking and slamming him down. Then, in the third locked in a choke to get the submission victory.
BJ Penn went into UFC 80 against Joe Stevenson looking to do something that only one other man in UFC history has done: Win a championship in two different weight classes. It was a big night in the career of BJ Penn and in the history of UFC.
Penn came out and destroyed Joe Stevenson in a fight that was so one-sided it was really unfair. Stevenson couldn't do anything at all and Penn got a submission victory late in the second round. In the process, BJ Penn made history having won titles in the Lightweight and Welterweight division.
At UFC 112, BJ Penn fought Frankie Edgar for the Lightweight Championship. Frankie Edgar won the title in somewhat controversial fashion by winning the five round decision that some people felt that Penn won or it was at least a draw.
So, being the smart business man that he is, Dana White signed an immediate rematch that would take place at UFC 118. In the fight, BJ Penn was completely outmatched. Edgar took the fight to him and was better in every facet of the fight. Unlike the first fight, there was no doubt who the winner was here and Frankie Edgar retained the title and left BJ Penn with more questions than answers.
Finally, the next career defining moment for BJ Penn will occur Saturday night, November 20th, against Matt Hughes. This is a fight that both men want to win and Penn cannot afford to lose. Matt Hughes place in UFC and MMA is secure, he is a UFC Hall Of Famer and one of the greatest welterweight fighters of all time.
BJ Penn has built up a strong legacy and no one can take away the things that he has done. With that said, he is only 31 and needing to start things over to get back to where he wants to be. His performance at UFC 123 will go a long way in telling us where exactly he is at.