The first time BJ Penn openly discussed retirement was more than five years ago. He slipped away to his warm Hawaiian paradise and contemplated life and decided that no, he preferred the raw and unforgiving UFC Octagon. That he had a little bit more to give. That he had to just scrap until there was no scrap left in him.
Then he returned, and the fight game tried to take away whatever was left. It’s cruel like that, clawing away at legends and journeymen alike until there is just an empty shell remaining, the same frame but with none of the spark, the engine, the firepower.
So when Penn came back again Sunday night, the expectations of the fight world were teetering between unease and straight-on depression.
He couldn’t win, not against a 24-year-old phenom, not against a flashy and fast striker who had yet to lose in the UFC Octagon. It was more a question of whether he could leave with his dignity intact.
But MMA is not a sport like that. If it doesn’t grind you up on the way in, it will get you on the way out.
Penn’s exit should be complete. One of these days, this retirement thing will stick for good. But even if it's not official, there was a finality to what happened at UFC Fight Night 103 that cannot be ignored: BJ Penn is done.
The end came with an exclamation point, with Yair Rodriguez making sure that Penn would not leave the cage with any renewed hope or anything at all resembling contentment.
Offensively, the young featherweight is often a risk-taker and often brilliant. When he can meld the two characteristics together and find balance, he is at his best. And he was at his best Sunday, battering Penn from the outside with high kicks and authoring cunning combinations that left the legend unsure of what exactly he should be defending.
The difference between them was unnerving. Penn, once known for fast hands, seemed stuck in neutral while Rodriguez sped around throwing blinding shots that mostly went unanswered.
The gulf was wide enough that judge Derek Cleary scored the first round a 10-8 without Rodriguez even needing a knockdown.
That would come later, almost as soon as the second got underway, when, according to FightMetric’s Michael Carroll, he became the first man ever to put Penn on the mat with a strike, with his front kick/right cross putting Penn on the mat and leading to the finish.
In typical Penn style, he wouldn’t go out even though he should have. He covered up and moved, and referee John McCarthy couldn’t quite pull the trigger on stopping the fight, even when it was obviously over. In that way, the warrior mentality followed Penn to the end, too tough to surrender an unwinnable fight.
There has just been too much of that at the end of his career. According to FightMetric, Penn has been outlanded 828-275 over his last five fights, encapsulating all of the bouts he’s competed in since last authoring victory.
It has been a long time. The last time Penn won a fight in the UFC (November 2010), the UFC had yet to sign its landmark seven-year television deal with Fox, Conor McGregor was just five fights into his pro career and was collecting social welfare to make ends meet, and Jon Jones was still months away from beginning his UFC light heavyweight title reign.
This Penn "streak" isn’t a streak. That implies it can be turned around or wiped away. He’s 38 years old. Time has robbed him of many of the natural advantages he held over the fight game, and evolution has made sure he can’t make up the lost ground.
That’s how we end up here, a legend thrown to the side for the next big thing.
Sad thing is, we have to hand Penn his share of the blame. His most recent fight was a disaster. Out of retirement to face Frankie Edgar, Penn came out in an awkward, upright stance unlike any he’d used in his career. Fighting as uncomfortably as he looked, Penn couldn’t mount any effective offense or do a thing to stop his opponent. The fight quickly turned into a rout, with Edgar winning via a third-round technical knockout.
It should have been the end.
But he couldn’t accept it. To him, to every legend, there must always be a reason for a loss that can be addressed and corrected.
You can see how he might trick himself into believing it. If he could win two championships, if he could earn his jiu-jitsu black belt in three-and-a-half years, if he could fight at any division, if he could change the game...well, why not?
Greatness, after all, isn't achieved by believing in limitations.
So why not? Sunday night was why not. Chins expire. Bodies slow. Skills begin to rust. It’s all so cruel.
And then there is the other side. The youth. The promise. The personification of momentum. Unbeaten in the UFC and full of flash, Rodriguez had grown enough interest that the pairing with Penn made it seem like the matchup was the UFC’s way of forcing Penn into a reckoning.
Here, BJ. The end looks like this.
Like a front kick and a straight cross that you never saw coming—or that you did see but couldn’t avoid. It looks like flashes and spins. It looks like something you used to look like.
The fight game starts hard and ends harder. This is an almost universal truth. Five years after he realized he might be done, Penn should know for sure now.
His legacy won’t be left in numbers. These final losses made sure of that. If you need to analyze his record, you didn't see him at his best. And if you saw him at his best, you wouldn't need to analyze his record.
Penn was great. Penn was game. And to the end, Penn refused to stop taking on challenges that appeared unconquerable because...because just scrap. That’s why.
And if he can take solace in something other than his achievements, it’s that his refusal to surrender was the one trait that never left him.