This Saturday, BJ Penn will attempt to successfully defend his lightweight title for the fourth time against Frankie "The Answer" Edgar at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. It’s a title reign that has thus far been one of the most impressive in UFC history with all his defenses being one-sided affairs, no small feat in this division. And for those who've followed Penn's nearly nine year career since its beginning, his reign of dominance has been a long time coming.
The pride of Hilo, Hawaii received his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in just three years. That’s remarkable in itself as it takes most practitioners around a decade. But he didn't become just any black belt in three years. At 21, he became the first American to win the world jiu-jitsu championships in the black belt division, and as he subsequently prepared to make his UFC debut in 2001, accounts of his feats in training and his jiu-jitsu achievements gave him a fearsome reputation before he'd ever stepped into the Octagon.
His early performances didn't disappoint. His debut was a brutal first round ground and pound TKO of Joey Gilbert. The typical jiu-jitsu to MMA crossover's first few fights involve sloppy standup and (sometimes desperate) attempts to drag an opponent to the mat. But Penn didn't just survive on the feet - he thrived there. He knocked out his second opponent, skilled veteran Din Thomas, with a knee at 2:42 into the first round, and topped this time in his next fight with an 11 second blitz knockout of Caol Uno. It was clear Penn possessed a very rare aptitude for MMA. He earned the nickname 'The Prodigy', and all the expectations that went with it.
‘The Prodigy’ was then matched against champion Jens Pulver at UFC 35 for the lightweight title.
The overwhelming pre-fight consensus was that Penn would crush Pulver; and early on, the fight unfolded as anticipated. Penn controlled Pulver and snared ‘Lil' Evil’ in an armbar at the end of the second round that nearly finished the fight. But iron-willed Pulver survived, and outworked 'The Prodigy' over the next three rounds for a decision victory. It was the first glimpse at a possible crack in the Hawaiian's foundation. Though Penn had delivered an initial onslaught most wouldn't have survived, after that failed to end the fight, he faded. Penn would later say of the loss, "I didn't know what I was gonna do with my life or my career. Everything was in shambles".
Penn’s next three fights included a tough decision win over Matt Serra, and a draw against Caol Uno in a title fight after a lackluster five rounds. On paper, that's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But the Penn who showed up wasn't the explosive 'Prodigy' who'd blitzed Uno in their first fight, knocked out Din Thomas, or who fought the first two rounds against Pulver. Penn, it seemed, wasn’t fighting up to his full potential.
After this slump, however, Penn enjoyed consecutive 'Prodigious' victories. In late 2003 he dominated and submitted Takanori Gomi (who went on to rule PRIDE's lightweight division). In 2004, he was matched against Matt Hughes for the welterweight title at UFC 46.
Many UFC fans and Hughes himself, with Penn's performances against Serra and Uno fresh in mind, didn't believe the Hawaiian had any business fighting the champion. Hughes was on a 13-fight win streak, which included five consecutive title defenses. 4:39 into the first round, however, Hughes tapped to a Penn rear naked choke after being soundly outgrappled. It was a teasing glimpse of what Penn at his best was capable of.
After defeating Hughes, Penn left the UFC following a contract dispute. Seeking challenges, he defeated Duane Ludwig at 170 pounds, and beat Renzo and Rodrigo Gracie at 185 pounds. A testament to both his ability and bravery, a 191-pound Penn took then-heavyweight 220-pound Lyoto Machida the full three rounds, losing by unanimous decision.
In 2006, ‘The Prodigy’ returned to the UFC to fight Georges St-Pierre for a shot at Hughes's welterweight title. In the first round, Penn stung St. Pierre standing with punches, out-boxing "Rush" and bloodying his face. But in the second and third, the French-Canadian out-pointed Penn with takedowns, winning a close split decision.
When GSP was injured and forced to withdraw from his title fight later that year against Hughes, ‘The Prodigy’ took his place. Penn controlled the fight early, and late in the second caught Hughes in a triangle choke that nearly finished the fight. And it was a do or die chance for Penn. Utterly exhausted (he attributed this to a rib injury sustained in the second) in the third round, Penn was grounded by Hughes, who trapped his arms and landed punches and elbows at will until the referee was forced to rescue 'The Prodigy'.
The Hawaiian would later admit that his training for the Hughes and St-Pierre fights hadn’t been rigorous enough. While 2006’s Hughes and St. Pierre would have been tough matches for a BJ Penn in top shape, given his flashes of brilliance in both fights one does wonder if the outcomes might have changed had Penn prepared differently.
So in late 2006, if you'd asked the average MMA fan if Penn had yet lived up to his potential, they'd have said no. Although he'd beaten some of the best and captured the welterweight title, when you possess the talents ‘The Prodigy’ does, you're held to a higher standard than most.
Penn has virtually every attribute a fighter needs - an iron chin, speed, power, remarkable flexibility, supreme balance and coordination, all of which complement his technical mastery. Penn, like any prodigy, wants to test the limits of his genius. And he'd done it in the form of matches against a heavyweight Machida, and welterweights Hughes and St-Pierre – men who are not only among the most skilled fighters in the world, but who have a considerable size advantage on Penn, who has a 155-pound frame. But because of this desire for mammoth challenges and often poor conditioning (he hasn’t always trained like a UFC fighter needs to – perhaps because his God-given abilities alone had carried him so far), he hadn't yet forged a rock solid legacy. He'd demonstrated his talent, but he hadn't yet defended a title, or cleaned out a division - achievements that are unquestionable testaments to a fighter's dominance.
2007 marked the beginning of Penn's second campaign for the lightweight title.
Following a stint as coach of The Ultimate Fighter 5, Penn took on old rival Jens Pulver, returning to the lightweight division. He dominated early and in the second stanza, he caught 'Lil' Evil' in a rear naked choke. This time, there was no escaping.
At UFC 80, Penn steamrolled Joe Stevenson to win the lightweight title, bloodying him before finishing him with his patented rear naked choke in the second to become the second man (Randy Couture was the first) to hold UFC titles in two weight classes – an achievement befitting a prodigy.
His first title defense against Sean Sherk was his most impressive performance yet. The Hawaiian out-struck Sherk and easily evaded his takedowns, demonstrating newfound conditioning, as he maintained the same pace for the fight's entirety before knocking Sherk out with a flush knee and punches at the close of the third.
It was the best BJ Penn fans had ever seen. He had won and defended the lightweight title, the prize that eluded him in his first MMA defeat, when he was the explosive 22-year-old 'Prodigy'. He wasn't any less talented back then. But 2008's Penn could better use that talent. It was an improvement borne out of an epiphany for Penn, “Something just awoke inside of me where I said ‘what are you doing? You can beat every one of these people. You’ve been doing it half-assed all this time and it’s time to finally step up and let’s see it.”
In early 2009, Penn moved up to welterweight to fight St-Pierre for the welterweight title at UFC 94. The Hawaiian fought valiantly, but was thoroughly dominated by St-Pierre, who trounced Penn standing and on the ground. After the fourth round, Penn's corner stopped the fight, and GSP remained champion.
Many observers wondered if the tough loss to would sink Penn’s lightweight reign. After such a difficult high-stakes defeat, would Penn still have the desire to defend his title, or would the wins against Pulver, Stevenson and Sherk be the last appearances of Penn at his focused, conditioned best?
The loss didn't break Penn. In the lead up to his next defense against Kenny Florian, he made it clear that he loved fighting, and he loved being the lightweight champion. He dusted himself off and hired strength and conditioning coach Marv Marinovich, who put Penn on a high-tech training regimen to further elevate his fitness.
Florian appeared to bank on having better cardio than Penn, as he tried to wear him out in the early rounds by smothering him against the cage. But Penn patiently defended and scored on Florian, before shifting gears in the fourth, slamming him to the mat and ending the fight with a rear naked choke. Florian, a skilled jiu-jitsu black belt himself, had nothing for Penn on the ground.
The Hawaiian was equally masterful in his UFC 107 match against the highly ranked Diego Sanchez.
Penn dropped Sanchez in the first and maintained that dominance over four rounds, outboxing Sanchez and repeatedly coming close to ending the fight. In the fifth, Penn threw a headkick that nailed "The Nightmare", inflicting a forehead gash that led to a doctor stoppage, earning Penn the record for most lightweight title defenses.
There were no better candidates to test Penn's will and conditioning in the wake of the loss to St-Pierre than Florian and Sanchez. Both men possess endless cardio and set a furious pace. That Penn won by dominating the fight's entirety before finishing in the championship rounds demonstrates that he’s come full circle.
Penn will need to be every bit this focused and fit as he takes on Edgar, who has looked outstanding in his last three victories. If Penn wins, a move back to welterweight may be on the cards. Regardless of his decision though, BJ Penn has never been more dangerous, and after some trial and error with his attitude and training, he’s closed the gap between his potential and his performance.