Randy Couture, one of the greatest in UFC history, defended his heavyweight championship in the main event. Pat Miletich, who just this weekend was inducted into the fight promotion’s Hall of Fame, lost his middleweight belt in the co-main. Chuck Liddell moved a step closer to the light heavyweight title by knocking out past heavyweight king Kevin Randleman. Future welterweight titleist Matt Serra fell victim to a spectacular KO in his first UFC appearance.
The stars were out in Atlantic City back in May 2001 for UFC 31.
None of them outshone the 22-year-old Hawaiian who made his mixed martial arts debut in the second fight of the prelims. B.J. Penn was a hyped-up curiosity, touted on the pay-per-view telecast as “the most decorated jiu-jitsu athlete in America.” This was no mere hyperbole. A year earlier, Penn had become the first non-Brazilian black belt to win the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. In light of the UFC’s roots as essentially a jiu-jitsu showcase, this kid entered the octagon with the perfect nickname. “The Prodigy.”
Matched against a two-time All-American collegiate wrestler named Joey Gilbert, Penn took the fight to the ground early on and dominated all the way, getting the technical knockout two seconds before Round 1 was to end.
To say that was just the beginning is a loaded statement. Penn would go on to become one of only two fighters -- along with Couture -- to win UFC championships in two weight classes. After starting his career as a lightweight, he stepped up to welterweight in 2004 to challenge the champ, Matt Hughes, and choked him out to walk away with the belt. He gave it up to move to another fight organization, K-1, where he fought at middleweight and even against a then-heavyweight named Lyoto Machida. Upon his return to the UFC in 2006, Penn lost to a young Georges St-Pierre, then to Hughes in a rematch, but two fights later he was lightweight champ.
This is the B.J. Penn who should be remembered, not the one who was brutalized on Sunday night in Las Vegas by Frankie Edgar. The New Jerseyan had dethroned Penn back in the spring of 2010, and he’d won a rematch later that year even more convincingly. Penn wanted one more shot. There was a ghost from his past he needed to confront.
As it turned out, Penn was the ghost on this night, a shadow of the gloriously skilled fighter he once was. Whereas Penn always was known for being as adept on the canvas as he was on his feet, against Edgar he showed nothing in any facet of the fight. Edgar was faster, as he had been in both of their other meetings, and as he is against most any opponent. But this time it was like watching fast-forward against slow-motion. The second punches in Edgar combos often hit their target before Penn could counter the first.
Statistics paint an imperfect picture of any sporting event, but Sunday’s tell a true story. Before referee Herb Dean showed mercy by jumping in at 4:16 of the third round and declaring a TKO, Edgar had landed 90 significant strikes at an accuracy rate of 55 percent, according to FightMetric, while Penn had connected with a mere 13 strikes at a 19 percent clip. Penn couldn’t get out of the way of Frankie’s punches and kicks, and couldn’t find his nemesis with his own.
“Frankie did a great job,” Penn said. “I shouldn't have came back.”
Penn hadn’t fought in nearly a year and a half, and on that night back in December 2012 he was brutalized by Rory MacDonald. Fourteen months before that, he’d been battered by Nick Diaz. Earlier in 2011 he took his lumps in a draw with Jon Fitch.
But all of those opponents were welterweights. On Sunday night, Penn fought for the first time as a featherweight. He did so because that’s the division in which Edgar now competes, and in order to get at him, Penn had to cut to 145 pounds. Now he knows to be careful what you wish for. “I shouldn't be in the ring tonight, to be with the top level like Frankie Edgar,” he said. “Much respect to him.”
The respect is mutual. Edgar called his stoppage victory “bittersweet.” Even though a main event TKO win might boost his profile in his weight class, where he stands at No. 2 in the SI.com rankings, Edgar was subdued in his celebration and said, “I almost feel bad about it.”
Here’s one thing Edgar (17-4-1) can feel good about: By beating Penn (16-10-2) so soundly, he put to rest any thoughts 35-year-old might otherwise have had to try to extend a fight career that’s skidded to a halt with but one victory in his last seven outings.
"Dana said it was over,” Penn said, referring to UFC president Dana White. “I gotta agree with him at this point.”