Veteran Penn may just be one of a kind, but that suits him just fine
As a wistful B.J. Penn surveys the current mixed martial arts landscape, he can only draw one conclusion.
"The sport has changed," Penn said in a recent telephone interview. "The sport has passed me by."
The MMA world in which the 33-year old Penn made his name boasted a freewheeling atmosphere. Few embodied the sport's spirit like the 2000 world jiu-jitsu champion from Hilo, Hawaii.
This is a fighter who stepped up from lightweight in 2004, challenged seemingly unbeatable welterweight champion Matt Hughes, and won. One who went the distance with future light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, despite giving up 50 pounds on fight night. When he returned to the UFC in 2006 after an absence, he proclaimed he wanted to fight then-heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. And he meant it.
This sort of thing just doesn't happen much in the sport anymore. Partially this is simply due to advancements in the caliber of participating athletes. Part of it is due to the more risk-averse nature of star fighters and their agents, who have more money on the line than fighters did a decade ago.
"I don't judge the fighters today," Penn said. "I look at it like this: If you watch the football stars from the 1960s, they aren't as big and strong and advanced as they are today. It's the same way with MMA. It doesn't mean the stars of old aren't as good or their accomplishments aren't as good. It just means that things were different."
Whatever the reason for the sport's changes, they leave Penn, one of just two fighters in UFC history to hold championships at different weight classes, as the last of the Mohicans. When he fights rising welterweight hotshot Rory MacDonald on the nationally televised main card of UFC on FOX 5 at Seattle's KeyArena on Saturday night, it could be his last time in the octagon.
"I'm not thinking about whether I'll retire or whether I'll come back, I'm just thinking about my legacy," said Penn. "This is a legacy fight. What I promise the fans is a classic B.J. Penn scrap."
The unofficial history of the UFC over the past dozen years goes something like this: The Fertitta brothers and Dana White bought a near-dead brand and nearly went bankrupt trying to rebuild it. Then the first season of the Ultimate Fighter and the fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar aired and everyone lived happily ever after.
This abridged version of events skips over a salient detail: A generation of fighters in the early days of the Zuffa LLC era played a key role in the brand's relaunch. Penn was one of several charismatic fighters, along with Hughes, Randy Couture (the other UFC competitor with multiple weight-class titles), Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz, who helped resuscitate the UFC and turn it into an underground phenomenon. Maybe the company didn't turn a profit during that time, but without fighters like Penn, the UFC likely wouldn't have built enough buzz to even get into position to put "TUF" on cable TV.
As the calendar winds toward 2013, only Penn and Vitor Belfort remain on the company's active roster from the early-Zuffa stars. The rest have been inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. White has stated he believes Penn belongs in the company's Hall.
"You know, years ago, I would have told you that something like that doesn't matter to me," said Penn. "I would have said none of that matters. I thought I was above all that. But now I'm starting to understand. Of course I want my legacy in the sport to be remembered. Of course I want to be appreciated. If I was named to the UFC Hall of Fame, that would be a tremendous honor."
Penn unquestionably has a unique legacy. It's odd to think that a fighter who went up in weight class and won the welterweight title, then dropped back to lightweight and dominated the division for two years, is at times thought to have fallen short of expectations. But Penn raised such a high bar for himself that he left himself open for such judgments.
Penn first flirted with retirement last year, when he lost a one-sided decision to Nick Diaz in the main event of UFC 137. That dropped Penn to 16-8-2, with just one win in his past five fights. Penn seemingly retired in the cage after the bout. But a few months of sitting home in Hilo changed his mind.
"Yeah, I was just kind of hanging out," he said. "I started to get the itch that I wanted to fight again. It's better than staying at home sitting on the couch and I realized I can't do this forever, so I might as well make the most of it while I can."
On the surface, it might not seem to make sense for someone in Penn's position to take on the challenge of a fighter like MacDonald. The 23-year old British Columbia native trains at Montreal's Tri-Star gym alongside Georges St-Pierre. MacDonald is 13-1 with 12 wins via finish. He has progressed so fast, there have been open whispers in the business about it being a matter of when, not if, MacDonald and St-Pierre will collide.
In other words, it's exactly the type of challenge that makes B.J. Penn who he is.
"I think he's a great opponent," said Penn. "He's an up-and-comer. He's one of the top guys. Everybody says he's going to be a champion soon. So ending up fighting someone like Rory, it wasn't a tough decision."
That's the sort of spirit that helped Penn and his cohorts make their names back in the day, the drive which lifted Penn to his greatest heights. With the sport progressing in its current direction -- where fighters seem to drop out of bouts if they stub their toes and stars are more likely to pick and choose their opponents -- will there ever be another B.J. Penn?
"You never know," said Penn, whose mood has noticeably brightened since the start of the phone call. "Maybe someday someone else will come along with the same set of skills and the same desire to prove himself against everyone. But maybe I'm one of a kind, and that's not a bad thing, either."