The recently retired BJ Penn is without a doubt a future UFC hall of famer and one of the most infamous fighters of all time, but just how good was The Prodigy?
BJ Penn started his MMA career at UFC 31 and with the exception of five fights in the K-1 organisation; he had every other of his 28 fight career inside the octagon, and he sure left his mark on the UFC forever. So many people have said that BJ is the best lightweight of all time and one of the true legends of the sport, but here we are going to look at some aspects of The Prodigy, and just how far they have gone to make him such a legend that will be truly missed.
One of the most effective weapons in the BJ Penn arsenal is his incredibly technical boxing skill. Everyone was scared of Penn’s grappling ability (more on that coming later) but one aspect that many people forgot about was BJ’s ability to pick his opponents apart with hands Freddie Roach would be proud of.
BJ used his boxing to knock down Joe Stevenson with the first punch of their outing, and also knocked out Mark Hughes at UFC 123 in just 21 seconds, but the most devastating example of BJ Penn’s hands have to be his UFC 84 battle against Sean Sherk.
In 2008 the former lightweight champion Sean Sherk attempted to regain the title he was stripped of against Penn. Bad blood surrounded the match up with BJ calling out Sherk after he submitted Joe Stevenson proclaiming ‘Sherk you’re dead’ in the post-fight interview. Although the trash talk was very competitive, the fight was a much more one sided affair with Penn jabbing Sherk to a bloody pulp throughout three rounds before landing a huge uppercut and then flying knee with follow up punches until the final bell of round three. It seemed as though Sherk had been saved by the bell but quickly after the round finished the referee stopped the fight between rounds declaring Penn the winner by tko in one of the most technically brilliant finishes in lightweight history.
Let’s run off a few of BJ Penn’s jiu-jitsu credits. He is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt, which he obtained after only training for three years; he has trained under BJJ legends Ralph Gracie and Andre Pederneiras, he has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships, and is the first non-Brazilian to win the blackbelt world championships in Jiu-Jitsu and that was at only 22 years old.
With a record like that it’s easy to see why lightweights worldwide were simply terrified of Penn’s jiu-jitsu skills for years. Penn transferred his BJJ skills to MMA perfectly using his incredibly heavy top game and flexible legs to wrap up his opponents and finish them. BJ became notorious for wrapping up one of his opponents arms with his legs when attempting rear naked chokes which he used to finish the likes of Takanori Gomi, Joe Stevenson, Jens Pulver and Kenny Florian.
BJ’s most impressive jiu-jitsu display was in his welterweight title win against Matt Hughes. In this battle BJ expertly passed Hughes’ guard took his back with ease and locked in a fight ending rear naked choke while Hughes tried to peel off BJ’s hooks. This performance was totally unexpected from the former lightweight as many thought Hughes power and wrestling would be too much for the young Hawaiian, but BJ did what he has done many times before and since, and that’s prove skill overcomes.
Probably the one aspect of BJ Penn that made him such a fan favourite was his gameness to compete. Leading up to his last fight Penn was quoted saying ‘birds fly, fish swim, I fight’. This summed up the career of Penn perfectly and his willingness to fight any man at any weight, anytime. This was shown throughout his career fighting at middleweight, welterweight, lightweight and featherweight, and also once fighting a 230lb Lyoto Machida in k-1.
It was acts like these that made the fans fall in love with BJ as a fighter, and whether he won or lost Penn always left everything in the cage. BJ was never afraid to strike with the likes of Machida and Nick Diaz, grapple with Matt Hughes and GSP and go five rounds with Diego Sanchez, Caol Uno and Jens Pulver.
If there’s anything MMA fans appreciate is a fighter who is there for one thing and that’s to scrap and The Prodigy personified this on every level.
Along with his gameness, one thing that stood out about BJ Penn was just how easy it was for him to sell tickets. For years BJ was the biggest stare in the UFC, and despite being a lower weight class fighter, he could outsell even the biggest heavyweight fights.
BJ was loved by fans for his honesty and gritty determination in fights. Every time BJ fought you knew he was in the fight until the final bell which made his fights always a contender for fight of the night honours.
One thing that made BJ so marketable was he was such a raw fighter. BJ wasn’t there to dance about or taunt his opponent, he was there to finish his foe as quickly as possible and this approach to fighting struck a chord with fans around the world. This was only personified with his pre-fight celebration of licking the blood of his opponents off his gloves, most notably going to the fallen Sean Sherk and wiping Sherk’s blood onto his hand to lick off.
Penn was also no stranger to getting in his opponents face, most famously in the weigh in for his fight with Nick Diaz, Diaz pressed his forehead against Penn’s only to have BJ push right back against Diaz forcing UFC President Dana White to jump in before an all-out riot erupted.
No UFC career is truly complete without a world title around a fighters waist, and BJ did this better than anyone. For most people becoming a BJJ world champ by his early 20’s would be enough, but for Penn this was just the start. Penn went on to win both the welterweight and lightweight world titles in the UFC becoming only the second man to hold titles in two different weight classes, a feat that hasn’t been equalled since Penn accomplished it in 2008.
Again, many fighters would be happy with this feat, but Penn wanted to go one further and defended his lightweight title multiple times in devastating ways. He submitted Kenny Florian, KO’d Sherk with a flying knee and finished Diego Sanchez with a fifth round head kick after dominating the entire fight. If this again wasn’t enough Penn that dropped down another weight class for his final fight, battling number two ranked Frankie Edgar.
BJ also competed as a judge twice on the Ultimate Fighter show, wanting to secure a future for the sport of MMA even after he had finished fighting.
Throughout his career one quote from BJ Penn resonated for everyone who ever watched his fights and that was “all I want to be known as is the best ever, is that too much to ask?” although in a lot of peoples minds Anderson Silva is still the best fighter ever, BJ Penn fought every fight to his full potential in order to try and solidify himself that spot as king of the mountain, and whether or not you agree that he is the best lightweight ever, you cannot deny The Prodigy BJ Penn has a UFC hall of fame spot, and a place in MMA history books forever. And he did it through blood, sweat and tears.