The term “legend” is one bandied about too much in the world of sports. While every generation has its own great athletes, there are but a few that truly act as trailblazers for their sport. For MMA, one such man is BJ Penn. He is what all fighters aspire to be. He is tough, fearless and ambitious. And as he enters the twilight of his career, his once much-loved attributes have begun to hinder him. With this in mind, The Prodigy should retire after his fight with Yair Rodríguez at UFC Fight Night 103.
It has been over six years since BJ Penn last tasted victory in the Octagon. On that November night in Michigan, he entered the cage in electrifying form and destroyed his longtime foe Matt Hughes in under a minute. Penn had hoped victory at UFC 123 would act as a turning point in his career. After losing his title at lightweight, he saw a return to welterweight as the chance to relive a dream. Little did he know, the move to 170 would be the beginning of a nightmare.
BJ Penn’s career highlights all come from his ability to dream big. He built his legacy around achieving the impossible. After just three years of training, he earned a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt and then won the Mundials. After being defeated by Jens Pulver for the UFC title, The Prodigy did the unthinkable and moved up to welterweight and beat Matt Hughes—the then pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet—for his welterweight title. But Penn, unhappy with his UFC contract, would end up leaving the organization and competing in Japan. Perhaps the first example of the detrimental power of his toughness came when he fought the much-larger Lyoto Machida. He showed his fearless nature against Machida, but was soundly beaten by the bigger fighter. This is something that would be a recurring theme later in his career.
Following his stint outside the UFC, Penn returned and dropped two straight welterweight fights. Eventually, he would return to his natural home in the lightweight division, showing just how technically proficient he could be. A dominant performance against Jens Pulver earned Penn a shot at the lightweight title. And when he entered the Octagon at UFC 80, he looked like a man possessed. In a performance that showcased the culmination of a career of hard work, he obliterated Joe Stevenson. And in doing so, became only the second man to win UFC titles in different divisions.
Penn scored three more wins in the lightweight division before he met the man who would act as the thorn in his side for the rest of his career. One common criticism of BJ Penn has been his laziness. Many remark that as he got older, he simply stopped trying as hard. In Frankie Edgar, Penn was matched against the hardest-working fighter in the world. Edgar, while smaller than Penn, would outwork the Hawaiian en route to two back-to-back wins. With hiss pride dashed, Penn decided to move up in weight. That’s where his career began to fall apart.
Penn’s lone success against Hughes inflated his fearless nature. Despite a draw against Jon Fitch, he elected to stay at welterweight. When Nick Diaz outclassed him at UFC 137, it was obvious to everyone watching that he needed to return to his natural weight or retire. Penn decided not to give up on his dream of regaining his welterweight title and next stepped up against burgeoning talent Rory MacDonald. As a fan, it was painful to watch this fight. From the opening bell, MacDonald picked Penn apart. And after the fight, the Hawaiian would declare his retirement.
The problem, however, is that his stubbornness is his greatest gift and biggest curse. Penn returned from retirement and fought Frankie Edgar once again, but this time, was dominated in embarrassing fashion. He decided to retire again after this fight. But much to the disappointment of his fans, it would only be temporary.
This weekend, Penn returns after two-and-a-half years out to face his division’s greatest prospect. For the UFC, Penn’s name can expose fans to Yair Rodríguez. A win for him will likely propel him to stardom, but what about BJ Penn?
If Penn wins, there is nothing left for him to achieve. While the Hawaiian has talked about making a run at the featherweight title, it seems unfathomable that he would fight José Aldo, who has long been a close friend. A win would give him the opportunity to go out on his own terms, which he should really take. If the fight goes as many expect it to and Rodríguez dominates, I hope the UFC stops Penn from ever fighting again.
At 38 years of age, his time has simply passed. Rather than tarnishing his legacy further, it is time for The Prodigy to help usher in the next generation of fighters. And, hang up his gloves while he still can.