To Be Determined: BJ Penn’s Legacy

Will BJ Penn be remembered as one of MMA’s all time greats?

Heading into his second meeting with Frankie Edgar, fans and critics anticipated a more focused, more aggressive B.J. Penn to step into the cage. They believed their first fight was perfect storm of Edgar fighting a strategic battle on a night that Penn looked off, and that the man widely considered the greatest lightweight of all-time would show the skills that earned him that distinction in the first place.

Nothing changed.

Penn looked very much like the fighter who stood across from Edgar in Abu Dhabi; glossed over and searching for answers, Penn was once again beaten to the punch, taken down and dominated en route to his second consecutive lose to the new ruler of the lightweight division.

After years of being recognized as one of the greatest fighters in the sport, Penn’s legacy as a fighter is being called into question. While it is impossible to question his gifts, the results on Penn’s resumes are now being put under the microscope, with the notion that was once universally accepted being examined in a new light.

Once unchallenged as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters the sport has ever seen, many are wondering if “The Prodigy” has become a case study in what could have been.

Penn has always earned somewhat of a free pass for his shortcomings. Where other fighters are chided for offering excuses and explanations of losses, Penn’s list of ailment, accusations, and reasons for losing have been accepted. If he says he was unfocused and will be better the next time he takes to the cage, people believed him, but that well has all but dried up now.

Now, following his second-straight defeat to Edgar, Penn’s training, team and overall achievements are coming under intense scrutiny, and understandably so.

While some fighters work every day to validate being heralded as one of  the sport’s best, Penn has been content to accept the praise and continuing doing business as usual in Hilo, surrounded by coaches and trainers who agreed with the assessments of their fighter while never asking him to back up the assessment in his training or fights.

Penn is undeniably one of the most naturally-talented men to step into the cage. He’s one of the best boxers in the sport, his Brazilian jiu jitsu is legitimately the stuff of legends, and his flexibility, balance and all-around skills are the envy of fighters who work twice as hard for twice as long. His nickname is truly fitting, but “The Prodigy” could have been even better.

“What if?” will be a question that follows B.J. Penn around from here on out.

What if he trained the way his arch enemy Georges St-Pierre trains? What if he surrounded himself with a team that pushed him, instead of showering him with praise and letting him coast on his natural skills? What if we in the media stop buying into and selling the hype sooner and starting asking the questions we’re asking today after his second loss to St-Pierre or even the first loss to Edgar?

After years of getting a pass because of his incredible natural gifts, Penn now has to answer some of those “what ifs?” moving forward. Where people were once quick to give “The Prodigy” the room to excuse his losses and believe a better performance would follow, those allowances no longer exist. His next fight, wherever it may come and regardless of who it is against, needs to be an impressive one or else the questions will only get louder.

Penn has always spoken about his legacy and his destiny to be one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen. Now, he has to show that he truly cares about his legacy; that he really wants to become the fighter he has always been purported to be.

He needs to make changes; changes to where he prepares for his fights, a change to the group that helps him prepare for those bouts, changes to the way he approaches everything about his career.

Excuses and promises of a better performance next time will no longer cut it. His standing in the sport has shifted and his legacy that was once etched in stone is now written in pencil, able to be erased and rewritten as dictated by his future performances.

It’s not that he was always overrated or has suddenly become any less a talent in the cage. Years of coasting by on his natural gifts have simply caught up to B.J. Penn and the people who always let him slide because of the promise of what could be have stopped issuing him a free pass.

The gifts are there and the opportunity to earn the legacy once handed to him still exists, only now, it all rests on Penn’s shoulders.

No one will pre-write his place in history anymore. If he wants to go down as one of the all-time greats, Penn is going to have to earn it.

Can an incredibly talented fighter who has never had to put in the hard work it takes to be great change his approach to become the fighter people always told him he was?

B.J. Penn will have to, or else instead of going down in history as one of the greatest fighters ever, he’ll be remembered as a great fighter who could have been so much more.

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