UFC 123 Showcases Why Penn is Both Brilliant and Baffling
After his 21 second demolition of Matt Hughes at UFC 123, there is a great deal of praise being offered in the direction of B.J. Penn, and rightfully so. The former multi-divisional champion just put forth his most dominant performance in some time, stopping one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport in less time than it took for Bruce Buffer to introduce him. It was a resounding win and one that illustrates how talented Penn is and how dangerous he can be when his mind and body are in sync in the cage.
It was also the kind of performance that makes you exceptionally frustrated with the mercurial Hawaiian as well. Seeing him walk into the cage focused and ready en route to earning the upper hand in his three-fight series with Hughes also reminds you of the numerous instances where Penn failed to put his all into preparing for his bouts, making you wonder what could have been.
This performance was everything brilliant and baffling about B.J. Penn all rolled into one.
Before Penn steps into the cage for any of his fights, the narrative revolves around the question of what Penn is going to show up? For every instance where this dominant version of the former lightweight and welterweight champion appears, there have been bouts that featured an out of shape and unprepared Penn as well. It makes trying to predict the future a pointless endeavor, as there is no real way to say for certain which incarnation of “The Prodigy” is going to step into the cage.
It is the constant uncertainty that made this most recent display all the more impressive. With Penn coming off a pair of marginal performances against Frankie Edgar earlier in the year, and offering up video blogs seemingly introducing pre-fight excuses about being seriously outsized well in advance of Saturday’s fight, it was hard to anticipate where Penn would be mentally and physically. Predicting a 21-second knockout was next to impossible.
Granted, Penn has shown flashes of this type of dominance at different stages of his career. The fighter who finished Hughes in quick fashion in Auburn Hills bore a strong resemblance to the man who spent four-plus rounds abusing Diego Sanchez at UFC 107, and the warrior who licked the blood of a battered Joe Stevenson from his gloves after winning the lightweight title at UFC 80. This was the fighter who rose to stardom in the early days of the UFC, the kid who stepped up in the wake of the lightweight division being dissolved to capture the welterweight crown from Hughes in their first meeting.
In short, this was the truly incredible Penn we’ve known exists for a long time, returning to the Octagon to impress us all, but leaving everyone to wonder how long he’ll stick around.
Penn clearly prepared diligently for this bout, and the importance of a strong performance for his fellow Hawaiians in the wake of the loss of Andy Irons and injury of Colt Brennan served as additional motivation. The former lightweight champion did not want to lose a third-straight fight and drop this rubber match to the man he called his idol after the win and that was evident as soon as Penn began his trek to the cage. The question now becomes will B.J. be able to maintain that motivation as he prepares to headline the UFC’s return to Australia opposite perennial contender Jon Fitch?
His performance at UFC 123 shows just how impressive Penn can be when he is fully prepared for a fight. Truthfully, there may not be a more complete and dangerous fighter in the UFC when he’s clicking on all cylinders; he blends technical mastery with tremendous natural gifts and combines them with a killer instinct that drives him to finish opponents the moment he smells blood. When it is all working in concert with a focused and fit Penn, there are few who can match his abilities inside the cage.
Unfortunately, there is no telling whether or not that fighter is going to turn up from fight-to-fight.
You would have thought that the Penn who turned up in Auburn Hills would have surfaced five fights earlier in his rematch with arch rival Georges St-Pierre, but that wasn’t the case. Despite telling anyone who would listen how motivated and hungry he was to settle the score with the welterweight champion, Penn came into the bout in less than ideal condition and was dominated for four rounds before his corner called an end to the contest.
That poor showing gave many a reason to believe that Kenny Florian could unseat Penn from the lightweight throne eight months later when they met at UFC 101. That didn’t happen either, as Penn came into the bout in solid shape and ended the fight with a rear naked choke in the fourth round. The victory had an element of “okay, I’ll end this now” to it, as Penn allowed Florian to tire himself out in the opening rounds, scoring points as he saw fit before bringing the fight to the canvas and a close in the first championship frame.
Even a well-prepared Penn could encounter trouble with Fitch in Australia. Though some fans and analysts like to pile on the criticism when it comes to the American Kickboxing Academy product, Fitch is unquestionably one of the top welterweights in the sport today and a serious test for the seemingly re-energized former lightweight champ.
Between now and February, there will be countless reports and write-ups about what might transpire in Sydney. The truth is, like every fight in Penn’s past, we won’t know what to expect until the bout begins.
We could see brilliance once again or witness the return of an under-prepared prodigy trying to coast by on his natural talents.
That uncertainty is what makes Penn the most intriguing fighter in the sport today, and one who can amaze and annoy you at the very same time.