Even the most ardent BJ Penn detractors out there (and there are plenty) can admit that the man known as “The Prodigy” is the best lightweight on the planet and one of the pound-for-pound greats in the sport.
But where does he rank in the list of all-time greats?
As much as it pains me to say this, B.J. Penn might be the best ever.
Before my fellow Canadians begin cursing me en francais and demanding I be deported, and MMA fans the world over start shouting about their favorite fighter and some of the legends of days gone by, hear me out.
And remember, I said might be…
We’ll begin in his natural weight class – lightweight – where Penn hasn’t lost a fight since UFC 35: Throwdown. That night, Penn suffered the first defeat of his career in just his fourth fight, dropping a majority decision to then UFC Bantamweight champion Jens Pulver.
That was January 11, 2002.
Since then, “The Prodigy” has rattled off seven-straight wins at 155 pounds over divisional stars Takanori Gomi, Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian, in addition to avenging his lone lightweight loss to Pulver in June 2006.
Dominating a weight class is nothing new in this sport; Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have laid waste to their respective weight classes as well, and Fedor Emelianenko cleaned out the heavyweight ranks in Pride during his heyday too.
Where Penn potentially trumps that impressive trio are his performances outside of his natural weight class.
After Penn fought to a draw with Caol Uno in the finals of the UFC Lightweight tournament, the belt was up in the air and the division went on hiatus shortly thereafter, leaving the first non-Brazilian winner of the Mundials without a weight class to call home.
Left with literally no one to fight at lightweight, all Penn did next was take out the aforementioned future Pride champion Gomi at a Rumble on the Rock show in his native Hawaii before stepping up to welterweight and forcing one of the most dominant champions in UFC history to submit inside of the first round.
At the time of their meeting at UFC 46, Matt Hughes was riding a 13-fight winning streak and had successfully defended the welterweight belt on five occasions, decimating the ranks of available contenders.
Penn entered the cage a substantial underdog, but took the fight to Hughes from the outset before securing his back and forcing the champion to tap at 4:39 of the first round.
The most dominant lightweight in the history of the UFC and perhaps the sport actually wore welterweight gold first.
In an unexpected move, Penn followed up his victory over Hughes by signing with Japanese outfit FEG’s K-1 promotion, causing the UFC to strip “The Prodigy” of the welterweight belt and file a breach of contract lawsuit against the Hawaiian.
Despite the courtroom drama, Penn spent the next two years competing across various weight classes where he defeated tough veteran Duane “Bang” Ludwig at welterweight, and both Rodrigo Gracie and his more well-known cousin Renzo at middleweight during that time.
In between beating the Gracie cousins, Penn fought a catchweight bout against Lyoto Machida, with Penn tipping the scales at a reported 190 pounds, while Machida competed at 220 pounds and claimed a unanimous decision.
Penn famously returned to the UFC in March 2006, losing a razor-thin split decision to Georges St-Pierre before dropping a rematch with Hughes six months later.
The rest of his resume is fairly well-known; numerous lightweight destructions and a four round demolition at the hands of St-Pierre not even 12 months ago (though it feels like forever) leaves B.J. Penn entering his fight with Diego Sanchez with a 14-5-1 professional record.
While the sheer volume of wins pales in comparison to the 31 wins put forth by Fedor and there has been no extended winning streak like the ones current put forth by both St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, four of Penn’s five losses come outside of his natural weight class.
Without those ticks in the loss column, BJ Penn is 14-1-1 and few could argue with the impressiveness of those kinds of numbers.
Admittedly, dropping all his fights outside of the 155-pound division would also strip him of one of the biggest wins of his career, but truthfully, those loses speak to the talent of the man and should not be viewed negatively.
In each of those bouts, BJ Penn stepped up to face a formidable opponent, twice fighting divisional champions and once the future ruler of the 205-pound class. At some point, just about everyone loses and there is no shame in losing to the bigger, stronger man.
Though he probably could have continued fighting at 155 pounds around the world, adding wins to his resume, competing is about more than piling up stats for BJ Penn. It’s about testing himself against the greatest challenge available.
While the results haven’t always been favourable, few fighters have even shown the willingness to risk a loss for the sake of a challenge and that is part of what makes BJ Penn so special.
Whether that makes him the best ever is for you to decide.