B.J. Penn: Learning To Appreciate An Original

The Prodigy

It’s time to stop arguing and appreciate a true legend at work

Every time B.J. Penn prepares to enter the Octagon, the same string of stories and commentaries surface, describing the former multi-divisional champion as “an enigma” or “polarizing,” discussing whether not “the real B.J. Penn” will show up.

I should know, having followed those paths half-a-dozen times myself here at HeavyMMA.com.

While all of those angles are valid and a result of a career spent alternating between amazing and underwhelming, there comes a time when you have to step back from wondering what could have been or what might come next, and simply enjoy Penn for what he is, a truly one-of-a-kind fighter.

This new way of looking at Penn is a shift in perspective for me, having spent a long time being frustrated by the duality that is “The Prodigy,” a fighter who can go from unbeatable to uninterested from one fight to the next. That possibility still exists; he could just as easily follow up his 21-second knockout win over Matt Hughes with a sub-standard showing against Jon Fitch on Saturday.

By wondering what will happen and what it all means in the grand scheme of things, a scheme that isn’t actually all that grand considering how relatively young a sport this is, we’re missing the forest for the trees.

Penn is an original, a throwback to guys who fought to prove something to themselves above all else. While we’re all busy trying to break down how Penn’s loses outside of the lightweight division contribute to his legacy, the kid from Hilo is preparing to challenge himself once again, stepping in with the second-best welterweight in the world.

Fitch’s superior size and wrestling present a huge problem for Penn in this bout, the same way those two elements were the biggest contributor to his poor showing in his UFC 94 grudge match against Georges St. Pierre. Even though Penn could probably have found himself a less dangerous fight or looked for a little more downtime to add muscle to his too-small-for-welterweight frame, that isn’t Penn’s way, and that is what makes him so special.

It’s fitting that he and St. Pierre have become arch enemies over the years because they are polar opposites in their approach to this sport.

Where St. Pierre is all about structure, technique, regiment and meticulous training for every aspect of a bout. His anticipated move up to middleweight to face Anderson Silva will come only once the welterweight champion has taken the time to adjust his diet and tweak his workout program so that he’s able to put add mass, something St. Pierre believes is imperative before stepping up the ladder.

Then there is Penn, a fighter who has spent as many training camps going half-speed in Hawaii as he has going balls to the wall in preparation for the fight ahead. Whereas St. Pierre wants to make sure he’s comfortable and confident with his size before making the move to middleweight, Penn will under the 170-pound limit when he steps on the scales in Australia and wouldn’t have it any other way.

For the 32-year-old talent, it’s not about doing everything by the book and taking every step to protect your legacy and image; it’s about testing yourself each and every time you step into the cage, win or lose.

That’s why he left the UFC welterweight title behind after upsetting Matt Hughes. After you beat the most dominant champion the division had seen to that point, where’s the challenge in sticking around to fight the guys who couldn’t beat Hughes?

Yes, he underestimated Frankie Edgar the first time around and came out flat in their rematch, neither of which fit with the idea of testing yourself each time out, which is where Penn contradicts himself and loses people, though in reality, who can’t understand being overconfident at one moment and sleep-walking your way through another?

Perhaps more than any fighter, Penn is human and shows it in his highs and in his lows.

Could B.J. Penn have been one of the all-time greats had he dedicated himself more at different times, and remained at his natural weight?

Absolutely, but he’s even better because of his willingness to step outside the box and challenge himself.

It took me a while to see it, but now that I do, it makes me regret all the time I spent arguing about Penn’s legacy and what could have been.

That time would have been so better used watching a true original at work.

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