There needs to be a villain, and B.J. Penn is playing the role.
“The Prodigy” has all the requisite skills of a master mixed martial artist. We know about his BJJ black belt, his crisp standup, his seemingly impenetrable skin, and his recent moment of enlightenment that spawned a career-changing dedication to training.
Now, thanks to the terrific “UFC Primetime” TV series that follows Penn and Georges St. Pierre en route to their Jan. 31 mega clash at 170 pounds, we’re let in on another emphatic facet of Penn.
That is, an astounding knack for supplementing hype with his mouth.
As if we needed more encouragement to watch this epic rematch pitting two champions from different weight classes, Penn provides extra juice with inflammatory comments that probably seem too good (or bad) to be true for Zuffa’s marketing department.
Hurl a few insults. Toss in a few references to dying in the cage. Build up the suspense. Go fight.
It has become B.J.’s way.
Think back to the verbal bombs the Hawaiian repeatedly unloaded on Sean Sherk before Penn picked apart “The Muscle Shark” for a third-round TKO in his lightweight championship defense last year. Months prior to the bout, he announced, “Sean Sherk, you’re a dead man.” Then, Penn made it his job during pre-fight interviews to reference Sherk’s drug suspension (for performance enhancers) and question his heart. The trash talk was measured, no doubt, as Penn drummed up buzz like a skilled percussionist, then told Joe Rogan and all of us about it after his victory.
These days, Penn sits comfortably in front of the “Primetime” cameras and matter-of-factly unleashes statements that include words like “kill” and phrases about fighting “to the death” when he steps into the Octagon against welterweight boss St. Pierre at UFC 94.
It can’t be accidental that, during the first two episodes of the three-part series on Spike TV, St. Pierre has done most of the responding.
Penn’s not loud or obnoxious like junk-talkers of lore (think Muhammad Ali, of course), but his no-bones tone doesn’t even faintly sniff of false confidence.
Plus, it stirs resentment among fans – a feeling that ultimately fuels more interest in the bout and might (I said might) even penetrate the psyche of GSP.
Think Penn’s a punk? Doesn’t matter. To me, this is a time when reputation can trump etiquette. Sportsmanship is admirable, but athletes as talented as Penn reserve the right to say whatever they want. Michael Jordan was a legendary trash-talker on the court. Ray Lewis isn’t exactly a choir boy on the football field. And if Tiger Woods wanted to talk smack, who’s to tell him it would be out of line?
Granted, MJ and Lewis wouldn’t take it to the same extremes as Penn, but this is fighting. Penn’s not dribbling around a court, or shagging fly balls, or even playing the ultimate team game of football, which is plenty violent but totally reliant on men working together. If Penn feels like expressing himself by sounding off unprofessionally, so be it.
No one can say he doesn’t come off as impressively believable. He has a casual and convincing delivery despite his outrageous claims.
The same can’t quite be said, for example, of Andrei Arlovski. He’s the next man who will try to solve the puzzle of heavyweight kingpin Fedor Emelianenko on Saturday in Affliction’s sophomore presentation. When Arlovski turns to camera and says, “(Fedor) is human,” it’s not clear if he actually believes himself.
There is no question that Penn and GSP are each genuine in their self-belief. However, their expression of that self-belief is at opposite ends of the spectrum. Penn is brash; GSP humble.
It’s just one example of how, aside from their world-class ability, the two have little in common. And so far, “Primetime” has been the perfect vehicle to highlight a super fight (appropriately scheduled the day before the Super Bowl) that could not include two bigger stars, two more complete competitors or two more divergent counterparts.
What’s a fight without differences, after all?
The TV show paints those differences with a thin brush. Both men are likeable fan-favorites. But “Primetime” plays off the fact that, honestly, it’s darn-near impossible to dislike St. Pierre, while Penn at least has the “stigma” of a privileged background (poor guy).
The rough outline: “Rush,” a chiseled French-Canadian, is a champion sculpted from hard work after growing up in surroundings quite the opposite of an island oasis. “The Prodigy,” a lucky Hawaiian who hardly looks like a fighter, showed a natural aptitude for the sport and quickly rose to MMA fame.
With dramatic close-ups intercut with gym scenes, Penn is positioned as the antagonist. He then spouts off about St. Pierre, who won a three-round split decision when the pair met in 2006.
“He’s a quitter.”
“He’s a frontrunner.”
“I’m just gonna go over there to kick his ass.”
“You tap from strikes, you’re a little bitch.” (That one in reference to GSP’s stunning loss to Matt Serra.)
With those comments leading the way, “Primetime” presents a dichotomy that’s drizzled with Good Guy vs. Bad Guy overtones.
And Penn is probably eating it up – no matter how bothered he claimed to be after the first episode depicted him as a lazy, rich kid.
It’s great television. You want to pick a side, but both are undeniably strong. After a segment, I catch myself thinking, “How can St. Pierre lose?” Only then, after the next portion of the show, I change my mind to Penn.
This fight hasn’t even happened and it’s already considered one for all-time. It’ll have to be a doozy to live up to the stage that has been set partly by the loquacious Penn.
Just one question is left. Who ya got – the Good Guy or the Bad Guy?