Going somewhat lost amidst the noise made by Nick Diaz following their UFC 137 fight and the UFC’s big debut on Fox was the possible retirement of one of mixed martial arts’ great talents, BJ “The Prodigy” Penn. Sure, Penn declared his retirement at an intensely emotional moment and has since left the door open to a return, but he by no means assured that fans will ever see him enter the Octagon again.
Penn has been a polarizing figure throughout his career, praised for his otherworldly talent and criticized for what has been perceived as a lack of work ethic; devotedly followed by a fiercely loyal fanbase and written off by others as overrated. Though opinions on The Prodigy vary wildly, what cannot be denied is his status as one of the pound-for-pound best fighters to have ever competed in the sport.
Penn, like Randy Couture, doesn’t sport the most impressive record on paper, but few other competitors can claim the kind of cross-divisional success at a championship level like those two men can. Couture and Penn are the only athletes ever to hold championships in more than one weight class in the UFC, but Penn takes it further than that.
The 32-year-old Hawaiian is a natural lightweight and could probably compete at featherweight, but has fought as high as heavyweight in his career. He didn’t fight just anyone either; in 2005, after vacating the welterweight title he took from Matt Hughes, Penn met future UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida in a K-1 Hero’s bout where Machida weighed in at 225lbs. and Penn at 191. The result was a closely contested decision loss for Penn; by comparison, Machida has finished the likes of Stephan Bonnar, Rich Franklin, Thiago Silva, Rashad Evans and Randy Couture. He will now challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title.
The bout with Machida was sandwiched between two middleweight contests against then-undefeated Rodrigo Gracie and Renzo Gracie, respectively. Penn defeated both men by unanimous decision. From there, he would battle St-Pierre to a close split-decision loss, handing the champion one of the worst beatings of his career before heading down to lightweight, where he captured the UFC title.
Though you could probably legitimately call in to question some of Penn’s career moves and lament his inconsistency amidst casually brilliant performances, The Prodigy is best thought of as a fiery battler who was willing to forego championship glory to test his abilities against the best fighters in the world, regardless of weight class. Though he may not have allowed himself to always be as good as he was in the first Hughes fight or the majority of his run as UFC lightweight champion, the fact is that Penn was (and still could be) that good, often, against the best in the world. He embodies the kind of bold, fighting spirit that is rarely seen and possesses one of the most unique, effective styles of any competitor, ever; for both, he deserves commendation.