Friday, March 16, 2007

Wasted Talent & Potential: BJ Penn

By Lazarus K. Grant

"GSP dreams of B.J. Penn on a treadmill and wakes up screaming."

Even as a huge GSP fan, I find that funny, and it does hold some truth. It's also one of the main reasons why B.J. has never quite reached the heights he could have.

Penn began training BJJ in 1997, under Ralph Gracie. He made a meteoric rise through the BJJ world, gaining his Black belt in only 3 years, and winning the gold medal in the black belt division of the Mundial World Championships, becoming the first non-Brazilian to do so.

B.J.’s first professional MMA bout was at UFC 31, against Joey Gilbert. B.J. stopped Gilbert in the first round via TKO. B.J.’s next fight would come a month later, at UFC 32, against Din Thomas. It appeared that Thomas would be more of a test than Gilbert. Thomas entered the Octagon with a 10-1 record and had been fighting steadily for around three years.

Penn scored another TKO victory in the first round, this time winning in under three minutes.

Next, Penn was set to face Caol Uno. This fight was a fast one, with Penn taking out Uno in only eleven seconds. The BJJ master had picked up his third win, all of which came via strikes. Baby Jay was an all-round threat.

After this, Penn would face Jens Pulver for the UFC Lightweight Championship. Penn was able to gain the upper hand in the early rounds of the fight, nearly submitting Jens. Pulver would fight back however, giving Penn trouble by laying and praying in a close fight. After five rounds, Jens got the nod over B.J., winning by majority decision. Some fans feel that this decision is a questionable one, but regardless, B.J. lost in his first fight with a championship at stake.

After this fight, Jens would relinquish his belt, and the race was on for the UFC lightweights. B.J. would defeat Paul Creighton at UFC 37, via strikes in the second round. At UFC 39, he faced Matt “The Terra” Serra. B.J. scored a unanimous decision.

At UFC 41, B.J. rematched Caol Uno, who he previously had KO’d in only eleven seconds. This time the UFC Lightweight Championship was on the line. This fight went differently than the first encounter had, and B.J. and Uno fought for five close rounds, reflected in the result, a draw.

B.J.’s next fight would come later that year in October, at Rumble on the Rock, where he would face Takanori Gomi in a fight that is a personal favourite of mine. B.J. was dominant in this fight, controlling the fight, taking Gomi’s back numerous times, and scoring numerous takedowns. He was also able to hold his own standing, even out striking Gomi on many occasions, and was also able to mount a lot of offence from the bottom, in what I believe to be one of his best performances to date.

In round three, Penn would take Gomi’s back again and would sink in a Rear Naked Choke, finishing the fight.

In January of 2004, Penn moved up in weight to fight at Welterweight against then-champion Matt Hughes. Hughes was the overwhelming favorite going into the fight.

B.J. would get Hughes to the ground early and would maintain control. He got Hughes’ back and was able to submit Hughes with a Rear Naked Choke only four minutes into the fight. B.J. was the new UFC Welterweight champion.

After this victory, Penn signed with K-1. The UFC stripped Penn of his title when this happened. Penn filed a suit against the UFC, but nothing came of it.

Penn’s first fight in K-1 came against Duane “Bang” Ludwig. Penn would take the striker down early and keep the fight there, submitting Ludwig in under two minutes of the fight.

Penn would return to Rumble on the Rock after this fight and move up in weight once again, fighting 185lber Rodrigo Gracie, who was undefeated at the time and had defeated Hayato “Mach” Sakurai in his last fight. Penn handed Rodrigo his first loss, winning via unanimous decision.

Next up for Penn would be Ryoto Machida. Machida, a 205lber, heavily outweighed Penn in this fight. Despite the large weight difference, Penn performed well, but not well enough to win, and Machida picked up a unanimous decision.

In his third fight in K-1, Penn would take on another Gracie, this time Renzo. Like before, B.J. won a unanimous decision victory. This would be Penn’s last fight before his return to the UFC. Unlike some of his previous efforts, this fight was uninspired. BJ is a much better fighter than Renzo, and he shouldn’t have settled for the boring decision he won.

Penn would make his return to the UFC at 58 fighting Georges St. Pierre for the number one contendership for the Welterweight title. The fight was a great one in which Georges St. Pierre spoiled B.J.’s return, winning a split decision . This is a heavily debated fight, and I am not going to fuel that debate here. Suffice it to say that despite winning, GSP did not prove he was the better fighter..

As previously mentioned, the fight between Penn and St. Pierre was for the number one contendership for the Welterweight title. GSP was set to fight for the title at UFC 63 but was injured while acting as a trainer on the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter 4. B.J. stepped in and once again fought Matt Hughes for the Welterweight championship.

During the first two rounds, Penn would best Hughes, stuffing takedowns and out performing Hughes both standing and on the ground. In the third round, things changed. Hughes trapped both of Penn’s arms and pounded him until the ref was forced to stop the bout. It was later revealed that Penn had separated a rib during the fight. This is Penn’s last bout to date.

So why do I feel he has never lived up to his potential? Unfortunately, like many others, the major reason seems to be his work ethic and cardio (in these later years of his career). In his fight with GSP, it could well have cost him the fight. For his fight with Hughes, Tito Ortiz offered to help him with his cardio, but he did not accept that offer. Personally, I can’t think of many people that could help improve someone’s cardio like Ortiz could. Obviously fighting at a higher weight has not helped.

Another reason I think is choice. And by that I mean his choice to leave the UFC. For whatever reason he left, he did leave, leaving behind his title and then fighting at numerous different weights against varied competition. If he had stayed in the UFC, as champion, at a consistent weight, things could have been very different.

So what do I see for him in the future? Penn is still young and is extremely talented, and if he wants to, he can go right to the top. Other than maybe Hughes II, no one has ever really proved they were a better fighter than BJ. Pulver got the victory and GSP won that disputed decision, but BJ can look himself in the mirror and say “I’m the best in the world.”

Looking at his possible upcoming fights, he will be facing Jens Pulver in a rematch after TUF 5 (in which both men are coaching eight Lightweights each). I think he will win this bout, which is rumored to be a number one contenders match for the Lightweight championship.

A possible bout with Sherk (or Franca) could be after this, and that would be a great match up. Two possible fights are against Hughes and St. Pierre, both of which would also be great fights.

In closing, I offer my obligatory well wishes for the future, and I shall say that I look forward to seeing Penn fight again. He is a very exciting fighter, not to mention one of the most talented as well. I think he will go far with his career from this point, and who knows, maybe this Hilo boy will once again wear UFC gold before he is done.


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