B.J. Penn took his seat next to UFC President Dana White at The Ultimate Fighter Finale post fight press conference with his RVCA hat’s brim low to shield the lumps and bruises on his face. Less than an hour earlier, the proud former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion had lost via 3rd round TKO to Frankie Edgar. It was the first time in Penn’s storied 13-year career that he had a referee step in to stop the fight.
But Penn knew that he had no business in the Octagon against Edgar. Aside from this being his third consecutive loss to Edgar, Penn had also gone 1-5-1 in his previous seven fights. It was a far cry from the fighter known as “The Prodigy” who never met a fight he didn’t like. However, on this night, Penn looked slow, lethargic and, more importantly, old. Edgar had already battered and bruised him for two and a half rounds as the blood from a nasty cut flowed into Baby Jay’s eyes. He could barely see the elbows and punches throttling his face. Mercifully, referee Herb Dean called a halt to the bout. Shortly afterwards, Penn announced his retirement. “I shouldn’t have come back here,” an emotional Penn said afterward. “I shouldn’t have been in the ring tonight with a top guy like Frankie. Dana (White) said it was over (if I lost), and I’ve got to agree with him at this point.”
As Penn sat and fielded questions from the media during the post-fight press conference, most of the reporters present refrained from asking Penn anything involving his future. Clearly, for a fighter whose life was fighting, having to see him busted up was hard to swallow. But there he was, being a company man and answering questions involving his retirement. And then a question came asking how he would like to be remembered. “My lasting legacy now is just going to be in highlight reels,” Penn answered. “Dana gave me an opportunity to work with the UFC (Hawaii) gym and do different things so I can continue to feed myself…”
And then he broke down. Obviously, the reality that this was the end of the road had sunken in. For a man that was so proud and had accomplished so much, the idea that it was truly over is rather difficult for him to wrap his head around. Over the past 13 years, Penn racked up a number of accolades. Aside from claiming both the lightweight and welterweight titles – the second multi-divisional champion in UFC history – Penn has been called the greatest lightweight fighter ever and the one that brought the division to prominence. His 11-second destruction of Caol Uno at UFC 34, the flying knee demolition of Sean Sherk and savage domination of Joe Stevenson will forever live in UFC infamy. Penn is a legend but at this current time he is a fighter on the wrong side of 30 whose body won’t respond like it used to.
B.J. Penn had never seen a fight he didn’t like. He’s fought as a heavyweight all the way down to featherweight. If you want some of BJ Penn, he’ll be more than happy to greet you in whatever weight class you desire. He’s a fighter’s fighter; an ultimate badass who would fight anyone at any given location at any time. It’s the reason why mixed martial arts fans have adored him over the years. But this is the end of the road and he knows it. Knowing it may be difficult, but acknowledging it is a different story in its entirety. Which is why his admission is hard to digest. “This is the end,” Penn perhaps reluctantly revealed. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘why did you step back into that octagon after the beating that Rory MacDonald gave you?’ The reason is because I really needed to find out. If I didn’t make this night happen for myself, I would have always wondered and went back and forth and begged Dana to let me get back in. I guess I just needed some closure.”
Penn will end his mixed martial arts career with a 16-10-2 record. Although it looks mediocre, it only takes a naked eye to understand just how remarkably good the project from Hilo, Hawaii was inside of the fenced walls of the Octagon. His flexibility made him a nightmare to deal with on the ground. It only took him two years to earn his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and he had claimed the World Jiu-Jitsu championship a few weeks later. If you opted to stand with Penn, his boxing was among the best the world of mixed martial arts had ever seen. Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach has famously described Penn as the best boxer in mixed martial arts. “He’s one of two people who’s won two titles in two different weight classes,” Dana White said in praise of Penn. “He built the 155-pound division. He’s a legend. He helped build the UFC, and the list goes on and on of what B.J. Penn has done.
“What more do you want, B.J.? There’s nothing left to prove. Fighting is a young man’s sport.” At 35 years of age, B.J. Penn is aware that retirement is the only answer. To continue fighting would be to risk injury and nothing more. Even though the fighter in him truly believes that he can take down any opponent, the reality is that he will never be what he once was. Chasing history is a pointless game that leaves those in pursuit broken.
What Penn will do with his life moving forward, nobody knows. There will certainly be a void that he’ll want to fill. But the UFC will likely give him a plush position to take his mind off of fighting. With a family and probably enough money to hold him over a few times, Penn doesn’t need to subject himself to the rigors of fighting. He’ll eventually find solace in the fact that he has inspired a generation of fighters, including the one who soundly dominated him. “When I first got into this sport, B.J. was the guy,” Edgar said afterwards as he is in pursuit of becoming a two-division champion himself. “He did a lot for the lightweights. I think we all owe B.J. a lot.”
Yes, Penn is owed a lot. How his career ended will not be remembered as much as how it began. He may miss the cheers from the crowd but he’ll soon realize that those will never fade away. He’s earned every ounce of love from MMA fans across the globe who will never forget what he has done for the sport of mixed martial arts.