This past weekend MMA fans got a glimpse of greatness in the Octagon as Nick Diaz and B.J. Penn pummeled each other for fifteen minutes in one of the most entertaining in-ring affairs of the past few years. However, as tremendous as the action may have been, the bout was in the end a bit bittersweet based on Penn’s emotional decision to retire from the sport in order to spend time with his growing family, feeling the loss had proven he was no longer able to compete on an elite level.
The problem is I’m not sure he ever was in the first place, and, after I’m done ducking and dodging the rotting produce you’re undoubtedly throwing my way for the insinuation Penn is not necessarily the fighter he’s perceived to be, I’ll be glad to explain why.
Before anything let’s be clear – Penn is talented without question and has been involved in some memorable match-ups. His heart, chin, and spirit are somewhere between commendable and inspirational. He’s sold countless tickets and made thousands of people fall in love with MMA. He is a first ballot UFC Hall of Famer. He’s a fighter I would personally feel fanboyish around if ever in his presence based on what he represents.
He’s just shouldn’t be in the discussion for one of the greatest Mixed Martial Artists of all time. To put it bluntly, Penn is overrated based on his personality and style of fighting, judged more on his mystique than his performances inside the cage. He’s exciting to watch, but then again so are lots of competitors who don’t measure up to the standard set forth by the true cream of the crop.
Penn is still living off his reputation from the first few years of his career and, as long as we’re being honest here, it should be easy to admit MMA was not as strong an entity then as it is now and competitors were less educated as a result. Once information became readily available to true athletes across the world that dynamic changed and so did Penn’s success in the Octagon.
As a welterweight in the UFC Penn is 2-4-1; as a lightweight much better yet it’s a division he abandoned based on consecutive losses to a much smaller Frankie Edgar. His 5-2 mark as a 155er between 2007-2010 is on the level with guys like Clay Guida, Kenny Florian, and Gray Maynard, not some sort of jaw-dropping statistic like Georges St. Pierre being 9-0, Anderson Silva being 12-0, or Jon Jones entire fifteen-fight career taking place over that same span. Oh, and if you’re keeping score at home, he’s 6-6-1 in the last five years. Still tossing tomatoes in my direction?
Were Penn a washed up, over-the-hill fighter it might be a different story but he’s only 32 (theoretically a Mixed Martial Artist’s prime), has less professional fights than four of his last five opponents, and has never been knocked out. This is not Chuck Liddell we’re talking about who was forced into retirement at 40 for health-related reasons, nor is it a story about a legendary warrior walking away on top.
As much fun as Penn was to watch in the cage, when it comes down to it he’s simply not as good as your heart initially tells you he is. True transcendence in MMA involves 100% dedication to the craft, a constant desire to surround oneself with the best training partners possible, and a certain level of natural ability separating the good from the great. While the beloved Hawaiian had more admirable qualities than can be listed, three of them missing from this list were those mentioned in the previous sentence, and, as such, the deservedly popular Penn is not and will now almost certainly never be a truly elite fighter.
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