Whatever the result at UFC 118, for BJ Penn the doubts will remain

For as long as there has been a lightweight division BJ Penn has been regarded as the best in the world. But despite nearly ten years of dominance there have always been questions as to whether Penn has truly fulfilled his potential in MMA.

Prior to fighting Frankie Edgar at UFC 112, Penn had only two blemishes on his record at 155Ibs, a shock defeat to Jens Pulver in 2002 and a surprising draw against Caol Uno in 2003. While both were regarded as fluke defeats against inferior opposition, the fact that they both occurred in his first two shots at the World Lightweight Title suggested a tendency to underperform in the biggest matches.

Any doubts about Penn’s ability to perform on the biggest stage, should have been disproven when he defeated Matt Hughes to win the World Welterweight Title, a victory all the more remarkable given the difference in size between the two fighters. But Penn’s behavior cast doubt on whether he had the concentration to put together the type of run that distinguished dominate champions such as Frank Shamrock from those who had fleeting success. Eventually vacating his newly won world title without ever defending it, he would spend the next two years in exile fighting in interesting but largely meaningless fights.

His return to the UFC in 2006 would prove that he had no long-term future at welterweight with Penn losing to both George St. Pierre and Matt Hughes. It would be at lightweight that he would find success, first avenging his original defeat to Pulver and then finally becoming world champion after defeating Joe Stevenson to win the vacant title. He would go on to successfully defend it against former champion Sean Sherk to prove his superiority at 155Ibs.

However once again he would allow himself to be distracted, mistakenly challenge St. Pierre for the World Welterweight Title, with the Canadian becoming the first man to defeat Penn within the distance after brutally mauling the significantly smaller Hawaiian. In the aftermath of this defeat, Penn was criticized being so willingly diverted from defending his own world title. Worse his famous lack of enthusiasm for training became the fashionable explanation for his inferior conditioning and cardio. Some openly doubted Penn’s ability to comeback from such a devastating loss.

Penn set about proving the doubters wrong by rededicating himself to defending his lightweight championship. He would comfortably win his next two title defenses within the distance, outclassing Kenny Florian at UFC 101 and brutally mauling Diego Sanchez at UFC 107. Fans and commentators wondered whether anybody would be able to wrest the title away from Penn. His next challenger Frankie Edgar was derided as being unworthy and installed as an 8-1 outsider. But in one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history, Edgar was able to use his superior speed and conditioning to outpoint and outwork the champion.

It seemed like more of the same for BJ Penn, who had once again lost a big match that he should have won against an opponent that was widely regarded as inferior. Luckily Penn has an immediate opportunity to put this latest misstep behind him, with the UFC giving him an instant rematch with Edgar. A victory against Edgar at UFC 118 would confirm that his defeat at UFC 112 was just another lapse in concentration and that Penn is still  the world’s greatest lightweight. Should he lose then Edgar would become the first lightweight to hold two victories over Penn and be widely regarded as the best lightweight fighter in the world.

Defeat will probably lead many people to judge BJ Penn as somebody who did not make the most of his genius for fighting. Victory won’t disprove that but it’s the first crucial step towards Penn finally putting together the run of victories that sees him fulfill his potential to not just be a gifted fighter but to be one of the greatest champions of all time.

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