It’s never fun to see once-great athletes start to lose it. As legendary as Michael Jordan was with the Chicago Bulls (and he was dominant right up until his second retirement following the 1997-’98 season), there were also those two seasons with the Washington Wizards when he came back after four years away and produced statistics that made him look merely average. Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest running backs of all time, and he put up some outrageous numbers in the early ’90s. As his career went on, however, those numbers began to dwindle until he retired after a couple of unremarkable years with the Arizona Cardinals. (Take nothing away from the fact that Smith was able to sustain a career as an NFL running back for 15 seasons in a sport where the average tenure is a one-fifth of that.)

Occasionally, there are times when, against all logic and human physiology, a player’s performance seems to somehow improve as he reaches his advanced professional years. It happened with Roger Clemens, after all, but the rumors concerning his specific case have led many to believe there might be other factors in play.

In MMA, a fighter’s descent from greatness is typically revealed in an obvious and violent way. Suddenly, guys who used to be able to walk through their opponents’ punches en route to an inevitable victory are being knocked out cold, and if not, they are so thoroughly dominated by their opposition as to nearly make fans forget about their previous excellence.

The latest prominent example of this phenomenon in MMA is with former welterweight and lightweight champion B.J. Penn. There was a time not so long ago when Penn was considered one of the best fighters in the world. When he was lightweight champion in 2008 and 2009, he looked basically unstoppable (save for a loss to the much larger Georges St-Pierre during a jaunt up to welterweight). After losing his belt to Frankie Edgar at UFC 112, however, Penn has begun to show signs that his time in the sport might be limited.

Since his first loss to Edgar in April 2010, Penn has won just a single fight, and that was against a past-his-prime Matt Hughes. In the same time period, Penn has also lost three times (to Edgar in their rematch and then in his last two fights to Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald) and fought to a draw with Jon Fitch. His recent bouts, Hughes included, read like a list of some of the most dangerous fighters on the planet, but his 1-3-1 record since losing the 155-pound belt has nevertheless tarnished Penn’s once-shining image.

Taking his career as a whole, then, is it still accurate to refer to “The Prodigy” as “MMA Legend B.J. Penn?”

A few years ago, there would have been no doubt that the answer is yes. In just his ninth pro fight, Penn submitted a very-much-in-his-prime Matt Hughes, snapping the then-welterweight champion’s 13-fight winning streak and taking his 170-pound belt. Penn then took a two-year sojourn outside the UFC and was stripped of that title as a result. While his immediate return to the UFC’s welterweight division was not a return to dominance—Penn lost consecutive fights to Hughes and St-Pierre—he then dropped to 155 pounds and proceeded to run roughshod through everyone in his path.

Penn submitted fellow lightweight title contender (and The Ultimate Fighter 5 coach) Jens Pulver before doing the same to Joe Stevenson for the lightweight championship. He then erased any remaining doubt regarding his position among 155ers by finishing former champion Sean Sherk via TKO. After losing the (ill-advised) welterweight fight to GSP, Penn went on to defend his lightweight belt twice more, stopping both Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez inside the distance. So that’s five fights at lightweight and five finishes. Is it any wonder why he was the third-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the sport (behind Anderson Silva and St-Pierre) for quite some time?

Since his pair of fights with Edgar, Penn seems to have found a new home at 170 pounds, unwelcome as that home might have been thus far. Still, Nick Diaz is getting the next welterweight title shot and Rory MacDonald is generally considered to be one of if not the top up-and-coming fighter in MMA, so Penn’s losses to those fighters make sense. That he fought perpetual title contender Jon Fitch to a draw is certainly notable enough, especially considering Penn’s best years are likely behind him.

Penn has already retired once, following the loss to Diaz, so who knows what his fighting future holds. The treatment MacDonald gave him put on full display the fact that Penn is no longer a top fighter and that any future UFC bouts will not be against the sport’s elite. With that in mind, perhaps Penn will ride off into the sunset for good, self-respect intact. Maybe, though, Penn’s obvious competitive nature will drive him back to the Octagon for one or two more. If anything, Penn will remain a draw for anyone who has paid attention to MMA in the last five years.

While Penn’s last few fights have been rough, the man is one of only two fighters to hold championships in multiple UFC weight classes (along with Randy Couture). He basically put the lightweight division on the map and, up until very recently, was always a safe bet to win no matter his opponent. For these reasons, B.J. Penn will always be a legend of mixed martial arts.

Photo: B.J. Penn (Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.