Today on the UFC’s website is a lengthy article about BJ Penn. The Prodigy was apparently in a joking mood and even suggested headlines for the article. I guess he’s staying loose for UFC 80 when he will battle Joe Stevenson (January 19th) for the vacant UFC lightweight title belt.
“I’m training a lot harder,” admits Penn, who hasn’t always been known for his Spartan work ethic. “Back in the day I used to pride myself on how little I could do and get away with it; now I try to pride myself on how much I do. I try to work real hard, train as much as I can, eat healthy food, and I want to see how far I can take it.
”For most fighters, a realization like this comes after a series of crippling setbacks or when reaching a milestone age like 30 or 35 and realizing that what you’ve been doing for years just isn’t working. Penn though, is more popular than ever after his stint as a coach on season five of The Ultimate Fighter and a dominant win over Jens Pulver in the show’s season finale. As for his previous two losses, he dropped a close nod to interim welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre and then lost to Matt Hughes in the third round after dominating the first two rounds and then breaking his rib – not exactly a call for panic, but for Penn when he turned 28 in December of 2006, he decided that just being among the best in the world wasn’t enough.
“I guess the wakeup call was December 13, 2006, when I turned 28,” said Penn, 29. “I said ‘what am I doing, why am I messing around? This is the biggest sport in the world, it’s gonna overtake everything, I’m at the forefront. Why am I playing games?’”
Penn then discusses how he saw the move from flabby 170 to 155 as a chance to make things right after starting to struggle at 170.
“That’s exactly the thought that came into my head when Dana said ‘BJ, congratulations, you and Jens are the coaches on the next season,’” recalled Penn. “The first thing that came to me was ‘I’ve got a fresh start.’ I get to start over from the beginning, I get to beat Jens – who put that stop to my career in the beginning – I get to go back and get this lightweight belt, and I get to go and do it how I wanted to do it the first time. Words cannot explain. Maybe that should be the caption of the article – ‘words cannot explain.’”
And despite the snickers from those who questioned if he could make it back to 155 (remember, he fought at 170 for a while and even moved up to heavyweight in 2005 to fight current UFC light heavyweight contender Lyoto Machida), Penn made the cut, looked in top form against Pulver last June, and now he’s a favorite to finally wear the lightweight belt around his waist when he fights Stevenson a week from Saturday. But Penn has been in this situation before as the favorite and he’s been burned. He insists it won’t happen this time and that he’s not looking past Joe ‘Daddy’.
“Joe kinda reminds me of myself in ways,” said Penn. “He’s got wrestling, he’s got ground, and he’s got standup. He’s no joke, and to let everybody know how serious I’m taking the fight, I think you should caption the interview ‘Penn not taking Stevenson lightly.’”
BJ is the hero of a lot of fighters – like Kendall Grove – and The Prodigy has a lot riding on the Stevenson fight. The article points out that if BJ wins, he will be only the second fighter in UFC history to be a champion in two divisions. Randy Couture was the first. Remember that BJ Penn held the welterweight title when he beat Matt Hughes in 2004. On the flipside, the article goes on:
If he loses, it will be a case of unfulfilled promise. If you told this to Penn a few years back, he probably would have laughed it off, as he was just content with fighting and not what the history books said. Now, he takes legacy very seriously.
“You want to be categorized in a league of your own, like Randy (Couture) is,” he said. “You don’t want to be in the mix with everybody else. When they talk about you, you want them to say something special, like a Joe Frazier or (Muhammad) Ali, those kinds of people. You want to be extraordinary. You want to shoot for greatness and I think every fighter should.”
Yet while he mentions the names Frazier and Ali, one key aspect of both former heavyweight boxing champions’ greatness was that they had each other to bring the best out of them. Who is or will be the Frazier to Penn’s Ali?
“I don’t want to speak too soon,” he said. “I found him, but I’ll let you know in a little bit.”
Hmmm, who could it be? There’s a laundry list of possible fighters. If we assume he’s going to stay in the lightweight division and is talking about someone in the UFC, that narrows it down. But neither of those are guarantees.
Any ideas on who could be Penn’s “Frazier”? Leave names in the comments section.