Going into his UFC 118 title rematch against Frankie Edgar, BJ Penn is carrying a title that he hasn’t had since before UFC 80 — former champion. We’re willing to believe that the Prodigy had an off night in Abu Dhabi, but if he wants his belt back he’ll have to relocate the kind of violent aggression that got him to the top in the first place. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at four of Penn’s early fights that set him up as a star in the UFC, and laid the groundwork for the legend that was to come…
BJ Penn vs. Joey Gilbert, UFC 31, 5/4/01
As the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division at the Mundials, Penn entered the UFC with a reputation to uphold. But he wasn’t looking to become the next Royce Gracie. Even from the beginning, the Prodigy was a true hybrid fighter, whose grappling and striking worked in tandem. His Octagon debut was against another UFC newbie, Joey Gilbert (1-1 MMA record at the time), and though Gilbert showed impressive ground defense in neutralizing Penn’s attacks and positions, Penn was finally able to flatten Gilbert out on his stomach and whale him in the head until the ref stopped the fight with three seconds left of the first round. It looked like there might be something to this BJ Penn kid after all.
BJ Penn vs. Din Thomas, UFC 32, 6/29/01
Penn returned to action just eight weeks later to take on another fighter who was making his UFC debut. But even though Din Thomas was new to the Octagon, he’d already been around the block, compiling a 12-1 record with all victories by stoppage and a notable win over future champ Jens Pulver. Penn plays guard for a while (and shows off his famous leg flexibility at the vid’s 2:13 mark), but once Thomas starts to threaten with ground-and-pound, Penn escapes to his feet and turns Din off with a perfectly-placed knee to the jaw. The Prodigy was no fluke, and the UFC’s fledgling lightweight division was officially on notice.
BJ Penn vs. Caol Uno, UFC 34, 11/2/01
Another fight, another step up in competition. Caol Uno (15-4-2 at the time) was the reigning 154-pound boss of Shooto, and unquestionably one of Japan’s greatest MMA fighters. After losing his first UFC title fight to Jens Pulver at UFC 30, he rebounded with a quick TKO against Fabiano Iha and tried to make it two in a row against the young Hawaiian rising star. Things didn’t go according to plan. Uno starts things on a high note with a flying kick, but Penn keeps his cool, stalks Uno down and hammers him with uppercuts until Larry Landless rushes in to save Uno’s life at the 11-second mark. Penn is out of the arena before Uno can get to his feet. Two years later, Penn and Uno had a rematch for the lightweight title, which Pulver vacated in March 2002; the match was ruled a split-draw after five rounds and the title remained vacant for three-and-a-half years.
BJ Penn vs. Paul Creighton, UFC 37, 5/10/02
Penn experienced his first bit of career adversity at UFC 35, when he lost a majority decision to Jens Pulver in his first title fight. Four months later, he was back in the cage for a tune-up against Paul Creighton, a 2-0 prospect who came from a jiu-jitsu and wrestling background and was making his UFC debut. Creighton is a game opponent who turns the bout into a grappling match and repeatedly puts Penn on his back. But three minutes into the second frame, Penn scores mount, and once again, he ends it with his hands. The jiu-jitsu phenom wouldn’t score his first victory by submission in the UFC until his ninth pro fight, choking out Matt Hughes at UFC 46 to win the welterweight title.