Is Penn’s Career At A Crossroads?

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - April 21, 2010
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BJ Penn (right) battles Frankie Edgar April 17

It’s been a while, at least since the UFC decided to drop its lightweight division in 2004, that the question of BJ Penn’s future could be the subject of legitimate discussion.

But after his dismal showing April 17 against Frankie Edgar, the future is suddenly cloudy for the former champ and legitimate contender for sport’s unofficial title as best pound-for-pound fighter.

For a man who, when on his game, abused opponents with a combination of superb ground technique and fists good enough to impress legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach, it was a shocking performance. Penn seemed disinterested, content to stand at a distance and pepper Edgar with jabs while occasionally scoring with harder knocks when his opponent got closer.

The plan was effective enough to turn Edgar’s face into collage of cuts and scraps, but not enough to take home a victory over the 8-1 underdog.


 

The defeat was Penn’s first loss at 155 pounds since 2002.

On ESPN MMA Live, Penn refused to blame reports of a sinus infection and a knee injury affecting his training. Good for him. No one wants to hear excuses, and the Hilo native was not offering any, saying to do so would be disrespectful to his opponent. But Penn did look tired, and spent much of his corner time hanging on to the fence in an apparent effort to increase his oxygen flow.

He also was softer in the midsection than he had been in his recent victories.

Penn said he was satisfied with his training leading up to the fight, but when queried by host John Anik about why he didn’t take Edgar to the mat in the later rounds as his corner had instructed, Penn admitted to being a bit gassed.

“Fatigue may have been setting on,” he said. “I wasn’t as fresh ... I really didn’t feel like that was the time to take the fight to the ground and use the energy for that.”

Some have argued that Edgar didn’t pass Rick Flair’s “To be the man you’ve got to beat the man” qualification for title legitimacy. The opinion has support. Fightmetric, a system that ranks striking effectiveness, had Penn winning four of the rounds, three in convincing fashion.

But such limited statistics ignore other aspects of the sport. We heard the same when Sugar Ray Leonard beat Marvin Hagler on points while doing little physical damage. But those are just excuses. Fighting sports have points systems and judges for a reason - without them the contests would resemble the human cockfights that MMA detractors suggest is the true nature of the sport.

No matter which side of the score card one chooses to support, questions remain about Penn’s status in a sport he helped to build and in a division he used to dominate. In his book, Why I Fight: The Belt is Just an Accessory, Penn talks about the burning desire to avenge losses. But what we saw April 17 was a guy seemingly resigned to accepting his fate.

If he has lost some of his desire to fight - and who could blame him with a young daughter and eyes on a post-fight MMA business empire (the man understands marketing) - then maybe now is the time to get out. The 31-year-old says he still wants to fight for as long as he can, but he’s a hard person to read. For all his charisma in the ring and the way he interacts with fans outside of the octagon, he appears very uneasy in interview settings.

Penn said his handlers have had preliminary talks with the UFC about a rematch. When or if the fight happens remains to be seen. He is currently touring to promote his book, which has come under attack from UFC president Dana White. White, who lords over the UFC like few others in the history of sports, doesn’t handle dissension lightly. In his book Penn describes White as vindictive and not above punishing a fighter for not bowing to his demands.


SI.com’s Josh Gross reported that upon hearing about the book, White questioned why Penn would ” put out a book that is 90 percent not true?”

The article also said the MMA president did not respond when questioned about reading the book, nor could he point out any inaccuracies. If Penn’s recall of history and character evaluation is correct, would it be a stretch to believe White may just allow his star to twist in the wind a bit before giving him a title shot?

To say Penn’s career is at a crossroads is perhaps reading too much into one fight. The man remains a talented athlete who can dominate at his weight class, but fighting isn’t a sport to be attempted without perfect preparation and the will to dominate.

That was lacking against Edgar. Hopefully there will be too much pride and nastiness to let it happen again. His safety depends on it.

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