This week we witness the return of BJ Penn. It's been over two years since we saw The Prodigy get punished by Frankie Edgar in an ill-advised featherweight bout in 2014, and now he's facing flashy, up-and-coming Yair Rodriguez in an attempt to make a run at a third title. Some fans may glance at Penn's 16-10-2 record and scoff at a guy who is well past his prime, or never was all that good to begin with, but they're wrong. BJ Penn is one of the most important fighters ever, and always will be. These fights are just a small sample size that proves it.
Penn vs. Sanchez: UFC 107
There's possibly no more impressive beatdown in lightweight division history than BJ Penn laying it on Diego Sanchez at UFC 107. Just 30 seconds into the fight, Sanchez gets dropped by Penn and is scrambling to survive. The next 20 minutes are Sanchez carving out a name for himself as one of the toughest fighters to ever enter the Octagon while Penn puts on a show.
It's important that we look at this with some context: Diego was the middleweight winner of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. After he won that tournament and beat Kenny Florian, he moved to welterweight where he beat some of the best in the division like Karo Parisyan and Nick Diaz. Only after losing to perennial contenders Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, would he move to lightweight, go on a 4-fight winning streak over top fighters Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida, and end up challenging Penn.
Diego was extremely legit — and big. BJ was supposed to have his hands full. Supposed to. Instead, he dominated Diego with counterstrikes that would use Diego's eternal momentum against him. It was an utterly perfect performance. The takedown defense of Penn demands an article itself.
Penn vs. Hughes 1: UFC 46
It's important to note that there was nothing really like this at the time. BJ Penn was granted an immediate title shot against the 5-time defending welterweight champion in Matt Hughes, and the Miletich fighter was dominated nearly from start to finish. This would kick off their trilogy that defined an era in shocking fashion. Hughes was the guy in the UFC. He was perceived as unbeatable and a pound for pound great. Now in comes BJ Penn, a small guy from a division that was possibly going to be disbanded by the UFC.
Penn summed it up best after the massive upset:
Penn vs. Machida: K-1 Heroes 1
We live in a world in which Conor McGregor fights Nate Diaz with both men weighing in within a pound of each other, and yet McGregor says Nate is "three times the size" of him. We know that Nate has a size advantage on McGregor, but besides Nate, McGregor has held the size advantage over every single opponent he's ever faced.
Now we watch 225-pound Lyoto Machida fighting Chubby BJ Penn, who weighed in at a svelte 191 pounds. Amazingly, BJ makes this one hell of a fight against the future UFC light heavyweight champion. Fights like these just don't happen anymore, and that's a damn shame.
Penn vs. Gomi: K-1 Rumble on the Rock 4
Gomi was the king of the Japanese lightweight division for years, but just before he was to sit on his throne in PRIDE, he was dominated by BJ Penn at Rumble on the Rock in 2003. This isn't the absolute most impressive fight in Penn's catalog, but it's still a solid victory over Gomi, who was arguably the second-best lightweight in the world at the time. Yes, better than UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver, the only man to defeat Penn at the time. Gomi would knock out Pulver in PRIDE a little over a year after this fight.
So when we put this in context, what we're seeing here is an important fight and an interesting moment in MMA history. This was Penn, three months before defeating Matt Hughes for the UFC welterweight title, beating up one of the best lightweights of the era.
Please note the blood pouring out of Gomi's mouth as Baby Jay locks in the rear naked choke.
Penn vs. Diaz: UFC 137
Once again a watershed moment in the history of MMA, Nick Diaz had just returned to the UFC after dominating in his Strikeforce run as their welterweight champion. Diaz was supposed to challenge GSP for the welterweight title, and Penn was supposed to fight Carlos Condit at this event, but Nick Diaz ran out his back door during a media call (true story) which led to Carlos Condit fighting GSP for the welterweight title until GSP got injured and pulled out. Whew, these card changeups.
Everything worked out in the end when Dana White offered BJ Penn "a fight he couldn't refuse" in Nick Diaz. Both Penn and Diaz are from the Gracie lineage of BJJ and had trained together years previous, but both guys are also no-nonsense when it comes to fighting, and the lead up to their battle was intense.
The fight, the only one BJ Penn has lost on this list, is a classic.
So why is a losing effort on the list of BJ Penn fights you have to watch? Because Diaz vs. Penn perfectly showcases Baby Jay's heart as a fighter. This is a man who has never been knocked down, who is taking a beating and giving one back. It's an incredible fight that produced one of the most important pictures in MMA history. One that proves that fighters are competitors, not just two humans trying to punch someone until they give up. Penn vs. Diaz is everything that's great about mixed martial arts. From the jiu jitsu scrambles, to the dirty boxing and power shots — this is what it's all about.