#BJPenn is, indisputably, a legend.
The status of “legend” carries a lot of weight, and brings with it much pontification of legacy and oft-revised career reevaluation.
The less obvious side of this label, this deep consideration for the career of a man who has achieved such significant feats, is the toll this career of openweight bouts and the "Just Scrap" mentality has taken on his body.
Most sensible onlookers can agree that Penn is not the athlete he once was. Years of wars, grueling bouts with larger men and injuries accumulated through training have rendered “the Prodigy” a slower, less reactive, less explosive fighter. This is demonstrable, and evident in all of his most recent performances.
With a career spanning almost sixteen years, beginning in May of 2001, comes an incredible amount of knowledge and experience. Repeated bouts with welterweight legends such as Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, along with a befuddling but extremely competitive heavyweight bout opposite future UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, have afforded him a great deal of experience in a wide range of in-fight situations.
There’s real, intrinsic value to this experience; there is a point of diminishing returns, and experience in the formative years of a professional career will elicit more growth, but there is no upper limit on the utility of experience in an absolute sense.
With sixteen years of experience, each is perhaps less valuable than the last. Eventually, the balancing act of diminishing physicality and increased technical prowess weighs too heavily in favor of Father Time, and a fighter stumbles, never again returning to the peak of their power.
This trend is most easily examined at the elite levels of each division, which are almost exclusively occupied by fighters with developed technical identities who are at or near the peak of their athletic abilities.
Of current UFC champions, only two began their professional career before 2007; dethroned but reinstated featherweight champion Jose Aldo, and resilient veteran turned middleweight champion Michael Bisping. They serve as outliers, but on the opposite end, outliers also exist.
Two champions, Cody Garbrandt and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, have only been fighting professionally since 2012. Of the remaining champions, their professional careers began between 2007 and 2010, with bantamweight and lightweight rulers Amanda Nunes and Conor McGregor having their pro debuts on the same day in March of 2008.
While the unpredictable nature of aging curves makes direct comparisons of career trajectories difficult, and to hold Penn to a championship standard is perhaps unfair, we must wonder what this means for the Hawaiian.
To suggest outright that a fighter should not be allowed to fight out his twilight years would be asinine, but for his supporters, when does his bravado become a danger? If Penn’s motivation in the sport is to compete at a championship level, if he is driven by aspirations of elite glory, how should one, as a fan, react?
The final arbiter for all of B.J. Penn’s career decisions should, of course, be Penn himself. As consumers, we must only ask ourselves if we want to watch Penn fight and, if so, why?
Some of us will watch out of an undying loyalty to Penn, some will watch for the sense of nostalgia, others still will watch for the spectacle. These are all acceptable reasons. If Penn’s true motivation in the sport is to compete at the championship level, this speaks to a lack of honesty about the effects his athletic career have had on his body.
This is not uncommon. Fighters are excellent self-affirmers, realities obvious to others often seen as just a hurdle to overcome in the mind of an ageing veteran. As fans, it can be tempting to enable this behavior, cheering and encouraging our old heroes, hoping for something miraculous. Self-delusion leaks from these sentiments and transfers to the fighters, who find their conviction renewed.
If a Penn fight in 2017 appeals to your desires as a consumer, then there is no reason not to watch this event. However, if fighters have duties to fans, then a core duty of fans to fighters is that we let them go when it is their time. Perhaps no force is as compelling in the life of an athlete as the deafening roar of a crowd.
The fates of aging legends are some of the most difficult things for a fan to deal with. Unable to watch our heroes walk away, we instead watch them fed to a new generation, their bodies offered as tribute to tomorrow’s champions while the legends we know are nowhere to be found, only husks left behind.
As Penn approaches 40, I’ll be silently cheering him on for his return, knowing that each of my well-intentioned cheers serves as an anchor for a man who, confronted with our inability to let him go, finds that he can’t quite let go of us, either.
Oldest UFC Champions:
- Randy Couture: 45 years, 4 months
- Anderson Silva: 38 years, 2 months
- Chuck Liddell: 37 years, 5 months
- Murilo Bustamante: 36 years, 2 months
- Maurice Smith: 36 years
- Shane Carwin: 35 years, 5 months