BJ Penn is the UFC lightweight champion and, if you believe the claims of many, he is one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The idea that he is anything but the top lightweight in the world is considered an absurdity to most fans, and for good reason: it has been repeated by MMA talking heads for years, regardless of the quality of his opponents or his performances against them. Through luck (and a lack of any other talent in the UFC's stable which is as polarizing or marketable as Penn), BJ Penn has found himself in the enviable position of being one of the most highly ranked fighters in the world without having earned it by fighting the very best. If you're reading this and spitting your metaphorical mouthpiece out angrily (à la Lesnar at UFC 100), give me a chance to explain myself.
Here are the straight facts, dating back to 2006, courtesy of Sherdog.com's Fight Finder service.
|Loss||Georges St. Pierre||TKO (Corner Stoppage)|
|Win||Sean Sherk||TKO (Knee and Punches)|
|Win||Joe Stevenson||Submission (Rear Naked Choke)|
|Win||Jens Pulver||Submission (Rear Naked Choke)|
|Loss||Matt Hughes||TKO (Punches)|
|Loss||Georges St. Pierre||Decision (Split)|
BJ Penn's first fight in 2006 was against a greener Georges St. Pierre. Penn dropped a close decision, but considering that it was in the 170-pound weight class, this loss has no bearing on his ranking in the lightweight division. His next fight was another loss against wrestling powerhouse Matt Hughes. Again, since it was a fight at 170, it shouldn't factor into lightweight rankings. Just for the sake of covering all bases, the three fights prior to these two losses in the UFC were a unanimous decision win over the unranked (but very likeable) Renzo Gracie, a loss to Lyoto Machida, and a decision win over Rodrigo Gracie. These three fights take us even further back into 2004. I doubt any sane MMA fan would argue that fights from 2004 should factor into 2009 rankings, but I am just laying everything out in the name of transparency.
So, with two losses at welterweight, Penn moved back down to his natural weight of 155 and fought Jens Pulver after both appeared as coaches on Spike's "The Ultimate Fighter." The draw of this match was that Pulver held a win over Penn. To Penn's credit, he choked out Pulver in the second round. Unfortunately, he choked out a Pulver who had recently lost to Joe Lauzon and who was not highly ranked enough to put Penn back at the top of the lightweight heap. Pulver was a terror in his prime and is an MMA legend, but Penn's win over Pulver should have done nothing for Penn's ranking (especially since it is clear that Pulver, like many other MMA pioneers, is in the twilight of his career, accruing a 1-5 record after fighting Penn).
I can hear you saying, "wait, who is this loser trying to tell me BJ doesn't deserve to be called the #1 ranked lightweight in the world?" Well, don't just take this loser's word for it, there are other people who agreed. In 2007, after his fight with Pulver, Sherdog.com had Penn ranked at #8 in the lightweight division. His future opponents, Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk, were ranked #9 and #5, respectively. Sherdog's rankings aren't perfect, but they are a decent judge of roughly where fighters should be mentally ranked for the purpose of potential future matchups.
Penn's next fight was against Joe "Daddy" Stevenson for the vacant lightweight belt. As an aside, winning this fight meant that BJ would once again be a UFC champion since he vacated the welterweight belt he won against Matt Hughes in 2004. Penn submitted Stevenson with a rear naked choke and left him bloody and beaten on the canvas. A solid win over a solid opponent? Certainly. But it was a solid win over a fighter who was considered to be ranked below Penn, and who, based on their resumes, was the clear underdog. This fight should have done nothing for Penn's ranking.
Up next was Penn's best recent performance against the toughest lightweight opponent he had faced in many years. Sean Sherk is a wrestling nightmare and could have given Penn fits in the octagon, but instead chose to stand and prove that he could strike with BJ. This was clearly the wrong game plan, as fans and the UFC's own announcers quickly realized. Sherk didn't realize his mistake quickly enough and the fight was stopped at the bell at the close of the third round. "The Muscle Shark" was and is one of the toughest lightweights around, but his difficulty at creating a solid game plan was his true demise against Penn and more recently against Frankie Edgar. Still, Penn had racked up another win against a solid and top-ten lightweight opponent.
So, where does that leave Penn? Well, he clearly had not done enough to climb to the top of the lightweight heap. A lack of quality opponents (which was his reason for vacating the welterweight belt in the first place) simply did not allow him to climb that mountain at that time. Pulver was unranked, Stevenson was ranked below him (and would then fall off the list) and Sherk was considered to be a top 10 fighter but not the top fighter in the weight class.
How about in the pound-for-pound rankings? According to the Sherdog.com rankings just prior to the Sherk fight, neither he nor Sherk were even on the list. Again, this is only one list out of many, but if you search around for other lists you will find names in slightly different positions but not enough difference to justify the myth of BJ Penn's status as a top pound-for-pound fighter or the top lightweight fighter.
Finally, we come to BJ's rematch with St. Pierre. As anyone who watched the fight can attest, Penn was simply out-muscled and out-classed, and he was quickly crushed by the undeniable talent of the Canadian. St. Pierre looks capable of crushing almost any fighter within 20 pounds of his weight class, so this loss says little about Penn's status as a great mixed martial artist, but it should have quieted anyone who claimed that Penn's performances earned him a mention along the pound-for-pound bests of the sport.
But it didn't. Fans still consider Penn an unstoppable force. Joe Rogan, the highly knowledgeable and talented announcer, still gushes over Penn's unmatched talent and skill. While Dana White might likely claim that celery was the best fighter in the world if he had to promote it in a fight, he is also prone to bouts of honesty, and in my eyes, he seems to truly believe that Penn is one of the best fighters in the world at any weight class, and that he is certainly the best fighter in the world at 155 pounds. For every Rogan or White there are ten-thousand common fans who believe, whether they like him as a fighter or not, that BJ Penn is the undisputed best in the world at lightweight. The reason? Because that's what they've been told. On August 8th, Kenny Florian (who, coincidentally, also believes that Penn is the best in the world) has the opportunity to drag Penn down in the rankings and simultaneously vault himself to the top. Considering Florian's record as of late, I wouldn't have (as much of) a problem seeing his name at the top of the rankings. Still, win or lose, it is unlikely that Florian will earn himself the level of respect that Penn currently holds. The myth of Penn has been built over generations of MMA fans, so that even few hardcore fans can think back and remember just when it started. BJ Penn is one of the many pioneers and engaging personalities in MMA, and he deserves a great deal of respect for what he has done, as well as for when he has done it. Sadly, if you take a look at the facts and the fights, it is clear that he does not deserve the ranking he currently enjoys in the minds of most MMA fans. If the the desire of the fans is to see the best fighters face each other, then Penn's ranking represents a stumbling block. Years of repetition ensure that Penn's legacy will not dissapear on August 8th, but Kenny Florian might just be able to start a legacy of his own.