If we were to ever make a pound for pound ranking column on this site BJ Penn would be extremely close to the top. No one can seem to agree on the definition of "pound for pound" so I'll go ahead and give you mine. If you were to take every guy, at their absolute best and no one had a size advantage, who would be the best? There is no doubt in my mind that the answer to that question is BJ Penn.
A lot of people would disagree with that and I can understand the argument against it. His record sits at 15-6. Doesn't really make it seem like he's really all that dominant just looking at that number. A short look at the losses reveals a few things however that must be taken into consideration. A majority loss to Jens Pulver in what was only his fourth career MMA bout. A decision loss to Lyoto Machida doesn't show much as the Dragon has a sizable weight advantage over the Prodigy. He then lost a split decision to Georges St. Pierre that many feel he actually won. In his next fight he lost to Matt Hughes by TKO but he was dominating that fight until breaking his ribs. He lost a rematch to GSP after St. Pierre used his size to wear him out in the first before pounding on him for 3 more rounds. Then the controversial decision loss to Edgar that many, including myself, still feel that he won.
Nothing to be ashamed of in any of those losses. Two instances of which the fight could have gone either way, one injury, a sizable weight disadvantage and a legitimate loss early in his career. In all of these fights, and even some of the fights he has won, there's been a constant theme. Lack of motivation to train and even a lack of motivation to fight. Because of his natural talents he's long struggled with getting himself up to compete. In fact he's been a little full of himself in the past:
"When I first started fighting. I thought I was God's gift to fighting. I thought I'd go 100-0 with 100 knockouts. I sit back, I look at my record and I can't believe that I have six losses."
I can't either. There's also a common theme in a lot of his victories. A hungry BJ that wants to send a message is the most dangerous man in the world. In the first Hughes fight he wanted to prove he could beat the greatest Welterweight of all time and he dominated him. He wanted his revenge against Jens Pulver and he got it by choking him out. To finally win the Lightweight title he had to beat Joe Stevenson, so he went out and bloodied him up before choking him out. Sean Sherk claimed he never lost his belt so Penn wasn't the true champion. He was punished for three rounds before a big knee destroyed his face and put him away. He wanted to send a message to Kenny Florian because he felt like Florian got cocky. Message sent via rear naked choke. Diego Sanchez claimed he could push BJ Penn like he'd never been pushed before. Not only did that not happen, Penn pushed Diego like HE'D never been pushed and put a beating on him finally opening up a cut the size of the Atlantic in the fifth round.
It's very clear that when BJ wants to send a message there is no one, at least at 155 pounds, that can stop him from doing so. So what happened against Frank Edgar at UFC 112? He didn't feel challenged. He was a gigantic favorite and he knew it and bought into it. He always needs a challenge and Edgar didn't present him with one. In hindsight the loss shouldn't be so surprising. But combined with a few things Edgar said about not feeling BJ deserved a rematch, the loss served up exactly what Penn needed.
"If I won that fight I would've changed nothing in my game and I would've set myself up to fall even harder in the future. Everytime that you get a loss you take a different path and you get back on the right journey of why you started this thing in the first place."
The BJ Penn that showed up in Abu Dhabi was a (reportedly) sick, unmotivated and unchallenged fighter. Edgar got one of the worst versions of BJ that he could possibly get. This time it's going to be a whole different ball game. All the aggression that was missing before, all the killer instinct and will to win will be back. Will Frank Edgar have the answer for that?