In the 1976 film Rocky, there’s a scene where Apollo Creed’s trainer Tony “Duke” Evers is watching Rocky Balboa on TV punching slabs of meat in Paulie’s meat locker.
“Hey Champ,” Evers says. “You oughta come look at this boy you’re gonna fight on TV. It looks like he means business.” Without even glancing up at the television, Creed brushes him off. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I mean business too.”
Apollo Creed was too talented for his own good. It is a cautionary tale, and as the cliché goes, art imitates life.
Fast forward to 2010, and Frankie Edgar is hungry for that UFC Lightweight Title. BJ Penn owns it, and has since January 2008, making quick work of Joe Stevenson, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk, and Diego Sanchez along the way. Edgar shocked the world at UFC 112 with the unanimous decision upset of the year, and then proved it wasn’t a fluke at UFC 118 in August with yet another near-perfect fight in an immediate rematch with Penn.
In every professional fighter’s career, there comes a time to take a high level view of one’s priorities. Do I still have the desire to win? Am I still hungry? Do I think about being with my kids more than I think about getting punched in the face?
It’s safe to say that UFC legend BJ Penn is at that crossroads. After years of being on top, many industry experts believe it’s time for “The Prodigy” to start thinking about his illustrious career in very different terms. “I feel that there is something not clicking with the camp that he has created,” says Vitor Belfort trainer Shawn Tompkins. “It looks from the outside that he is in charge and that some of the guys he puts in important roles aren’t meant to have those roles.”
It’s a sentiment shared by other high level trainers in the MMA industry, including one of Penn’s original coaches from his early days in professional combat sports. “He should stay where he is comfortable,” says AKA owner and head trainer Javier Mendez, who counts Josh Koscheck, Cain Velasquez, and numerous other MMA greats as his clients. “But you should never run your own camp, because you’re the fighter and sometimes you do more or less of what is required to get 100% ready for a big fight.”
After dropping the rematch with Edgar, Penn finds himself taking a fight against another aging legend, Matt Hughes, for his next Octagon appearance at UFC 123. While both Hughes and Penn are young by any other standard (37 and 31 years old, respectively), in the fight game, they are ancient, especially considering that for more than a decade they have each been the benchmark for what constitutes an elite fighter. In other words, they have plenty more miles on their bodies than most of the guys who are currently at top of the sport.
In the buildup to UFC 118 in Boston, I wondered if Penn had lost the fight before he even stepped into the cage, with statements like “I don’t care if I win or lose, I just can’t wait to see you in the ring Frankie.” In all my years covering this sport, I have never heard a fighter say that he didn’t care if he won or lost, especially in a title fight (and a rematch at that).
Then, when it came to fight time, Penn was stoic as he stood absolutely still and stared across the Octagon at Edgar. While Edgar bounced around with nervous energy, BJ Penn didn’t blink. He didn’t budge. He didn’t move a muscle.
At first I thought he was trying to psych out Edgar, and his icy stare, even from my cage side viewpoint, was chilling. But when the fight started and it was more of the same from the first match, I began to rethink the stare.
Was Penn even present at that fight? Does he really not care about winning anymore? Even the subtitle to his book Why I Fight is “The Belt is Just an Accessory.” To me, that just about says it all. Doesn’t it?
“He hasn’t lost the desire to win, it’s just hard to beat the top all the time,” says Greg Jackson, head trainer to Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans, among others. “He’s been there so long, it might be difficult to stay hungry.”
“BJ is a very special and difficult fighter to gameplan for,” says Edgar’s boxing coach Mark Henry, who, along with Phil Nurse and Ricardo Almeida, was instrumental in preparing Frankie for both fights against Penn. “There are so many things you have to be aware of—the slightest mishap, and the fight is over. I just stopped having nightmares about BJ Penn.”
Perhaps that reputation is what BJ is relying on. Perhaps BJ is so confident that he will find a way to win, like he has so many times, that his success inside the cage has now become a detriment? It’s a difficult question to ask, and even as a journalist, where my job is to ask questions, I don’t even feel like I have the right to ask it. After all, this is BJ Penn we’re talking about.
“For BJ to come back and make a good finish to his career, I believe he truly has to take himself out of his comfort zone,” says Tompkins. “Go to or build a new team, and leave the gameplan development to his staff.”
“He needs to remember what got him there, and get back to that mental and physical training,” says Mendez. “Find the reason why you got into this sport, and finish your dream of becoming one of the greatest fighters of all time.”
“He has a lot of good fights still left in him,” says Jackson. “He needs to do what every good fighter does—go home, analyze the fight, tweak things here and there, and come back stronger.”
With Matt Hughes on a surprising three-fight win streak, Penn will have his work cut out for him in their rubber match at UFC 123. Their first two bouts solidified each as great champions in the sport, Penn winning the first via submission and Hughes winning the second by TKO. While this third fight doesn’t hold much in terms of contender status for either man, it is a fight that longtime UFC fans should appreciate. And, it is a fight that BJ Penn could very well look at as his swan’s song, and instead of his traditional E Ala E Hawaiian walkout song, he might want to consider a classical piece: Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods.