No one seemed more disappointed than BJ Penn himself. In the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Penn seemed oddly surprised by the decision—not because his terrifying jiu jitsu and heavy hands had failed to put Fitch away, but because he clearly thought he had lost. Worse, he looked chagrined that he hadn’t. It wasn’t long before the word “retire” made it out of his mouth, but in a particularly bizarre context: he had decided that if he lost this fight, he’d retire, and now he didn’t know what to do.
If you are like me, you took that opportunity to shout some unsolicited advice at your television. Penn has always taken his wins and losses emotionally—licking blood off his gloves, running out of the cage and later claiming it was because he had to use the bathroom, mumbling through interviews like a dejected child. The transporting emotions he feels after a fight are odd, not just because they appear to overwhelm him, but because he has seemed so curiously unmotivated throughout his career.
In 2000, at the age of 21, Penn became the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu Jitsu Championships. He had begun training only three years earlier. Typically, getting a black belt takes about a decade, and at the time Penn was believed to have earned his faster than anyone actively practicing.
Three years later, “The Prodigy” had become an ironic nickname. After ending the 2003 UFC lightweight tournament in a draw with Caol Uno—a maddeningly unsatisfying outcome that contributed to the UFC’s decision to discontinue the division—Penn developed a reputation for not doing the work. He had conditioning problems, particularly when he didn’t have to make 155. He insisted on training at his own camp in Hawaii at a time when other high-level fighters were grouping together in professional gyms. For every video of him jumping out of a swimming pool, there seemed to be another one of him joking about bong hits.
In short, you wondered how bad he wants it. BJ Penn clearly loves fighting people, but it’s hard to assess how much he likes being a fighter. Like many great natural talents—Brandon Vera and Rampage Jackson leap to mind—his ability to kick a moderate level of ass without pushing himself has started to work against him late in his career. There’s no question that he’s a high-level fighter. But at this point, what high-level fighters can he beat?
In this context, Saturday’s draw with Fitch seems oddly reminiscent of the 2003 draw with Uno. Both were frustrating partly because they occurred at such a high level. Penn wouldn’t have gone from Matt Hughes to a number-one contender match at welterweight if he hadn’t spent so many years dominating at lightweight, just as the Uno draw wouldn’t have been so disappointing if it hand’t been the final round in an exciting tournament. More importantly, though, both draws made future contests seem like chores. The sheer emotional letdown made any future fight feel more like an obligation than an interest.
It seems like BJ Penn is obligated to keep fighting, but he sure doesn’t look interested. The Penn we saw Saturday night looked tired: a man whose talent had taken him as far as it could, that night and in his career, and brought him to an unsatisfying conclusion. Perhaps, at age 32, he will change his life and become the welterweight Randy Couture. More likely, though, he will remain The Prodigy, an uncomfortable reminder of what talent can do.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at Combat! blog.