On a conference call last week, B.J. Penn was asked if he thought Georges St-Pierre “owes it to the sport” to take the proposed super-fight with Anderson Silva.
At first, he appeared to be diplomatic.
“That fight that’s on Georges himself,” Penn said.
But then he continued.
“But everybody on this phone call knows what BJ Penn would do.”
Was Penn, who faces GSP’s teammate Rory MacDonald on Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Henderson vs. Diaz in Seattle, taking a shot at his former nemesis who has beaten him twice? Quite possibly. But really he was just being honest about how he looks at the fight game.
Penn made it clear that if the president of the organization which has made him into a star and made him a lot of money asked him to fight the champion in a weight class above, he would oblige.
His statement underscored a possible difference between fighters of his day and those now in terms of how they handle their careers.
Many mixed martial artists of this current generation entered the sport because of the examples set forth by guys like Penn, who fought in wars in the early days of the UFC against the likes of Jens Pulver, Caol Uno and Matt Serra.
Time and time again, Penn would step up when presented with opportunities. They could be no-brainers, such as taking part in a tournament to find a new lightweight champion when Pulver left the UFC. But there were also more daunting ones, such as stepping up in weight to face Matt Hughes after the latter ran out of challengers at welterweight. Penn gladly did that, and submitted Hughes in the first round to capture UFC gold for the first time.
By no means am I saying he’s been a model company man. After that historic win, Penn left the UFC to sign with the competition, K-1 in Japan, and then got into a legal battle over whether he breached his contract. The ruling went in the UFC’s favour and he was stripped of his newly-earned belt.
But Penn’s motivation for making the move was that there wasn’t enough tough competition for him in the UFC. He wanted to continue to fight the best, and that included two Gracies and a Dragon overseas. (He beat Rodrigo and Renzo, but lost to Lyoto Machida, for those counting.)
Two years later he was lured back to the UFC for an epic USA vs. Canada card where he took on a young Georges St-Pierre to determine the next No. 1 contender to the welterweight title, which was once again held by Hughes. Penn lost and later returned to his more natural 155 pounds.
But two years after that, he faced Joe Stevenson for the lightweight title after champion Sean Sherk failed a drug test and was stripped of his belt. Penn won to become only the second UFC fighter to capture belts in different divisions (joining Randy Couture).
A year after that, he went up a weight class again to rematch GSP as the UFC sought another super-fight. Though he was outclassed and beaten once more, he fought for as long as he could physically take it.
Throughout his career, Penn was never dominant like Silva or St-Pierre. His career record of 16-8-2 is pretty much on par with Couture at the same point (the latter was 16-8 through his first 24 career fights), not an overwhelmingly stunning record for a no-doubt UFC Hall of Famer. But a common theme abounds with Penn — he would step up to whatever challenge was placed in front of him, or he would seek out a greater one, because to him, that’s the core of being a mixed martial artist.
“Fighting it’s still not a sport for me,” Penn said. “Fighting is still a fight for me. It has always been. I’m not a great athlete that can play any sport. I can’t do many different sports, but one thing I could always do (is) I could always fight back.
He added: “If I’m healthy, I can fight on like a minute’s notice.”
On the flipside, we have light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who didn’t feel like nine days was enough time to prepare for a guy (Chael Sonnen) who was willing to move up from middleweight to face him. Former title-holders Mauricio (Shogun) Rua and Lyoto Machida also turned down similar opportunities, while Matt Mitrione recently balked at the chance to face heavyweight tournament winner Daniel Cormier.
Am I saying that GSP, who isn’t ready to make the move up to middleweight to face Anderson Silva, or any of the above are afraid of the challenge? Certainly not. There is a definite amount of risk when fighters such as them reach a championship level, and they need to be sure that there is a corresponding reward.
The landscape is much different now. Athletes are much more about brand — and they need to be, because their careers are their business, and there is much more money to be made.
But sometimes I wonder if the best move, even for their careers and their brands, is not to focus on the business but on the pure nature of the fight game — happily take on whoever is placed in front of you, regardless of whether you think you’re properly prepared or whether they deserve it or not.
I’m sure many young fighters have thought something along those lines without realizing it, subconsciously using B.J. Penn as their role model as they learn how to make it in the Octagon.
As the former champion returns to the UFC limelight for the first time in over a year, hopefully more people will reflect on that again. Because the veteran fighter, who admittedly isn’t the best athlete out there, knows one thing is true — whether he owes it to the sport or not, he is always ready to fight.
Given any challenge, everyone reading this blog knows what B.J. Penn would do.
(Note to Penn camp: If you end up printing bracelets, I’ll settle for 10 per cent residual.)