The Real Main Event: Why BJ Penn Is the Fighter Who Matters Most at UFC on Fox 5

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 8, 2012

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 22:  BJ Penn spas during an Open Workout ahead of UFC Sydney 127 at Star City on February 22, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Mark Nolan/Getty Images

When UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson stepped to the scales in Seattle the day before the UFC's fifth event on Fox, the reaction from the fans was best described as "polite."

It wasn't an embarrassing amount of applause, nor was it the reaction of fans to a star. That's a sound all too lacking at UFC events around the country these days.

We heard that kind of response for Jon Jones in Atlanta at UFC 145, the kind of anxious buzz of a crowd that knows they are seeing something, and someone, special.

Magnify it by 10 for appearances by Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva at UFC 148 in Las Vegas. For that bout, the audience was alive, attuned to both fighters' every move and facial expression.

And we felt it, a taste of it, when BJ Penn made his appearance in Seattle. The title belt he carries may signify that Henderson is the top dog in his weight class, but to UFC fans, the only lightweight that has ever mattered is BJ Penn.

Penn burst onto the scene at the same time as UFC owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. And from the very beginning, fans have known he was something special.

When his bout with Joey Gilbert was buried on the preliminaries, fans nearly had a coronary. He may have been a 22-year-old from Hilo, Hawaii, without a single fight under his belt, but he was a 22-year-old who mattered.

His credentials made him a legend before he ever stepped in the cage. Simply put, he was the best American ever to put on a gi, compete in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and become a legitimate world champion in that sport.

Combined with the brazen praise from then-coach Frank Shamrock, a UFC legend who told the world that Penn, sight unseen, was already the top fighter in the business, Penn's first fight was one of the most anticipated Octagon debuts in years.

For fans, it's been a love affair that has never waned. Even as Penn has, by his own admission, not lived up to his own abilities on too many occasions, fans never stopped caring.

“I saw an article recently that talked about how I still hold court with the fans," Penn told Bleacher Report's Duane Finley. "All these big names and everybody still get excited about me. People getting excited to hear about my training or what I’m doing; that is really amazing to me.

"I always ask my family and my friends, ‘Why do the fans like me so much? I’m the biggest f-up there is.’ Is it because I represent the average man? Is it because I’m a fat guy trying to go out there and give it his best shot like everybody else? I don’t know exactly what it is but I’ll tell you right now it blows me away. I don’t understand it, but I definitely appreciate and love my fans.”

When he returned to the UFC in 2006 and made his ascension to the lightweight throne, fans were all in. Penn became the first, and as yet only, fighter below 170 pounds in UFC history to draw money on pay-per-view.

When it comes to lightweights (even when they're competing at 170 as Penn will be against rising star Rory MacDonald), BJ remains the sport's top player, whether or not he holds a title belt.

Fans just like to watch the guy fight, maybe because it's so crystal clear how much he loves what he does. And if they tune in to Fox in droves, reversing a disturbing decline in television ratings, it will be because of Penn's name on the marque.