BJ Penn: Why Lightweight Is No Longer a Viable Option for "The Prodigy"

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2012

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27:  BJ Penn of the USA walks into the arena before the start of his welterweight bout agains John Fitch of the USA as part of UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Although BJ Penn has steered clear of the media since he was shellacked by the unnervingly glacial Rory MacDonald at UFC on Fox 5, Saturday night’s postmortem has centred on the possibility that “The Prodigy” is on his way to permanent retirement.

The debate as to whether the former two-division champion should go down this route has been mostly one-sided, yet it remains unresolved largely due to a vocal minority.

On the MMA Hour, earlier tonight, Ariel Helwani and Eric Jackman suggested that they would like to see Penn drop back down to lightweight—with the latter even stating that he wouldn’t be opposed to the Hawaiian sticking around at welterweight.

While I can’t defend the notion that Penn should hang around as a gatekeeper at 170 pounds, one can understand the desire to see him once again compete at his natural weight.

At the age of 33, it will be a while before “The Prodigy” picks up his pension, and while he may be past his prime, he is hardly in the same boat as the Ken Shamrocks of this world.

It was only last year that he fought to a draw with the then No. 2 welterweight on the planet, Jon Fitch. He was perhaps on his way to winning that contest until, not unexpectedly, he gassed out in the final frame.

So, the argument that Penn could compete at the top of the lightweight division is not without merit.

However, I suspect that the proponents of the aforementioned argument would be quickly disabused of this notion if Penn were to drop down to 155 pounds and face a top contender.

The reason for this is simple.

BJ Penn’s last two fights have shown that the size difference played only a minor role in the beatings handed out to him by Nick Diaz and MacDonald.

Despite what the Hawaiian’s more rabid fans might think, he was not out-muscled or worn down by his much larger foes.

One could even argue that neither Diaz nor MacDonald took full advantage of the physical handicap, since both bouts were fought almost exclusively at striking range.

The second point is that, at least on Saturday, Penn looked to have a lot more in the tank towards the end of the fight than anyone could have anticipated.

He almost sprinted to the centre of the cage at the start of all three rounds, and generally looked much fresher than he had against Diaz or Fitch.

No, it wasn’t size nor cardio that slayed him. It was indeed beauty that felled “The Prodigy," albeit in the form of MacDonald’s violent, visually poetic combinations.

Put more simply, BJ Penn was outclassed by a much better mixed martial artist. The result would have been the same had Rory been four inches shorter and three inches narrower.

In a qualitative, if not quantitative, sense, the sport has reached new heights over the last couple of years. The calibre of mixed martial artist that now competes inside the Octagon is on a different level than anything we have seen before.

Freddie Roach once described BJ Penn as the best boxer in MMA, but “The Prodigy’s” recent outings have served to demonstrate the limitations of a purely boxing-centred approach.

Similarly, his once-peerless ground game no longer appears novel when compared to the submission artistry of Demian Maia or Rousimar Palhares.

In addition to the sport’s continued evolution, Penn’s skills have undoubtedly declined to a degree.

While I don’t subscribe to the view that they have dropped off the figurative cliff, it seems clear that he is slower, less explosive and his reflexes have been blunted to the point of debilitation.

I remain open to the possibility that I am wrong about BJ Penn’s prospects in the modern MMA world, but current evidence suggests that it is time for him to hang up the gloves and preserve the legacy he has fought so hard to build.