A Prodigy is Born: The Top Ten Moments of B.J. Penn

Derek BedellAnalyst IJuly 24, 2009

When discussing the top martial artists in the world today many names come to mind. 

GSP, Anderson Silva, and Fedor usually top everyone’s list.  But there are other “masters” in their own right. 

To be a champion is to be a master, albeit a master of one’s weight class or division.  The individual holding the title becomes the measuring stick to which everyone else is compared. 

Right now, the 155lb weight class in the UFC is ruled by the never quiet, B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn. 

While some have poked fun at “Baby J” for his recent actions when it came to "greasegate," one major fact remains...B.J. Penn is one of the best martial artists in the world today.
With the UFC Lightweight title up for grabs in Philadelphia at UFC 101 against Kenny Florian right around the corner, here’s B.J. Penn’s top ten moments that have helped form his legacy.

10.  No UFC, No Problem

Early on in B.J.’s career he met the future Pride lightweight champion in Takanori Gomi at the Rumble on the Rock, an MMA organization promoted by Penn’s brother in Hawaii.

Coming into the fight Gomi was 14-1 only tasting defeat to Joachim Hansen by decision.  Penn was 5-1-1 and just left the UFC after fighting Caol Uno to a draw in a tournament style final for the UFC lightweight title. 

B.J. wouldn’t need a title or a UFC contract to gain a huge victory by rear naked choke in the third round in front of his hometown crowd in Hawaii.  This win would catapult B.J. Penn to the biggest fight of his career, at that point, a welterweight title match against Matt Hughes at UFC 46.

Penn was a natural.  A guy who was a born fighter.  Not an athlete who can fight but was bred to brawl. 

As his record and UFC run made that statement seem more and more true, it was finishing off a very good and experienced fighter outside of the UFC that proved something else. 

B.J. Penn would not let the UFC, or any organization dictate what he wanted to do.  It was B.J.'s way first. 

This would end up being a blessing and a curse for the future of “Baby Jay.”

9.  The UFC Wake-Up Call

B.J. Penn would return to the UFC to fight Georges St. Pierre at UFC 58. It was billed as a number one contender bout for a shot at Matt Hughes’ Welterweight title.

The French Canadian was dominated by the Hawaiian in the first round, bloodying and bruising up St. Pierre to the likes that we still haven’t seen to this day.  However, GSP would fight back to outwork the “Prodigy” for a split decision victory while demonstrating something B.J. would have to take serious notice of.

This has nothing to do with heart, but rather conditioning and work rate in training. 

B.J. got tired, simple as that.  And no matter how great of a fighter you are, if you gas out, you will lose to someone who still has fuel in their tank. 

Lack of work and reliance on pure talent would become B.J.’s M.O. for the future. 

The strategy to beat him was not to take him down or stand up with him, but rather to tire him out.

Mixed martial artists were growing as quickly as the sport was.  It was a new day with new breeds of fighters.  And now, more effort and work rate will be needed to become or stay a champion at this level. 

Here, the “Prodigy” got his first taste of a wake-up call.

8. The Eye Opening Arrival

In May of 2001, the UFC noticed Penn after he was competing in numerous grappling and jiu jitsu tournaments. 

It was time for B.J. to try his hands at mixed martial arts. 

A natural fit, Penn would stop his first two opponents, Joey Gilbert (UFC 31) and Din Thomas (UFC 32).  Next for the newcomer would be Japanese star Caol Uno at UFC 34.

The bell rang to begin the fight and Uno flew across the octagon with a leaping kick that Penn side stepped...then he would unleash. 

After a vicious striking combination where Uno ate numerous punches as his body was embedded awkwardly in the cage, the fight was stopped just 11 seconds in. 

The image after the fight would stick in everyone’s minds just as clear as the action they just witnessed.  A very amped up Penn sprinted out of the cage and into the back. 

A new type of fighter had arrived and stamped his unique presence on the world of mixed martial arts.  This was what the Hawaiian native was here to do. 

He didn’t need to fight. 

The Penn family was already wealthy.  B.J. was well known in his hometown of Hilo, he didn’t need the fame. 

But his natural charisma and ability over the years continue to prove that B.J. Penn is a fighter. 

This matchup was the thunder and lightning that made everyone look up and say, “wow, did you see that?” 

A “Prodigy” had arrived.

7.  Searching for a Bigger Challenge

After defeating Matt Hughes, Penn underwent a contract dispute with the UFC and left the company. 

He didn’t waste any time getting back into action as he signed with K-1 and submitted Duane “Bang” Ludwig in the first round of a welterweight contest.  He did this only four months after his UFC departure. 

Penn was now on a different mission that didn’t revolve around being a champion. 

“Jiu jitsu was created where the small man can beat the big man, and I’ve been doing jiu jitsu since I was 17 years old, and that has always stuck in my head throughout all the time and all the way until now,” said Penn. 

So now, B.J. would move up to Middleweight and defeat Rodrigo Gracie by decision at Rumble on the Rock 6. 

He followed this with an open weight fight against the current light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida at K-1’s Hero’s 1. 

Although Penn would lose a decision, he would hurt Machida in the fight and force the undefeated fighter the distance. And that is something not many can say, especially anyone who is a natural 155 pounder. 

There can never be a question about Penn’s heart or warrior spirit as he let it be known why he felt he could beat anyone, “it’s ingrained in me that I believe I have a chance.  I know something’s gonna happen, the guy’s gonna make a mistake and I’m gonna get that armlock or get that choke.”

 Penn would go back to Middleweight following his loss to Machida and defeat Renzo Gracie by decision before returning to the UFC at UFC 58: U.S.A. vs. Canada.

B.J. has always seemed to march to the beat of his own drum.  Here is just another example. 

Regardless of weight, size, or strength, Penn felt in his heart that he could beat any man based on his skill set.  This run wouldn’t deter him from that thought process as he won two out of three fights outside his natural weight class. 

A mentality like this has helped Penn because of his pure fight attitude, but hurt him by not staying consistent at one weight class. 

In staying at 155 or 170, then we could all be able to see him add to his legacy. 

B.J. has proven he can and meet any challenge, but needs to be pushed and motivated while not getting complacent. 

Penn would need to start challenging himself in order to stay hungry.

6.  The Prodigy is Born

Nicknames embody a fighters style, look, or abilities.  If someone is dubbed “the Prodigy,” there needs to be a good reason. 

How about being awarded a jiu jitsu black belt three years into your practice? 


It takes regular individuals like you and I around a decade to be awarded such an honor. 

B.J. was able to start jiu jitsu in 1997 and in 2000, he was awarded his black belt by Andre Pederneiras of Nova Uniao. 

No wonder his fighting shorts have a black belt stitched into the material.  The skills and niche to pick all the moves and transitions up while applying the techniques correctly and effectively is remarkable. 

Penn’s nickname is perfect for a fighter of limitless stature. 

This accomplishment was the beginning statement that let the world know, B.J. Penn is one of a kind and simply, a "Prodigy."

5.  The Rebirth of a Champion

Penn was at a crossroads in his career after losing to Georges St. Pierre and his rematch with Matt Hughes.  B.J. needed to rededicate himself in focus, training, and conditioning. But what would be next? 

B.J. Penn would return for his next fight with some added motivation. 

He chose to drop down to Lightweight again, which was a great choice.  155 is B.J.’s natural fighting weight and fits his frame so much better than trying to fight against the higher weight classes, like in the past. 

B.J. Penn was going back to his roots.

The "Prodigy" remembered, “I was searching and wondering who I was in the fight game and then I went back and watched my first fight against Joey Gilbert and then I remembered who I was.  I was that guy, and then I started doing everything and getting back on top.  It was wanting to fight Jens again that got me back on the horse.” 

So The Ultimate Fighter 5 came along. 

Six weeks of tension between the two escalated and you could see that B.J. wanted to rip Pulver’s head off any time the two were in the same room. 

Their rivalry culminated with Penn choking out Pulver at the finale.  He gained revenge for a previous loss and revived his career in the process. 

While Penn held onto the submission a bit longer then needed, the “Prodigy” buried the hatchet with “Lil’ Evil” and B.J. Penn was back...hungry, dedicated, and ready to make a run at 155lbs.

It was time to live and work like a champion if B.J. was to return to the top.  He was ready and the future was now.

4.  Rising to the Top
The wrestler from Hillsboro, IL defended his title five times before B.J. Penn made his UFC return at UFC 46.  The “Prodigy” moved up 15 lbs, from lightweight to welterweight, to challenge Matt Hughes for his gold. 

Hughes was a dominant champion and most thought he would retain his title. 

But B.J. Penn shocked the world by dominating the champion and winning his first title with a rear naked choke submission in round one.

Finally, B.J. Penn was a champion in MMA.  His tears of joy poured down his face as he celebrated his biggest and most important victory to date. 

A blessing and a curse, the new champion proved his skills were dominant and on a different level. 

It wouldn’t be until the rematch with Hughes, that work rate would be obviously recognized as Penn’s kryptonite.

3.  Making History

"The Prodigy” won his first tournament in Bakersfield, CA in 1997 in both his own and the open weight class.  Penn followed that with winning the Joe Moreira tournament as a blue belt and a submission/ grappling tournament in the summer of 1997. 

Afterwards, B.J. entered numerous tournaments and in 1999, prior to receiving his black belt, won the Gold Medal in the Copa Pacific Tournament in Los Angeles. 

What followed would be historic. 

Penn joined the Nova Uniao Competition Team (reserved for four top team competitors) and went to compete in the black belt division of the Mundial World Championships held in Rio De Janiero, Brazil. 

Once again, his nickname held true as “the Prodigy” became the first non-Brazilian to win a gold medal in the black belt division.

This feat is truly remarkable. 

Penn’s dexterity and flexibility is not to be outdone by anyone in the fight game and has always been noticed. 

Accompany that with his knowledge and overall skills, and it’s no wonder he is able to be considered one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world today.

If you haven’t seen B.J. throw his foot over the back of his head from a sitting position, you must!  You will be amazed.

2.  Back on Top

After Penn’s win over Pulver, the UFC announced he would be staying at lightweight to fight for the title against rival Sean Sherk. The current champ, Sherk, was suspended by the CSAC and the title fight was in limbo.  Sean then lost his appeal.

So B.J. Penn Vs. Joe Stevenson was scheduled for the outright lightweight title with Sherk getting the first title shot when he returned from suspension. 

It took B.J. six years, but he was able to crush “Joe Daddy” and win the lightweight title by second round submission with a bloody rear naked choke. 

With this win, Penn became only the second man to win UFC titles in two different weight classes (Randy Couture the other).

His comments showed his new found desire, “Something just awoke inside of me where I said ‘what are you doing? You can beat every one of these people.  You’ve been doing it half-assed all this time and it’s time to finally step up and let’s see it.’ If you can’t, you can’t, but at least you know you tried.

"Words can’t explain how pumped I am about fighting right now.  It’s what I am, it’s who I am, and it’s what I want to be.”

The questions about cardio and training are still being uttered.  But now with a lot more uncertainty. 

B.J. looked to be in the best shape he’s ever been in for this fight and showed the world two things…B.J.Penn was a champion again and seemed to be more focused and ready than ever before. 

Now it was time to match skill with work rate.  The “Prodigy” is now beginning to realize his potential.  

1.  The Legacy Now Professionally Equipped

There was a lot of bad blood between Sherk and Penn going into the conveniently titled event, UFC 84- “Ill Will."  No one can forget the words uttered by B.J. after his victory over Joe Stevenson...”Sean Sherk, you’re dead!”

He stopped Sean Sherk at the end of the third round to retain his title and left no doubt who the best fighter at 155lbs is. 

After the controversy and dominance in the GSP fight, B.J. became sidetracked-caught up even in suffering a huge, devastating loss. 

Now that he is slated to defend his title against Kenny Florian, one victory is stopping him from what could develop into one of the most dominant title runs in UFC history. 

If “the Prodigy” is able to get by “Ken Flo,” it’s hard to argue there are any immediate threats to B.J.’s gold. 

But how will he respond after his loss to GSP? 

Diego Sanchez, Clay Guida, Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, and Nate Diaz may be future opponenets for Penn, but no one could be considered a favorite against the Hilo warrior. 

Bottom line, it’s up to B.J. Penn how he wants to leave his legacy from this point on. 

He is now acting like a professional fighter with proper training, strength and conditioning, and not only relying on natural skill.  The sky is the limit for how long he can dominate the lightweight division.

The facts remain that the abilities, accomplishments, and personality of Jay Dee Penn will never be forgotten. 

He truly does possess outstanding skills, a book of knowledge, and should go down in history as, arguably, one of the best mixed martial artists of all time. 

Like it’s always been...it’s up to B.J. what’s next. 

UFC 101 is the next chapter in the, never dull, life of B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn…”ya know?”


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