In 2001 B.J. Penn made his professional mixed martial arts debut, fast forward 13-years later to 2014 and he has finally called it quits.
“The Prodigy” began his career with the UFC and had only one short-lived stint outside the organization. Going 3-0 in his first three bouts, earned him a shot at the UFC Lightweight Championship — a bout against Jens Pulver.
Pulver vs. Penn I
At UFC 35 on January 11, 2002 Penn took on Pulver in the main event at what was called “Throwdown.” Penn proved he was definitely a force in the 155-pound division throughout the first two rounds. He took Pulver down at will and almost snatched his arm right off with a deep armbar submission attempt. Unfortunately the final three frames were all Pulver — keeping Penn at a distance with punches and taking him down whenever he chose to do so. While in the end the judges scored this one in favor of Pulver, the fight proved Penn’s worth.
This four year stretch saw Penn go from a lightweight champion, to a welterweight champion, to fighting at middleweight and all the way up to fight another legend of the sport at a catchweight weighing 191-pounds.
After beating Matt Serra in the UFC 41 lightweight tournament semi-finals, Penn went on to face Caol Uno at UFC 41 for the UFC lightweight championship. A tough close battle, which he wound up losing a split decision.
That loss sent him on a one-off fight outside the Octagon at K1-Rumble on the Rock 4, where he beat Takanori Gomi for the Rumble on the Rock lightweight championship. Following that victory, he made his way back to the UFC, but this time he wanted to test the waters at 170-pounds.
His welterweight debut was against Matt Hughes for the title. At UFC 46 right from the get-go, Penn rushed Hughes and dragged the wrestler to the mat. He was eventually able to take Hughes’ back, sink in the rear-naked choke and finish the fight with 21-seconds left in the first round. That fight won him the championship, however it was quickly stripped when he decided to sign with the K-1 organization.
Penn’s next three fights, up until mid 2005 were under the K-1 banner. He won his first two bouts, one of which being a middleweight fight against Rodrigo Gracie. The Hawaiian went 3-1 with the promotion, with his lone loss coming to Lyoto Machida at a catchweight with Penn weighing at 191lbs and Machida at 225lbs.
Upon his return to the UFC, Penn faced off with one of the greatest welterweights on the planet, Georges St-Pierre in a welterweight title eliminator. He wound up losing a split decision to GSP at UFC 58, but ended up in a rematch against Hughes at UFC 163 for the belt. That bout earned ‘Fight of the Night’ and 2006 ‘Fight of the Year’ however Penn lost via third round TKO.
Those back-to-back losses forced Penn to return to the 155-pound division. After coaching opposite Jens Pulver on The Ultimate Fighter 5, the two squared off in the finale with Penn tapping Pulver out via rear-naked choke in the third round.
The lightweight title was vacated and up for grabs, so at UFC 80, Penn took on Joe Stevenson and captured the title in a bloody mess of a match. He defended the belt once against Sean Sherk, in an epic performance, winning with a flying knee.
In a strange move, Penn moved back up to welterweight to fight champion Georges St-Pierre in a rematch with champion vs. champion. This was the first time the organization dubbed an event “UFC Super Bowl Weekend,” and it was anticipated to be the biggest UFC pay-per-view event ever. Penn lost the championship fight by fourth round TKO and eight months later made the move back down to lightweight.
He defended his belt two more times, against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez — both came in vicious fashion, prior to losing the title to Frankie Edgar. Penn lost the belt at UFC 112 and had an instant rematch against Edgar at UFC 118. Edgar once again earned the victory, proving he had Penn’s number at 155-pounds.
The loss of his title had Penn move back up to 170-pounds and right into the trilogy fight against Hughes. At UFC 123, Penn and Hughes squared off inside the Octagon, but it didn’t last long. Just 21-seconds into the very first round Penn knocked Hughes out-cold.
He went on to face Jon Fitch, Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald in the welterweight division and lost to MacDonald and Diaz, but fought to a draw with Fitch.
After nearly a two-year hiatus, Penn returned to action against his arch-nemesis Edgar. A trilogy fight was made after the two were announced as coaches for the nineteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Penn dropped down to 145-pounds for the very first time in his career and made easily with Mike Dolce’s help. However, his style changed when he entered the Octagon. At 35-years-old he changed his boxing style, to a very strange standing straight up style and Edgar was able to take him down at will. Three rounds later Penn was finished by TKO and calling it a career.
Whether it was winning the lightweight or welterweight titles, fighting at a weight class much higher than his natural or losing in his final fight, he was and always will be “The Prodigy”.
“That’s a lot of what I’ve done in my life and a lot of what I’ve known so it’s going to be hard to completely walk away.”