The UFC lightweight has all the tools for superstardom. He's a phenom in jiu-jitsu; his standup is slick; his takedown defense is world-class; he's charismatic. Tales of his prowess have been spun over the years in building him up to near-mythical status. MMA fighters hold him in awe, amazed by a skill level that is unmatched when focused, understanding that his best is at another level. It is a phenomenon that FIGHT! Magazine writer and author Sam Sheridan calls, "the BJ factor."
But his results haven't always matched up to his limitless ceiling. For all his talent, Penn is just 2-3 in his last five fights dating back to March 2005. While the losses came to an undefeated fighter several weight classes above him (Lyoto Machida) and two octagon legends (Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre), they were losses nonetheless. And for a man who speaks about building a legacy, they might have served as a wakeup call.
While Penn says that he regrets nothing he's done in his career -- not moving up in weight class, not leaving and suing the UFC -- he notes that he suddenly has an obsession with cementing his place in history. With a win over Joe Stevenson at UFC 80, Penn would become the second man in UFC history to win titles in two weight classes, following Randy Couture.
"I woke up this morning and the first thing that came to my head is the fight," Penn said on a recent conference call. "Yeah, I've fought St. Pierre and Hughes, but this fight is everything. Legacy or not, I've gotta go out and become the lightweight champion on January 19."
Most fighters wouldn't have the audacity to speak about something so distant as a legacy. It is too far and too unreachable. They are concerned simply with their next fight. But for the 29-year-old Penn, it is not only reachable; he believes it's his destiny.
"Me and BJ have talked about his legacy," says UFC President Dana White. "I saw him four months ago in Hawaii and we talked about it. His legacy is important to him. He doesn't want to be one of the most talented guys and not live up to his potential."
White believes that Penn is so physically gifted that he could have played nearly any professional sport he wanted. The root of the Penn legend comes from his stunning and immediate success in jiu-jitsu. In 1997, Penn began training in the sport, and just three years later, he became the first American ever to win the Mundial World Championships in Brazil. That's an astonishing achievement that is difficult to believe. Most people take a decade or more to receive their black belt, but within three years, Penn had shot past tens of thousands who'd been training their entire lives to become the best in the world. At the time, he was just 22 years old.
Quickly nicknamed "The Prodigy," Penn found his way onto the UFC's radar screen, where he immediately asserted himself as a force in the lightweight division, winning all of his first three matches by knockout. Not yet even showing off the grappling skills that had brought him to prominence, Penn seemed unbeatable. But at UFC 35, Jens Pulver outlasted him in a decision win for the UFC lightweight title. A year later, in 2003, Penn and Caol Uno fought to a draw in another lightweight title match. After that fight failed to produce a champion, the UFC decided to suspend its lightweight class.
After stopping world No. 1 lightweight Takanori Gomi at Rumble in the Rock show in his native Hawaii, Penn finally earned his long sought-after title when he submitted Matt Hughes at UFC 46 for the welterweight crown.
That's when things took a strange turn. Penn signed with the Japan-based K-1 organization, was stripped of the UFC title, and moved up weight classes to create fights he believed would challenge him better. He says now that at the time, the UFC's low profile caused him to leave.
"Dana White made the UFC as big as it now and I realize what is at stake," Penn says. "When I was 22, UFC was small-time. They made it big now. It's a serious thing, and I want to be part of its history and one of its great champions."
White finally talked Penn into returning and starting his legacy by cleaning out the lightweight division. Penn has greater plans but knows that those plans must start now.
His opponent at UFC 80, Stevenson, is certainly not an afterthought. Stevenson has a 28-7 career record and has four straight wins and has captured 13 of his last 14 overall.
Still, it would be hard to find too many who believe that Stevenson can beat a focused Penn.
Stevenson noted that for most of his fights, he doesn't train on the ground at all, but that he respects Penn's skills so much that for this camp, he's spent half his time on his grappling and jiu-jitsu.
"When you see us on the ground, you're going to get a clinic," he says. "That's how we are, we don't just sit there and hold people."
"Joe is a great opponent," Penn says. "He's got so many tools he brings in. This is the most important fight in my life. If I win, I become a guy who won two titles in two division. I'm not thinking of anything else."
When he initially became "The Prodigy," the sport was nowhere near the level it is today. There will be more eyes on him than ever before, and ironically, Penn will find that as he narrows his focus, the spotlight on him will only continue to widen.
Video: MMA from NBC Sports
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