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What's a Legacy, BJ?
by Scott Newman (MMA)
Posted on August 14, 2008, 9:15 AM

So, we’re almost a week removed from UFC 87 and after what was, really, another one of those solid-but-unspectacular shows from the UFC that we’ve been given this year (UFC 84 nonwithstanding...) very little changed. There were no earth-shattering results, no huge upsets, and to be perfectly honest Brock Lesnar’s win over Heath Herring threw up more questions than it did answers. To tell the truth I’m not that interested in discussing the merits of Lesnar and where his future might lie, as I’m more concerned with the other big issue coming out of ‘Seek & Destroy’. That being the next challenger to Georges St-Pierre’s Welterweight Title. The ever-enigmatic BJ Penn.

I think it’s worth saying, before we start, that the whole post-fight scene following GSP-Fitch was a bit of a mess. GSP wasn’t really given a chance to cut a proper post-fight interview and poor Fitch, after suffering the beating of his life, didn’t even have chance to garner a bit of a sympathy pop from the crowd as Penn stormed in with his usual high-pitched rhetoric (“Let’s do this!”) and sidetracked everything. But alright, so Zuffa were running out of time on the pay-per-view broadcast. That isn’t the issue here. The issue is why, for some reason, a guy who – while a fantastic fighter, don’t get me wrong – can move up a weight class and get an instant title shot, despite being 0-2 in his last pair of fights at said weight. Why a guy who I feel is GSP’s toughest match, stylistically, is being shoved to one side and forced into another tough match, while a man with a history of inconsistency and abandoning titles is allowed yet another unwarranted challenge.

I think you can see where I stand on this issue. Look, I’m not trying to say BJ Penn is a bad fighter, or a bad person, or that a fight with Georges St-Pierre is a bad idea in itself. It’s more the timing of the thing. If both men had completely cleaned out their respective weight classes (which in itself is practically impossible, which I’ll get to in a second...) then perhaps this fight would make more sense. But they just haven’t done that, particularly Penn, whose current run at 155lbs has seen him beat a natural 145lber, and two admittedly very strong contenders in Stevenson and Sherk. But there’s a myriad of challengers out there. Maybe not all of them would get past Sherk - or Stevenson for that matter - but why does that make a difference? Kenny Florian, for instance, is now on a five-fight winning streak and has looked wildly improved since his last title challenge. Tyson Griffin is riding a four-fight streak and looks better every time out. Then there’s Clay Guida, Roger Huerta, Nathan Diaz, Gray Maynard...and that’s only discussing the fighters currently signed to a Zuffa contract. Would I pick any of them to unseat the Prodigy right now? I’ll be honest, probably not. But as we’ve seen countless times in the past, nothing is for certain in MMA, and if you could decide who was going to win based on record and reputation, we would never have seen Matt Serra: Welterweight Champion. In closing, beating three guys, even if they were the three toughest men out there, does not mean you’ve “cleaned out” a division.

BJ Penn (left) and Georges St-Pierre at the weigh-in for their first encounter, March 2006

GSP is another story. His list of victims in the UFC goes something like this: Parisyan, Heiron, Miller, Trigg, Sherk, Penn, Hughes, Koscheck, Serra, Fitch. You could probably argue that outside of Fedor Emelianenko, nobody has beaten more top fighters in their weight category in the sport. But even if we ignore the fact that GSP was upset just over a year ago by a total rank outsider, he still hasn’t cleaned out the division because there’s a man by the name of Thiago Alves standing right there. Alves is on a six-fight win streak himself. He’s beaten Lytle, he’s beaten Parisyan, and what’s more, in his last fight he knocked off the legendary ex-champion, Hughes. When you consider Alves’s game is based around a vicious Muay Thai attack coupled with excellent ground defense, GSP’s only recent loss came via knockout, and the best pure striker he’s fought in his career is probably Pete Spratt (!), you have the makings of a highly intriguing fight. So why is Alves being shoved to one side and forced into another tough fight against Diego Sanchez, while BJ Penn – a man who’s last loss came to Hughes, lest we forget - wanders right into a title shot?

The answer, most likely, is money. Alves – despite beating Hughes – isn’t that big of a name just yet and his drawing power is a complete question mark. Penn, while no Chuck Liddell in the box office stakes, is a well-known quantity and has headlined successful cards before. And his huge following amongst hardcore fans guarantees a large level of interest. But will a GSP-Penn fight in the upcoming months really draw that hugely? Both men are established stars, but I wouldn’t put either in the Liddell or Ortiz category just yet (although GSP may be there now following this weekend’s show). And with both looking as dominant as they are, surely it’d be smarter to save the fight for a little further down the road, after Penn’s beaten another three or four challengers and really proven himself as a fighter who is as consistent as he is talented. For me, by booking this fight as next on the list for Penn and St-Pierre, the UFC powers that be are coming off as tremendously short-sighted. And that’s not even considering the implications of the result of the fight.

Let’s say GSP wins for a second. Well, he’s already beaten Penn once, but even ignoring that, what does a win prove? That whoever came up with the idea of weight classes like a decade ago was right? That a skilled man can beat another skilled man who is likely fifteen or twenty pounds lighter? So alright, GSP moves on to Alves or Koscheck or whoever is on the scene, and BJ goes back down and carries on dominating at Lightweight. But what if Penn manages to win this time? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. What then? Does Penn stay at 170lbs and defend against the challengers there? Or drop back to 155lbs and leave the Welterweight title in the lurch? What do you do with St-Pierre, who has lost to your champion, but will most likely butcher everyone else in the division? And what if Penn decides that winning the titles at 155lbs and 170lbs isn’t enough, and wants a piece of Anderson Silva’s 185lbs crown? With a man as crazy as Penn it’s not unthinkable. And with 185lbs being relatively quiet when it comes to contenders when compared with 155 and 170, could Dana and the boys really deny him the opportunity? Can of worms, consider yourself well and truly opened.

What the people clamouring for this fight – BJ Penn included – need to understand is that legends in MMA are few and far between right now. BJ Penn has an opportunity to become a legend by dominating his natural weight class, 155lbs. He only needs to look at his old rival Matt Hughes for the prime example of that. Many people, myself included, would consider Hughes the greatest champion in UFC – arguably MMA – history. There’s a reason for that, and it isn’t because Hughes beat two top contenders and then randomly decided he wanted to fight Murilo Bustamante or Tito Ortiz. It’s because Hughes fought every contender that was thrown in front of him, and he beat them. No matter that Gil Castillo might not have been universally ranked as #2 in the world in November 2002 when Hughes beat him, or that Joe Riggs wasn’t really Zuffa’s first choice for a title shot in November of 2005. Hughes stepped up to the plate and delivered practically every time. Along the way, over a period of six years and two title reigns, he also made a record number of six successful title defenses (which would’ve been more had two of his fights during that time not been non-title affairs).

Yes, UFC might not always be booked as a pure sport – more often than not Zuffa are looking for fights that will draw money rather than fights that hardcore fans clamour for due to rankings – but MMA itself is undeniably a pure sport, and in that sense, in my opinion anyway, BJ Penn and his army of fans need to realize that the way for him to build a true legacy – one that will recognize him as more than a talented maverick who didn’t live up to his potential due to largely pointless adventures into higher weight categories – is to defend the Lightweight title as many times, if not more, than Matt Hughes defended the Welterweight belt. Let Georges St-Pierre defend his title against Thiago Alves, or Josh Koscheck, or Jake Shields, or whoever and forget that controversial split decision loss from 2006. Come back in a year or so and if the landscape’s still the same, then do the fight then. Maybe then GSP and Penn might get more money for it. Maybe then it might break buyrate records. To go through with this now feels like a Rush, no pun intended.

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