It’s been said that B.J. Penn is the best two-round fighter in MMA history. He has all the talent, all the potential, but despite (or maybe because of) his natural advantages, he’s never been the dominant fighter in any weight class. On Saturday Penn takes on Joe Stevenson for the vacant UFC lightweight title, and he swears that his days of underachieving are over. I want to believe him. I really do. But some part of me feels like the kid in the after-school special who keeps believing that this is the year his ne’er-do-well father will really show up for their scheduled weekend together.
What I’m saying is, as much as I’d like to see Penn finally put it all together and clean out the lightweight division, I don’t want to end up sitting on the front porch all night with my duffel bag and my baseball glove.
Maybe what has captivated me so much about Penn is the fact that he’s such an enigma. I don’t find him particularly likable as a person. On my list of favorite fighters, he’s probably not even in the top ten. But there’s something about a guy who could be great, if only he wanted it enough, that I find endlessly compelling. Maybe it’s the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ paradox: a man can be whatever he wants, but he can’t want what he wants.
Then again, maybe I’m just overthinking this.
In any event, I can’t think of a more appropriate test for Penn right now than Joe Stevenson. It’s not exactly a real title fight, since Sherk is sitting out his steroid suspension and Stevenson, well, I won’t say he didn’t earn this shot, but at the same time when this bout was announced there was hardly a feeling that finally, Joe Stevenson is getting his turn.
Stevenson isn’t a phenom. He’s never going to be superstar material, in any sense of the word. What he is, though, is a disciplined, intelligent fighter with an impressive work ethic. He might accurately be described, if one were a hack newspaper writer, as ‘workmanlike’. Essentially, he’s the anti-B.J. Penn. He has a good ground game, good standup, but he’s not spectacular at any one thing.
This is why I think Stevenson is a kind of truth serum for Penn. An in-shape, motivated and committed Penn should beat Stevenson every time. But an unmotivated Penn, one who hasn’t done the work in the gym, will most likely lose at least half the time. Stevenson won’t quit, he won’t gas out, and he won’t make stupid mistakes. He’s going to keep coming and he’s going to make you beat him.
If B.J. Penn is truly born again hard, as they say (they means the drill sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, by the way), then we’ll find out Saturday night. If he isn’t, we should know by round three.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me wants to see Penn reach his full potential. But another part of me thinks that you are what you habitually do. Come Saturday, we should learn a lot about Penn’s true character, and whether a man can really change his own nature by sheer force of will.