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BJ Penn: A Polarizing Prodigy

MMA fandom could accurately be described as a passionate yet highly fickle endeavour. Fighters are loved and hated in simultaneously equal amounts and fan allegiances are about as solid as a soup sandwich.

It is an environment that cultivates a tribal level of support which consequently results in popular fighters becoming exceptionally polarizing figures. Perhaps there has been no fighter more polarizing than the man they call ‘The Prodigy’, BJ Penn.

The Hawaiian has been a highly divisive figure, even prior to making his much anticipated introduction to the sport. Fresh off becoming the first American to win gold at the BJJ World Championships (a feat that earned him his iconic nickname) supporters and naysayers were greeting his planned UFC debut with equivalent levels of zeal.

Penn’s mixed martial arts career would in the end be defined by frustrating inconsistencies. He managed to capture both the UFC lightweight and welterweight titles but such victories were surrounded by erratic performances borne out of his own lack of motivation and dedication to his craft. Now, at the tail end of his career, depending on who you talk to, he is either one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time or a wasted talent with the most delusional supporters in the sport.

at UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.

The one consistent anomaly when it comes to Penn and perhaps the reason he continues to remain so relevant is the deep rooted consensus that he is a throwback to a simpler time of fighting. During his career he’s campaigned at featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and light heavyweight.

On a recent UFC documentary (via Fox Sports) he mused: “Birds fly, fish swim, and I do this.”

Even his official apparel comes emblazoned with the tagline: ‘Just Scrap’. For a long time Penn seemed the embodiment of the oft-used, but seldom realised, ‘anywhere, anytime’ mentality. Through the years however, that old adage veered more toward ‘anywhere, anytime, any condition’ and acts as an overriding explanation for the sporadic levels of success that he would go on to achieve.

This writer was lucky enough to be present at UFC 80 in the Metro Arena in Newcastle to witness Penn at his sumptuous and swashbuckling best. The main event pitted Penn against TUF 2 winner Joe Stevenson to determine the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.

This was BJ Penn at the apex of his powers, a visceral, primal fighter with every possible tool at his disposal. He eviscerated Stevenson with the type of precision most fighters could only dream of. Effortless striking, smothering top control and a vintage rear naked choke forced a bloodied, battered and over-matched Stevenson to helplessly submit.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: BJ Penn of the USA watches the big screen after his drawn fight against Jon Fitch of the USA during their welterweight bout part of UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Then came the theatrics. Hoisted on his trainer’s shoulders, licking blood from his gloves and calling out the former champion Sean Sherk (for his alleged steroid use) for the world to hear. It still ranks as my personal favourite MMA moment.

Outside of the cage however, is where Penn has faced the majority of his problems. He has endured a tumultuous relationship with the UFC, and in particular its president Dana White. This first came to a head in 2004 immediately after Penn captured the UFC welterweight title from the seemingly unstoppable Matt Hughes.

Bitter contractual disputes resulted in Penn competing for promotions in Japan and Hawaii and having his title unceremoniously stripped by the UFC. At that time, according to Penn’s autobiography, Dana White promised never to do business with him again. In reality due to his box office appeal and prodigious talent, that was never going to be the case.

Time is indeed a great healer and Penn would return two years later and has been with the promotion ever since. However, that autobiography and the Hawaiian’s interactions with White ensured that the relationship between fighter and promoter would never be anything more than pure business.

NEW YORK - MARCH 24: Dana White, president of the UFC, speaks at a press conference for UFC 111 at Radio City Music Hall on March 24, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

The latest accusation laid at Penn’s feet, however, goes far beyond contractual disputes and takes his career, and indeed his life, down a far murkier road.

A former associate and writer for his official website, bjpenn.com, has filed a case against him for the alleged sexual assault of his girlfriend.

Jeremy Botter of Bleacher Report confirmed the case via his Twitter account.

Penn has vehemently denied the allegations and has stressed his innocence via a statement on his official website. 

Few details are known at this point, but the allegation was serious enough for the UFC to release a statement and postpone the Hawaiian’s return (post a recent retirement) to the Octagon.

The rumour was that Penn had been slated to face Dennis Siver at UFC 197 on the undercard of the highly anticipated rematch between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. Those plans have now been officially scrapped, pending the outcome of the initial investigation.

Stuart O’Shaughnessy, Pundit Arena

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