The rise and fall of BJ Penn from UFC champion to conspiracy theorist

Here's a brief breakdown of BJ Penn's UFC career and life since retirement.
BJ Penn
BJ Penn / Ryan Pierse/GettyImages

In the short but chaotic history of the UFC, few fighters have seen more highs and lows in their careers than that of Jay Dee "BJ" Penn III, a former two-division champion who is widely regarded as one of the best to ever do it despite his 16-14-2 career record.

From the moment he first stepped into the cage at UFC 31, Penn was expected to take the MMA world by storm. In some ways he did, but in many others, a man rightfully nicknamed 'The Prodigy' failed to reach the lofty expectations set for him. In many aspects, the bar was set unfairly high for Penn early in his career, but it would have been hard for people not to expect a legendary career for a man who entered the sport with his credentials.

Born in Kailua, Hawaii, and raised on the island of Hawaii — locally referred to as 'The Big Island' — Penn did not begin his martial arts training until his teenage years but once he first put on a gi, it took him just three years to become a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Andre Pederneiras. To put that unprecedented accomplishment into perspective, it takes typical practitioners an average of 12 years to receive a black belt, and doing so in under 10 years is seen as a rare feat.

As if mastering Brazilian jiu-jitsu was not enough, Penn hit mainstream attention in 2000 by becoming the first non-Brazilian to win the World Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championships in the black belt division. Thus, the legend of 'The Prodigy' was born.

The rise of BJ Penn

The MMA world did not see Penn until the following year in 2001 when he would immediately prove his talent with wins first-round knockout wins over Din Thomas and Caol Uno in his first year as a professional mixed martial artist. At the time, Thomas and Uno were unanimously two of the top lightweights in the world, thus giving many confidence in believing that Penn was the best 155-pound fighter in the sport as he had already earned a title shot in just his fourth Octagon appearance.

The hype behind Penn even put him above Jens Pulver in the eyes of many, who then held the UFC lightweight championship. Pulver won the belt in the promotion's inaugural lightweight title fight against Uno and entered his fight with Penn having defended the belt against Dennis Hallman at UFC 33.

Pulver had proven his worth as a champion but it did not matter. He was seen as just a placeholder of sorts, holding down the belt until its true champion, a real 'Prodigy' came to reign over the division in a sport that desperately needed a star within the lower weight classes. Pulver had the skills but not the star appeal, leading to him being a massive underdog against Penn despite being the champion.

The whole world was ready for Penn to take over the UFC but in all the hype, people seemed to forget that it was just his fourth professional MMA fight. Penn lost the bout by majority decision and to this day, there has never been a more significant upset in a title fight where the champion retained the belt.

The legend of 'The Prodigy' was not over, however, as Penn was still just 23 and tasted defeat for the first time in his MMA career. After two quick wins over Paul Creighton and Matt Serra, Penn found his way back into a lightweight title fight at UFC 41 in a rematch with Uno. Since losing the first fight, Uno also entered the rematch on a two-fight win streak with wins over Thomas and Yves Edwards.

But while the Penn bandwagon had put itself back together, the Hawaiian failed for a second time to become a UFC champion. Penn and Uno fought to a split draw, a huge disappointment for both fighters. The inconclusive result on top of Pulver leaving the promotion caused the UFC to put the division on the back burner for several years and subsequently, Penn departed from the organization.

Penn was still a star, but one that many now wondered if he could reach his full potential after two failed title shots. Eight months after UFC 41, Penn returned to his roots in Hawaii and regained his momentum with a win over eventual PRIDE lightweight titleholder Takanori Gomi to become the Rumble on the Rock 155-pound champion.

With the win, Penn returned to form in more ways than one. Not only did he win his first MMA title in his home state, but the former Brazilian jiu-jitsu superstar picked up his first win by submission. His grappling skills were never in question, but tapping out a former ADCC champion with a rear-naked choke was a firm reminder of why he truly was 'The Prodigy.'

Now 6-1-1, Penn was called back into the UFC for a third title fight. This time, however, it would be in the 170-pound division against long-reigning champion Matt Hughes, who, to that point, had defended the belt five times. For the first time in his MMA career, Penn was a huge underdog to one of the sport's top pound-for-pound fighters.

Yet, Penn thrived as an underdog once again, shocking the world and dominating Hughes for over four minutes before sinking in another rear-naked choke at the end of the first round to force a tap. Hughes could only sit up in disbelief, realizing that after years of terrorizing the welterweight division, he had lost his belt to a lightweight of all people.

On his third try, Penn had finally claimed UFC gold and would begin what truly made his legendary career memorable, because while everybody had hyped him up to be a potentially dominant champion, that was not who he truly was. Penn was a fighter, through and through, who embodied the Hawaiian spirit. He did not want to become a prize fighter who nitpicked his title defenses. He wanted to be a fighter.

Fight he did for the next several years after leaving the UFC once more and returning to K-1's MMA organization. Between the years of 2004-2005, Penn broke nearly every unwritten rule of managing a young career in modern MMA. Not only would the 5'9" career lightweight remain at welterweight, but Penn would move up to middleweight to face Rodrigo Gracie before taking matters even further in his 12th professional fight by facing Lyoto Machida in an openweight bout.

Machida, of course, the eventual UFC light heavyweight champion, significantly outweighed Penn and won the three-round bout in Japan. But to Penn, records did not matter; he just wanted to fight, and that is what made fans love him.

Following a four-fight stint with K-1, Penn returned to the UFC in a featured fight on UFC 58 against rising contender Georges St-Pierre, who was then considered a star on the rise but was not yet a champion. Ultimately size would prevail once again, as St-Pierre would control Penn for nearly half of the 15-minute fight and earn a split decision nod.

Regardless of the loss, Penn would find himself in another welterweight title fight six months later in a rematch with Hughes, who had regained the title. With an improved gameplan the second time around, Hughes allowed just 17 significant strikes and became the first person to finish Penn with a third-round TKO.

Now on the first losing streak of his career, questions began to arise regarding Penn's motivation towards becoming a champion. But just several months after his loss to Hughes, Penn was announced as a coach on season five of The Ultimate Fighter against another old foe. Penn would coach against and rematch Pulver in his return to the lightweight division, avenging his loss with a second-round submission.

Becoming a UFC champion

With the win in his return to his natural division, Penn became the third UFC lightweight champion the following year with yet another rear-naked choke submission, this time over Joe Stevenson. Penn's ensuing title defense over former champion Sean Sherk would set up a rematch with St-Pierre that would be pushed as one of the biggest events in promotional history.

Penn and St-Pierre would throw down for a second time at UFC 94 on the Saturday before Super Bowl XLIII. With a win, Penn would become the first UFC fighter to hold a belt in two divisions at the same time. But after the fourth round, with Penn having landed just 16 significant strikes and controlled for over 14 minutes, his corner threw in the towel, giving St-Pierre the win by TKO.

The aftermath of the event would get murky for a while, and would form what is now known as "Grease-gate." Penn moved on, returning to the lightweight division and breaking the record for most consecutive title defenses at 155 pounds with back-to-back finishes of former TUF 1 contestants Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez.

Entering UFC 112, fans had more or less put "Grease-gate" behind them and Penn was on top of the world. It was hard to call him the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world with two losses to the welterweight champion but after dominating two of the biggest stars in his own division, he was firmly establishing what many assumed would be a lengthy title reign. What many had begun to wonder if he was capable of seemed to be the reality and all he had to do next was take out another challenger, a smaller and lesser-known fighter. 'The Prodigy' seemed to have finally reached its peak.

UFC 112 was Penn's event to dominate. Anderson Silva and Demian Maia headlined the card but Penn had not lost a fight at lightweight in nearly a decade and entered his fourth title defense as an immense favorite. And yet, Penn's title reign ended in Abu Dhabi, as Frankie Edgar stunned every viewer and took the lightweight belt home with a closely contested decision win.

The fight was close, but Edgar followed the gameplan of both Hughes and St-Pierre to expose Penn's wrestling weaknesses enough to persuade the judges. Penn was no longer the champion but his popularity remained sky-high, thus warranting an immediate rematch four months later.

Unfortunately for the Hawaiian and his fanbase, the second fight provided the same result: a unanimous decision win for Edgar, only this time more convincing.

The fall of BJ Penn

Instead of attempting to climb his way back into the lightweight title picture, Penn went back up to welterweight and at UFC 173, his rivalry with Hughes was set to be completed with a trilogy. On the heels of two straight losses, Penn was again the underdog to Hughes but needed just 21 seconds to end their saga. A right hand would put Hughes on his back and the ensuing ground-and-pound from Penn left him unconscious.

That was all fans needed to see from Penn to convince them that his time was not done. Penn convinced everybody that he was new and improved, having spent the majority of his training camp for the trilogy with famed boxing coach Floyd Mayweather Sr. He was still just 32 years old and even though Hughes would fight just once more before retiring, many still believed Penn was elite.

Little did every MMA fan know that on that night of November 20, 2010, Penn would leave the Octagon for the final time as a winner.

Penn would headline UFC 127 three months after his win over Hughes against former title challenger Jon Fitch in what many assumed was a de facto title eliminator. The pay-per-view main event was highly anticipated, but Penn surprised everyone by landing just 12 significant strikes and spending most of the fight being controlled by Fitch. The official decision was a lackluster majority draw, leaving a lot to be desired.

Needless to say, a draw was less than ideal for a fighter whom many so desperately wanted to see back at the top. But in hindsight, as they say, the grass is always greener. Penn's fight with Fitch would be the best outcome he would receive for the rest of his career, as over the next eight years, Penn would fight seven more times. All seven fights resulted in a loss, setting a dismal UFC record.

From 2011 to 2019, Penn claimed retirement several times but kept returning, convincing fans that this time it would be different. Through several coaching changes and failed approaches, Penn's losses would only continue to pile up. Even during the dark days of his career Penn was still beloved, but the passionate cry of 'The Prodigy' from Bruce Buffer in his introduction had become just a nostalgic trigger.

Post-UFC life

During the late stages of his UFC career, Penn's legal troubles began to surface. The fighter was arrested in 2015 on charges of alleged assault and in 2019, Penn was accused of both physical and sexual assault by his ex-girlfriend.

The situation reached a boiling point with the UFC in 2019 when Penn was caught on video involved in a street fight in Pahoa, Hawaii. Penn was supposedly trying to diffuse a drunk and angry man to no avail, and the tape showed the former two-division champion eating a punch to the face that knocked him unconscious on the road.

It was ultimately the final straw for Dana White, who had already to that point claimed he would no longer let Penn fight in the UFC. But in September 2019, the UFC released Penn from his contract at 40 years old. He last fought four months prior, losing a decision to Clay Guida at UFC 237.

These days, Penn still lives in Hawaii, owning the prominent MMA news site. Penn has also successfully invested in the UFC Gyms located in Hawaii, all of which are branded with his name. His legacy is still often retold in both the MMA world and within the islands.

Penn's social media pages are constantly active, primarily with his negative opinions of the Hawaii government. Driven by his dissatisfaction with the state leadership, Penn ran for governor in 2022 but lost in the primary election to former lieutenant governor Duke Aiona. Penn's frustration with current Hawaii Governor Josh Green along with his countless issues within the state are expressed in a nearly daily manner on his Instagram.

Despite his best efforts, Penn is all but certainly not going to have the political success he desires. His time at the center of Hawaii media attention is likely in the past but he remains within the MMA space through his involvement with the UFC Gyms and his association with recent bantamweight title challenger Marlon Vera.

As quickly as he rose as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom, a fighter, celebrity and eventual UFC champion, in the blink of an eye, Penn was forced back to where it all began. It is only a mere reminder of how unforgiving combat sports can be. People may always debate whether or not Penn fulfilled the expectations he was given but his influence on the sport will stand the test of time and for that, he is, and always will be, a true Hawaiian hero and 'The Prodigy' of MMA.


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