Penn once again silences doubters

PHILADELPHIA – Longtime boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. once made a rap song about his career which he called, “Ya’ll must’ve forgot.” He was angry that fans seemed to forget his years of dominance in which no opponent came remotely close to challenging him.

B.J. Penn, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s extraordinarily gifted lightweight champion, wouldn’t have been human had he not had similar emotions in the prelude to his title defense Saturday at the Wachovia Center in the co-main event of UFC 101 against Kenny Florian.

Penn was coming off a one-sided thrashing in a welterweight title fight against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 in January. His conditioning was questioned. His courage was questioned. His toughness was questioned.

But Penn proved that more than eight years after he made his mixed martial arts debut, he’s still the same spectacular athlete who earned the nickname “The Prodigy.”

With Jones watching from a front-row seat, Penn controlled Florian before taking him down and submitting him in the fourth round to retain the belt.

He had a tough act to follow, as Anderson Silva scored one of the more spectacular one-punch knockouts in a major bout in UFC history to stop Forrest Griffin in the first round of the other main event.

Penn, who was in the bathroom area of his locker room trying to gather his thoughts when the knockout occurred, heard the roars of the crowd and then greeted Silva as he returned from the cage.

“He said, ‘Now it’s your turn,’ ” Penn said, bursting into laughter. “Tough act to follow.”

It was, indeed.

And Penn seized the moment, taking Florian out of his game expertly, neutralizing his kicks and his elbows and outboxing him most of the way.

What Penn proved Saturday is the same thing he proved in 2008 when he destroyed Sean Sherk and Joe Stevenson in lightweight bouts: There may be bigger men alive who can defeat him, and some who could defeat him handily, but there are no men his size at this point who can defeat him.

Penn’s biggest problem has often been Penn himself. He hasn’t come to camp in shape and he has often let his mind wander.

Florian entered the fight on a six-bout winning streak and was the choice of many to score the upset, but Penn was clearly a different fighter Saturday. The work he put in with strength and conditioning coach Marv Marinovich was clearly evident. He was as flexible as ever but had the staying power he lacked in past bouts.

He was also deadly focused and never lost sight of his goal, like he’s done occasionally in the past.

“B.J. Penn looked better physically than I’ve seen him since 2001,” UFC president Dana White said. “He came out and fought an amazing fight against a highly talented and motivated Kenny Florian.”

That’s because Penn is highly talented and was highly motivated to put the St. Pierre loss behind him. Not only did he get thrashed by St. Pierre, but he came under attack by many of his fans for alleging that St. Pierre had illegally greased his body.

He didn’t help his cause earlier in the week when he said he believed that St. Pierre also used steroids.

All of that got plenty of attention, but it obscured the fact that Penn remains superior to any lightweight alive. He’s an elite boxer, he is even better with his jiu-jitsu and he has great takedown defense.

In the past, he didn’t want to be limited by one weight class and he is so talented he managed to move up and win a welterweight championship. But Penn is significantly smaller than the welterweights, let alone middleweights, light heavyweights and heavyweights.

In 2005, he actually faced Lyoto Machida, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, in a heavyweight bout and nearly pulled it out.

But MMA has evolved so much since that the size difference makes it all but impossible for a man with a small frame like Penn to compete on even terms.

That explains the loss to a brilliant fighter like St. Pierre, but it doesn’t explain the doubt that many had about Penn’s chances on Saturday.

Silva, who had plenty of his own doubters after back-to-back lackluster fights, couldn’t understand those who questioned Penn.

“B.J. went out there and proved there is nobody in the world who can beat him,” Silva said. “He went out and did his job well done. I’m a big fan of B.J.”

When he is in the kind of shape he was in on Saturday and he fights with the determination he did against Florian, it’s hard not to be a fan of Penn’s.

There were many of his fans and camp members who were wearing “Penn State” T-shirts in the arena Saturday and Penn acted as if he were plenty at home in Pennsylvania.

No matter where the Octagon is, though, he’s at home.

B.J. Penn was born to fight.

Kenny Florian learned that lesson Saturday.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 9, 2009