NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – For years, the word "if" has haunted B.J. Penn.
He's heard it so much, it makes him want to scream in agony.
If only he would train, the experts would say.
If only he would take mixed martial arts seriously, they'd continue.
If only he had the desire to be the best like a Randy Couture.
Penn has heard it for years and run away from it, trying desperately to be his own man. He would do things his way, on his terms.
And though doing that has resulted in a decent career, Penn is hardly a lock to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame at this stage and there are many who look at him as a disappointment.
"When he wants to, he can pretty much do anything in there," long-time rival Jens Pulver said of Penn.
Now, it seems, Penn wants to. On the eve of a lightweight title shot against Joe Stevenson on Saturday at UFC 80 at Metro Radio Arena, Penn admits that his legions of critics are correct.
He has, he says, underachieved for much of his career. Despite the UFC welterweight title he won by submitting Matt Hughes, despite the wins over luminaries such as Takanori Gomi, Matt Serra, Caol Uno and Renzo Gracie, among others, Penn concedes he hasn't gotten all he could out of his career.
At 29 years old, the Hilo, Hawaii native says, he’s finally grown up.
"I hear all these things everyone says about it and it should get me (angry), but I'm not, because it's true," Penn said. "I should be No. 1 up there. I know the kind of skills I have. I haven't always been as serious as I should. I've been immature a lot of the time. Bottom line, I'm a better fighter than I've shown."
In Stevenson, Penn faces a guy who in many ways is his polar opposite. While Penn's physique is frequently soft, without definition, Stevenson looks like he was chiseled, not born.
Stevenson is the type who'd never spent just five hours in a gym when he had a chance to spend eight.
He's literally made himself into a fighter while supporting a wife and a growing family.
Penn comes from a well-to-do background and hasn't had to push himself the way Stevenson has.
But Penn, who is nicknamed "The Prodigy," said a conversation with UFC president Dana White last year turned his professional life around.
White was toying with the idea of naming Penn and Pulver as coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter" but wanted Penn to commit to making 155 pounds so they'd fight at the season finale.
Penn had once talked of winning titles in all five MMA weight divisions, but agreeing to White's offer would mean agreeing to the sacrifice it would take to get to – and stay at – 155 pounds.
"This idea he had of winning titles at 70, 85, 205 and heavyweight is nutty, and I told him that," White said. "B.J. is as good as there is, but that's not how you make your reputation. You clean out one division and after you do that, if you think you can do it you move up at that point."
So Penn agreed to coach on the show and went on to exact revenge on Pulver by submitting him in the second round of the finale.
That's led to the fight with Stevenson and yet another bid at a lightweight title he was once considered a shoo-in to win but has never worn.
"Joe is a fantastic fighter," Penn says, almost sounding reverential.
But it is not Stevenson who is motivating Penn to make 155 and to try to, as White says, clean out the division.
He aches for another crack at interim welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who was dominant in a Dec. 29 win at UFC 79 over Hughes.
Penn lost a disputed split decision at UFC 58 on March 3, 2006, in Las Vegas. He clearly dominated the Canadian star in the first round, but his conditioning was poor and he couldn't keep up the pace. St. Pierre came back to take the final two rounds and win the fight.
St. Pierre has zoomed to the top of the MMA heap and is ranked second to Anderson Silva in the Yahoo! Sports top 10 poll, while Penn is seventh.
"Can I please – please – fight this guy (St. Pierre)?" Penn says. "You know it has to happen. Everyone does. It's the fight everyone really wants to see. I heard Dana say something like a 'motivated B.J. Penn is very dangerous,' but I'd never be more motivated in my life than if I got a chance to fight this guy again."
If Penn gets past Stevenson, which is hardly a given even if he's on top of his game, he'll still have to get past guys like former champion Sean Sherk and top contenders such as Kenny Florian, Frankie Edgar, Tyson Griffin and Roger Huerta.
Then, and only then, will White relent and give Penn the fight he really wants.
"Some guys are born with God-given natural ability, but a lot of times, they're the hardest ones to get to train properly, because everything comes so easily to them," White said. "And because of that, a lot of times they wind up (throwing) it all way. B.J. can do things that very few guys have ever been able to do in there, but he doesn't do it all the time because he hasn't dedicated himself to it.
"He tells me he is and he insists he's working as hard as he's ever worked, so we'll have to see. But if he does what he says and cleans out this division, then he can come to me and we'll talk about the welterweights."
That's fine with Penn, who loved the nickname he carried but didn't like the pressure that went along with being one of the most gifted mixed martial artists who ever lived.
He just wanted to be one of the guys at one point.
"I didn't like being the favorite and always being expected to win," Penn said. "I've had the highest highs and the lowest lows in this career and a lot of it is because of all the expectations people put on me. I didn't really like (them) telling me how I should win all of the time. But I'm a more mature guy now and I understand better what this is all about.
"Now is the time. I'm ready to do the things I'm capable of, not just for one fight, but for every fight."
White laughed upon hearing the comment, because he's heard Penn say it so many times before.
"We'll see," White said between chuckles.
But Penn is deadly serious. He wants not only to win the lightweight belt and cement his legacy as one of the greatest fighters to compete in the UFC, but he wants to be able to avenge a loss that has grated on him ever since.
"I think I won the fight as it was," Penn said. "His conditioning and stamina was great that time and it will be again. But where I know his will be the same, I'm going to be a lot better. He won't be fighting the same old B.J."