LAS VEGAS – For a guy who is reputed to be one of the most talented mixed martial artists ever, it was a long time between wins for B.J. Penn.
But the affable Hawaiian, who submitted arch rival Jens Pulver Saturday to a second-round rear naked choke, is a lot different man at 28 than he was at 26.
Penn had lost his last two bouts – albeit to two of the greatest fighters in the game, Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre – and had dropped three of his last four entering Saturday's bout with Pulver.
What Penn proved in dismantling Pulver, who clearly had little chance to win, was that UFC president Dana White isn't far off when he speaks of Penn's potential.
Penn had lost to Pulver in a 2002 lightweight title fight he was widely expected to win and then developed a bitterness toward Pulver when he felt Pulver was reluctant to give him a rematch. He hired a nutritionist and had vowed to shed the fat boy image he had cultivated as his body fat soared to over 23 percent.
White, who has had his share of confrontations with Penn over the years, was hopeful Penn had finally matured but was cautious after having been teased too often in the past.
A few days before the fight, White called Penn one of the most frustrating fighters he's known. "B.J. has extraordinary talent and can do things in this sport that guys don't have the (courage) to even try, he's so good," White said. "But he's frequently leaving you wanting more. He's close a lot of the time, but it's been a long time, if ever, when I've walked away from a B.J. Penn fight and said, 'That's the B.J. Penn I know.' He's kind of a little tease in that regard."
Penn committed to Saturday's fight like he has to few bouts in his life. After fighting as high as light heavyweight – he lost to highly regarded Lyoto Machida in a 2005 light heavyweight match he swears he won – Penn pushed himself in training and made it to the 155-pound lightweight limit so he could get a shot at Pulver.
"Even though I beat Matt Hughes and I had all these fights at all these weights, it really was all to go back and fight Jens Pulver," Penn said.
Pulver is a hard puncher who is always superbly conditioned, but when both men are right, Penn is far the superior fighter.
He has more ways to win than just about any man alive.
But though plaudits were flowing his way, he wasn't willing to accept them. Even apprised of White's comments about his skills, he barely broke a grin and instead pointed to heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko as the world's most gifted fighter.
He said he wished he had Emelianenko's judo ability and praised the Russian for being a gutsy performer.
Penn, though, is plenty gutsy himself, one of the reasons besides his physical gifts that he's so good.
He's willing to suffer if there's something he wants badly enough. And what he wants now is to get another fight with Hughes.
"I don't care if he has a belt or not, this isn't about a title," Penn said. "It's about me and Matt Hughes. I need something like that, to get me motivated."
White said he hopes Penn stays at lightweight and becomes a dominant champion in that division. Penn shrugged at the thought, though, and said he would consider it, though it was only a half-hearted answer.
He's split a pair of fights with Hughes, though he feels he would have beaten Hughes last year when they met on Sept. 23 had he not broken a rib late in the first round.
"I almost hate to say it, because it sounds like an excuse," Penn said. "But it's the truth."
The injury forced him to go for a submission instead of pounding Hughes from the guard to soften him up.
"You saw that's what I did tonight with Jens," Penn said.
Hughes, though, survived and wound up stopping Penn in the third round.
The loss gnaws at Penn just a little more than normal because he dislikes Hughes so much. And that's why he said he's not sure he can stay active and fight a lot of top contenders because there is little in most men who get him motivated.
"At this stage, that's what I need," Penn said. "I need that big challenge to get me and push me. If I have that, I think I can be pretty good."
Just like he was on Saturday.
If he doesn't have that challenge, well, let's just say his new-found commitment to his diet probably won't last long.
Penn joked about how he was a frequent visitor to McDonald's and Burger King and how he used to try to figure a way to include the French fries on his Zone Diet.
Without a Hughes to keep him working hard and eating right, Penn will likely bloat into the little butterball he was for much of the previous five years, a guy so talented he'd beat most men despite his conditioning.
But with someone who raises his ire, Penn will become a regular gym rat.
"Whatever it takes," he said, laughing. "I'm a man now."