NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND – B.J. Penn said he used to try to see how little he could prepare and yet still win a mixed martial arts fight.
Most times, he could wake up in the morning after a long evening carousing the many night spots in his native Hawaii and whip 99 percent of the men who were put in front of him.
"I was just a young punk," Penn said. "I thought I was bad. I thought I was tough."
But on Saturday night before yet another sellout crowd in a rickety old arena about 10,000 miles from his island home, Penn was bad and he was tough.
He won the vacant UFC lightweight title with a dominant victory over Joe Stevenson, hurting the Las Vegan with the first punch of the bout and continuing his assault until Stevenson submitted to a rear naked choke at 4:02 of the second round of UFC 80 at Metro Radio Arena.
On Saturday, Penn was what experts had been saying for years he could be. He was powerful, he was clever, he was conditioned, he was agile and he was a finisher.
It was such a dominant win over such a quality opponent that it sparked the debate that UFC president Dana White wanted to hear least: Whether he'd stay at lightweight.
Penn won the UFC's welterweight title in 2004 when he submitted Matt Hughes and began to speak openly of winning belts in every weight class.
On Saturday, he became only the second fighter in UFC history, joining Randy Couture, who held the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles, to win belts in two weight classes.
His performance was so dominant Saturday that he may finally be, as his potential has long suggested, the finest fighter in the world.
Former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko has long carried that distinction. UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva usurped that spot from him in the most recent Yahoo! Sports poll and UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre's one-sided victory over Hughes last month in Las Vegas was evidence that he belongs in the conversation, as well.
But there were few who witnessed the devastation that Penn inflicted upon a superb opponent on Saturday who were willing to doubt the Hawaiian's legitimacy to the top spot.
"Without a doubt, in my opinion B.J. Penn is by far pound-for-pound the greatest fighter in MMA," said Marcus Davis, a welterweight who won his 11th consecutive bout Saturday with a first-round stoppage of Jess Liaudin. "All these people who are screaming about Fedor, it's an absolute joke. Who has the guy ever beaten in the top 10. You can't say (Antonio Rodrigo) Nogueira and those guys, because they're coming over here and they're getting tested here by our heavyweights. I think Tim Sylvia will beat Nog.
"In my opinion, Anderson Silva is right there, but B.J. Penn is by far pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world. He has all the tools you could want."
White proudly called Stevenson "a freak" in the days before the fight, referencing his strength and his wrestling ability.
But just five seconds after the opening bell, Stevenson was in a dire situation. Penn ripped Stevenson with a right uppercut that sent him tumbling to the mat, with Penn in pursuit of the finish.
"I thought I'd ice him right there," said Penn, who attended the postfight news conference with the belt wrapped around his waist, where it figures to stay as long as he maintains the intensity and the determination he showed on Saturday and during his lengthy training camp in his native Hilo, Hawaii.
He ran into an obstacle, though, he didn't expect.
Stevenson's highly regarded jiu-jitsu coach, Marc Laimon, came up in the sport with Penn and knows his moves as well as anyone. And while Penn, who is as flexible as Gumby and contorts his body into positions that don't seem possible for an adult male, was working for the finish, Laimon was in the corner advising Stevenson how to counter. "He kept telling Joe what I was going to do," a beaming Penn said before adding dryly, "What a punk."
Penn will defend the title in May in Las Vegas against former champion Sean Sherk, who lost the belt when the California State Athletic Commission found he had used steroids following a July win over Hermes Franca.
In the weeks before the bout, Penn was outspoken against Sherk, who was working on the pay-per-view broadcast an analyst, because of the positive steroids test and the commission's findings.
Penn has always spoken his mind and never minced words, taking on anybody with the fearlessness with which he fights. But after the fight, he softened his anti-Sherk rhetoric, if only a touch.
"When it comes to Sean Sherk, he's not a bad person and this is nothing personal," Penn said. "But with everything going on in sports and in my life and all my dreams, I was disappointed when that went down and how things came out.
" I'm not going to say Sean Sherk (stinks). He's a good fighter, a champion. I'm just disappointed how that went down. I'm sure he'll be back and stronger than ever."
As good as Sherk is, though, he'll have his hands full with Penn if Penn is anywhere near as good as he was against Stevenson. And Penn figures to be plenty motivated, because White won't give him the fight he truly longs for, against St. Pierre at 170, unless he runs through the contenders at 155.
Penn lost to St. Pierre on March 4, 2006, in a bout that has typified what has frustrated those who expected Penn to blossom into a superstar. The smaller man, Penn, dominated the first round against St. Pierre before his conditioning failed him.
St. Pierre battled back to win a split decision, but though Penn was gassed by the final bell, he still made it such a close bout that the verdict for St. Pierre remains a hotly disputed one.
"The thing with B.J. is, he's one of those guys who is incredibly gifted in every way," White said. "But he hasn't always had the focus. This sport, there have been so many changes from when we bought it (in 2001) until now and it's easy to fall into that whole rock star thing. Everyone thinks they're a rock star, but you have to keep your eye on the prize."
Penn wants a chance to avenge that loss to St. Pierre so badly that he's ready to accept White's dictum to clean out the lightweights.
And though he was thinking of St. Pierre – the ear-to-ear grin gave him away – he gave the answer his boss wanted to hear when asked if he had his choice whether he'd prefer to fight St. Pierre or Sherk.
"I better say Sherk," Penn said. "I'm a lightweight now and that's all I thinking about."
After a pause, his grin widened and he turned and looked up at White, who was standing at a podium next to him.
"I'm a lightweight," he repeated, "for now."
- See also: Kevin Iole's complete UFC 80 blog.