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BOSTON – If there has been one constant in the Ultimate Fighting Championship over the last 10 years, it's that before a fight, someone will say or write that B.J. Penn is one of a handful of the most physically gifted men in the history of mixed martial arts.
And, inevitably, questions will be lobbed at Penn about his up-and-down record and whether he's making the most of his considerable potential.
Such was the scene Wednesday at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, where Penn was hailed as an athletic freak prior to his fight against UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in the main event Saturday of UFC 118 at TD Garden. He is, however, an athletic savant with much to prove.
Following a news conference in which pro boxer James Toney stole the show with a series of one-liners about boxing's superiority to mixed martial arts, Penn spent much of his time doing interviews about his potential and apologizing to reporters for any real or perceived slights.
Penn wasn't particularly gracious after he lost his belt to Edgar via an agonizingly close decision at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He failed to attend the post-fight news conference, which many fighters do even when they need to go to the hospital. And later, on a book tour, he said he was ill. Penn said Wednesday he didn't attend the April news conference because he didn't want to be perceived as making excuses.
UFC president Dana White, who has often been at odds with Penn, said he decided to make the rematch because he saw some fans were questioning the legitimacy of Edgar's title in light of the close decision and Penn's revelation that he was ill. White said he didn't want to see the belt tainted and that an immediate rematch would accomplish that.
Penn, though, insists he's a different man, finally. He was always raked by his critics for not being in the kind of physical condition his peers get themselves into, but he said Wednesday that criticism is 180 degrees off the mark.
He's worked too hard on his conditioning, he insisted, and didn't pay enough attention to the other important things.
"It's mind, body and spirit and the body is only one part," Penn said. "It's not even half. It's one third. I have only been working the body. I haven't been a human being. I've been doing all these things, being a fighter.
"I used to train so hard, I couldn't carry my daughter when she was crying because my body was hurting so much. All I would do is lie in bed all day. … I've started to live more whole. I'm having fun. I'm enjoying life."
Despite his ups and downs, it would be a lie to say that Penn has been a flop. He's 15-6-1 and he's never lost to someone who has not held a UFC title. He's lost twice to reigning UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and once each to Edgar, former lightweight champion Jens Pulver, former welterweight champion Matt Hughes and former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
Along the way, he won both the welterweight and lightweight titles and decimated some quality fighters – all one needs to do is recall his wins over the likes of Diego Sanchez, Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk – but he always left you wanting more. Or, at the very least, one left a Penn fight with the feeling that there is still a lot more in the tank that has yet to be tapped.
St. Pierre called Penn the second-most talented man he's fought, behind only Jon Fitch. He said of Penn, "He has good wrestling defense, good boxing, he's fast and he's flexible."
When Penn puts it all together and he's intent on winning, it's a nearly lethal combination.
"What B.J. can do when he's got his mind on it can blow you away," White said. "He's kind of like Anderson Silva. I know what he can do, how extraordinarily talented he is. But when you know that talent is there, you want to see it all of the time, not just every once in a while."
Penn has vowed to live up to his potential many times in the past. And after being chastised by White for not being in shape prior to his rematch with St. Pierre at UFC 94, then dominated by St. Pierre in the fight, Penn came back with a vengeance.
He submitted Florian at UFC 101 and pummeled Sanchez at UFC 107, retaining his title in both cases.
He was expected to breeze past Edgar, who had been manhandled in his only loss, to Gray Maynard at UFC 90. But Edgar was everything Penn was not – a classic overachiever who learned from his mistakes and worked assiduously to get better.
The perception of Penn has always been that he hasn't worked hard enough, but he insists he's devoted himself so much to his training that it's taken away from his fighting.
"All I can say as I stand here now is that it's time to live up to my potential," Penn said. "It's time. Everybody always gave me a rap for not training hard enough, but the real truth is that I'm a chronic over-trainer. That's been my problem. I kept training too hard. I wouldn't do anything else in life but train and fight and it came back to hurt me.
"Now, I'm trying to be more balanced, and I'm paying attention to the mind and spirit now. Before, it was the body only. It was, 'I got to go train. I have to work. I need to get ready.' I think I was so focused on training that I forgot to live my life and enjoy life. And I'm now living life the right way, and I think the result is going to be that I'm going to wind up being a better fighter."
He said he thinks he'll be a "9" on a scale of 1-to-10 on Saturday in terms of living up to his potential. Penn getting 90 percent or more out of himself has to be a scary sight for the rest of the lightweights in the world.
But it's time for Penn to back up his words and produce.
His potential has brought him to the threshold of greatness. But if he wants to be great, if he wants to inducted one day into the UFC Hall of Fame, if he wants to be recalled years from now as the greatest lightweight champion in UFC history, he needs to quit promising to live up to his potential and finally do it.
If he loses to Edgar, perhaps it's time to look at him as a good fighter – perhaps a very good fighter – concede that we were all wrong and drop the "greatness" label.
Penn, though, is just 31 and has a lot of time to still ultimately become the fighter so many believed he would be.
It's all up to him.
- Ultimate Fighting Championship
- Frankie Edgar