MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The highly respected coach of one of his archrivals said he appears to be an invincible champion. A potential future opponent said he "fights in a whole different building" from other lightweights.
Yet B.J. Penn, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's gifted lightweight champion, said he'll be looking to salvage the year when he defends his title against Diego Sanchez on Saturday in the main event of UFC 107 at the FedEx Forum.
Penn is so good because defeat hurts him so much.
He's more flexible than Gumby, he's a better striker than many professional boxers, there aren't many trained wrestlers with superior takedown defense and, of course, he's long been one of the best jiu-jitsu experts in the world.
Yet, it may be his competitiveness, his tenacity, which makes him so good. Penn is 14-5-1 in mixed martial arts, but he's 10-1-1 as a lightweight and has gone nearly eight years without losing a fight at 155 pounds.
Clay Guida, who lost to Sanchez in June in perhaps the best fight of 2009, professes much respect for Sanchez's talent. It's hard, though, for him to pick against Penn.
"B.J. fights in a whole different building," said Guida, who fights Kenny Florian, another one-time Penn victim, on Saturday's main card. "To me, I compare it to Jimi Hendrix. They say he played in a whole different building than other guitarists. [B.J.'s] a different animal at 155."
Penn isn't thrilled with how 2009 has gone because he was stopped by Georges St. Pierre in a bout for the welterweight championship at UFC 94 in January. Though he came back and dominated Florian to retain his title at UFC 101 in August, Penn isn't satisfied that he's erased the sting of the loss to St. Pierre.
Many elite athletes get to where they are because they despise losing so much that they're incredibly driven to improve.
Penn is clearly one of the most physically gifted men in the sport, but physical gifts go only so far. There are hundreds of gifted athletes who've never been heard from because they didn't care enough.
Penn clearly cares. He spoke following a workout Wednesday not so much of his success in defeating Florian, a truly elite lightweight, but of trying to erase the pain of the memory of the loss to St. Pierre.
"I just came off a loss in January, so I'm still very hungry," a steely-eyed Penn said. "I'm trying to salvage the year out for me. I'm coming off a tough loss in January. I came back and won in the middle of the year against Kenny Florian, but I want to finish this year off good."
Firas Zahabi, who coaches St. Pierre, noted that the current group of UFC champions seems invincible. And he said Penn "is just about impossible to finish."
Penn wasn't in a mood to accept praise, particularly from Zahabi. The wounds he suffered at UFC 94 have healed, but he has a burning desire to be the best and coming up short never puts him in a good mood.
He can't slough off a loss. He doesn't shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, there will be another time."
It would save him a lot of angst and consternation if he could, but it isn't part of his makeup. He still gets criticized for his conditioning, yet he pointed out he was the one going hard in the late rounds of fights against Florian and Sean Sherk.
He wants to fight St. Pierre again, though he's no longer fixated on winning another belt. There was a time when the trinkets meant something to him and he boasted that he hoped he could win belts in numerous weight classes.
Fighting St. Pierre now is more of a personal thing. He wants it because he believes he's the better man. He narrowly lost their first fight and then was stopped in their second. And while many believe that St. Pierre was simply too big and too strong, Penn won't accept that.
The only thing that will allow him to really feel at peace is to get a third fight and to defeat St. Pierre.
Though he's in no hurry to surrender his belt, he has his sights set much higher than a championship. Asked what motivates him after such a lengthy run at the top, Penn didn't hesitate.
"My motivation at first was about the belt and I guess every champion, after holding the belt for so long, they start to look at other goals and other belts, or whatever you want to call it," Penn said. "You really want to go down in [history]. They talk about the great boxers of the past and you want them to talk about, when the UFC is very big and everybody is making millions of dollars a fight, you want to be one of those guys that they say, 'It's because of him. It's because of guys like this is the reason we're all making millions.' "
He's already one of the greats of the modern era of MMA. He's already cemented a place in the UFC Hall of Fame even if he never wins another fight. He's one of the most physically gifted men ever to step inside the cage.
Yet, as accomplished as he is, he gets irritated when media or an opponent questions his ability. He scours the Internet and reads just about anything anyone has said or written about him.
But the criticism fuels him in a way, because he has such a burning desire to one-up the critics and the skeptics.
"No, no, I pay attention, I listen to what they say," Penn said. " I don't like a lot of it. But I just have to go out and beat Diego. There are some things he's said, that I'm a runner or that I'm going to run and I'm not going to meet him in the middle [of the cage], all this stuff. He was singing that tune early on, but now he's singing a different tune, that I'm the greatest and he can't wait for a great fight.
"He's realizing that him saying I'm going to run and me stepping in there and running are two separate things."