LAS VEGAS – Rarely does the fight game treat its legends well at the end. The ugly finishes are a stark reminder that this is a young man's endeavor. B.J. Penn was the latest to learn that harsh lesson.
After a year-and-a-half off, he returned to fight Frankie Edgar on Sunday in "The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale" at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Penn, 35, dropped to 145 pounds for the fight and his body was magnificent. Physically, he looked like the 22-year-old prodigy who debuted with a first-round stoppage of Joey Gilbert at the Trump Taj Mahal on May 4, 2001, at UFC 31.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali also came in with the slim and trim body before getting beaten down by Larry Holmes in a disturbing 1980 heavyweight title match.
Penn suffered a similarly sad fate on Sunday. He had nothing for Edgar and his career ended as he was flat on his back in the center of the same ring where, 10 1/2 years earlier, he scored one of the most historic wins in UFC history when he choked out Matt Hughes at UFC 46 to win the welterweight title.
"Yes, of course, this is the end," Penn said at the post-fight news conference. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Why did you step back into the Octagon after the beating that Rory MacDonald gave you?' And the reason is, I really needed to find out. If I didn't make this night happen for myself, I would have always wondered. I would have gone back and forth and begged [UFC president] Dana [White] to let me get back in. I guess I needed some closure."
He spoke pre-fight about winning his third weight-class title, but that was a pipedream. He landed nothing of significance while absorbing a brutal beating.
The crowd hushed as referee Herb Dean mercifully stopped the fight at 4:16 of the third round of the scheduled five-round main event with Edgar raining down elbows and punches upon Penn.
It realized it had seen the final act in a brilliant career that had reached unprecedented fights, but this was a match that should never have occurred.
Penn entered the bout with just one win in more than four years and had suffered one-sided beatings at the hands of Nick Diaz and MacDonald. Those fights, though, came at welterweight and Penn tried to sell the public that he'd be a different fighter at featherweight.
That was much like Oscar De La Hoya, who came back for one more boxing match in 2008 and was brutalized by Manny Pacquiao in what would be the final fight of his Hall of Fame career.
White got up and walked away from his ringside seat as Penn was being beaten, unable to watch.
"Everyone knows where I was, how I felt and what I wanted," White said. "B.J. Penn is a guy, and I get to the point where I understand it and I get it, but the fans go crazy on me when I tell guys to retire. But B.J. Penn was our jiu-jitsu coach before we even bought the UFC. I've known this guy forever. He's won two titles in two different weight classes. He built the 155-pound division. He's a legend. He helped build the UFC.
"The list goes on and on of what B.J. Penn has done. I've said this a million times: He has a beautiful wife. He's got beautiful kids. He's got a great family. He owns a UFC B.J. Penn gym in Hawaii. What more do you want, B.J.? There is nothing left to prove."
Penn was always motivated by trying to make the impossible seem possible. He was the little guy who kicked sand in the face of the biggest, baddest guy at the beach. He is one of only two men, along with Randy Couture, to have won UFC world titles in two weight classes. He moved up from lightweight to defeat Hughes on Jan. 31, 2004, to capture the welterweight title.
His reign, though, was hardly memorable because he was stripped of the belt only a few months after winning it.
That win over Hughes remains one of the most significant fights in UFC history. Penn said he thought back to that fight recently and wondered what might have happened if he hadn't left the company and instead defended his belt.
"It did cause a rift," Penn said, "but it would have been interesting to see how things would have worked out."
Nearly four years to the day after choking out Hughes, he won his second belt in Newcastle, England, where he won the vacant lightweight championship at UFC 80 by submitting Joe Stevenson.
Penn went on a nice run as lightweight and has come to be regarded as the greatest 155-pound fighter in mixed martial arts history. But he could never resist the allure of chasing other titles. In the midst of his lightweight title reign, Penn took a bout with Georges St-Pierre at UFC 58, dropping a hotly contested match in a welterweight eliminator. Despite the loss, his next outing was against Hughes for the welterweight title, but Hughes turned the table and stopped Penn.
He became beloved among MMA fans because he always reached for the stars, even if the stars were often slightly out of his reach.
"People could connect with me," Penn said. "They felt I was just a normal human being. In the offseason, I was overweight. I was just trying my best like anybody else. I think my appeal was, 'Here he is, a normal guy like us, and he's giving it his all.' "
Because he wanted to give it his all at all times, he frequently drove White mad with his desire to jump divisions and chase other championships. Penn often spoke of holding all five UFC titles that existed at the time. He even went up to heavyweight in 2005 during his contract dispute with the UFC to fight Lyoto Machida, who would go one to be a UFC light heavyweight champion.
At one point during his news conference Sunday, Penn was overcome by emotion. He quit speaking, bowed his head and cried.
Later, a reporter asked him what he regarded as the best moment of his career.
"I thought you were going to ask me what my best moment was tonight," Penn said, eliciting laughter from all in the room. "Walking out, probably."
Though it was a great joke, it was, sadly, true. Penn walked slowly to the stage to the strains of "Hawaii 78" as the crowd stood, cheered and chanted his name.
It was an emotional scene, the crowd showering one of the greatest ever with unconditional love.
B.J. Penn has been committed to mixed martial arts' history books, with titles and glory and plenty of accomplishments. He probably stayed around too long but it's hard for a legend used to doing the impossible to realize the magic is forever gone.
It's gone for Penn, but not forgotten. Those classic highlights will endure.