- Ben Cohen
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In terms of pure talent, B.J. Penn is perhaps unparalleled in the MMA world.
Having fought from 155 pounds to 205 pounds, "The Prodigy" has displayed a multiplicity of skills standing up and on the ground against some of the best fighters in the world.
The first non-Brazilian to win a gold medal at the prestigious Mundial World Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Penn stormed the UFC in 2001, knocking out the likes of Caol Uno and Din Thomas before taking a title fight with Jens Pulver only 8 months after joining the organization.
Penn lost a decision to Pulver in the lightweight title bout but he went on to beat current UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra, the legendary Matt Hughes (taking the welterweight title), and the unbeaten Rodrigo Gracie at middleweight.
Not content with fighting 30 pounds above his optimum weight, Penn then moved up to light heavyweight to fight the dangerous Lyoto Machida, losing a close decision -- but impressing all with his tenacity.
Dropping back down to middleweight, Penn defeated Renzo Gracie, but then lost back-to-back bouts to Georges St. Pierre (via split decision) and Hughes (via third-round TKO in a welterweight bout). After dominating early, Penn seemed to gas in the later rounds of both fights, leading many to believe that he was not taking his preparation seriously.
After taking part in "Ultimate Fighter 5" as a coach, Penn bounced back with an impressive revenge win against Pulver, marking his return to the 155 pound division.
With doubts still lingering on Penn's status within the sport, he will now be facing "Ultimate Fighter 2" winner Joe Stevenson for the lightweight title after champion Sean Sherk was stripped of the belt for taking steroids. It is a fight he knows he must win.
"His legacy is going to be one of the most talented guys ever, and not having lived up to that potential," Dana White told ESPN. "But he was in great shape when I saw him 4 months ago, he's almost on weight now, he's the most focused I've ever seen him, and his family was saying the same thing."
Does Penn feel his legacy has been tarnished by his inconsistency?
"I never really regretted a thing I have done before," answered Penn thoughtfully. "I'm here and Dana has given me the opportunity to come back to the 155-pound division and see how I do and take it from there. I'm not looking past Joe Stevenson, and I'm not looking past Jan. 19. I feel like I got a new chance at my career and I'm going to try my best to make everything happen."
And what does this fight with Stevenson mean?
"This fight is huge," he answered. "Joe Stevenson is a great opponent. He has so many weapons, so many tools that he brings into the fight. This is the most important fight of my life, and people say that every single time, but without a doubt, if I win this fight, I become the guy who has two titles in two divisions."
Having jumped up and down in weight, he says he feels differently fighting at 155 pounds.
"I'm leaner, I'm faster and I'm quick," Penn said. "But the kind of shape I'm in, no matter what weight I'm at, when I'm in shape I can jump higher, run faster, jump further, punch harder, do all these things."
Clearly aware that talent alone is not enough, Penn knows he must capitalize on his victory over Pulver with another dominant performance.
"No one wants to see me win a five-round decision," he said. "I'm going to go out there to try and win the fight, and to finish this fight. People aren't paying money to watch me and Joe Stevenson fight five rounds and try to jab each other to death. No one wants to see that. This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and people want to see someone go down."
Stevenson is a solid fighter with heavy hands and a good wrestling background, but in reality, he is a long way from Penn in terms of talent. Stevenson has won four fights in a row, and at 25, he has youth and energy on his side. But Penn has pedigree, talent and technique in his favor, making him the odds-on favorite to win handily.
Those attributes alone do not always win fights, and they certainly do not guarantee greatness. Hughes is regarded as one of the best champions in UFC history not because of his talent, but because of his consistency.
Penn has the potential to do even better, but a poor performance against a fighter like Stevenson could be lethal to his image.
"I'm already thinking about this fight all the time," said Penn in response to questions about his desire. "This is so important to me, I don't want anything else. The bottom line is, in this sport you got to get in shape, or you're not going to be around."
And if Penn adheres to this philosophy, there is every chance his name will be mentioned alongside the great fighters he so clearly belongs with.
Ben Cohen covers boxing and MMA for Secondsout.com.
B.J. Penn's nickname is the prodigy, but at 29, the time is now for him to live up to his potential. After tough fights against the likes of Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre, does Penn have enough left in the tank for a young Joe Stevenson?