Bill Simmons is the most influential sportswriter of his generation. I remember finding his Len Bias piece while I was still working at Castle in a desperate bid to retain a few shreds of sanity. The opening paragraph had me hooked, when he explained how he pictured Bias’s overdose, deftly mixing the trampled sadness of the sports fan with a Scarface reference. Before Simmons, it never dawned on me to write about things I care about the way I actually talk about them: littered with pop culture references and dick jokes. These days, I look forward to getting his take on something important in the sports world, whether it’s another Laker NBA championship or Tiger caught with his dick in the eastern seaboard. The sad part is that Simmons doesn’t follow one of my favorite sports: MMA. So after dissecting BJ Penn’s second diffident loss to Frankie Edgar, I was at a loss for Simmons’s take. So full disclosure: I’m only writing this because the man himself isn’t going to, and I want to read it (something better than it, really).
That probably came off a little more gay than I intended. But hey, we’re talking about MMA.
The first loss, we all had excuses: it was over a thousand degrees in Abu Dhabi. Humidity made the air thicker than a McDonald’s milkshake. Edgar’s game plan, use his superior speed and land jabs all night while mixing that up with a couple takedowns, caught BJ off guard. Besides, the judging was suspect. Edgar landed strikes all night, but he might as well have been tossing marshmallows gently at Penn’s face. The takedowns didn’t actually accomplish anything; he neither advanced his position nor used them to land ground and pound or attempt a submission. It was a classic case of a fighter gaming the system. Apparently, Dana White agreed at least partially, scheduling an immediate rematch. We knew that this fight would be different. BJ would be angry. BJ would be in shape. And BJ would know what to do.
Nope. The first three rounds of the second fight went exactly as the entirety of the first. BJ Penn, maybe the greatest ground fighter of his generation, wanted to stand and box with Edgar. Penn had all the power in the world, but none of it mattered if he couldn’t land a single shot. He was never in any danger, but the decision would favor the guy landing undamaging shots over the guy whiffing in every exchange. BJ looked like he was trying to box with Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man. Minus the dick shots.
The definition of insanity is often stated as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That’s not true. That’s a symptom of insanity, much like masturbating to Guns & Ammo, saving your own poop in mason jars and invading Russia. Or, as I call it, Wednesday.
Those are also symptoms of hubris. BJ Penn was a shotgun wedding to his mom away from becoming a Greek tragedy. And that’s the problem right there. His nickname is “the Prodigy” and unlike the thousands of fighters calling themselves “Pitbull” or “Hitman,” there’s actually a reason BJ is called that. First off, he earned his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt in three years. For normal humans, this usually takes over a decade. Not satisfied with that, a few weeks after earning that black belt, he became the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. It cannot be overstated: this is not possible. BJ Penn did it at twenty-two years old. This is partly an intuitive grasp of how to choke grown men into unconsciousness, but it’s also due to genetic gifts that can’t be duplicated. Penn is double-jointed. In a sport in which fights are won by causing pain to joints, this is almost an unfair advantage. Add to that an immunity to being knocked out, and you have nearly the perfect mixed martial artist, which he proved by becoming only the second UFC fighter to hold belts in two different weight classes.
So why the hell wasn’t he dropping Edgar on his back in the first? The same reason George Lucas made Attack of the Clones.
No, not merchandising. There’s no “BJ Penn action figure with getting-punched-in-the-head action.”
Lucas was like Penn. At thirty-three years old (which is twenty-two in producer years), George Lucas made the biggest film of all time. He created an entire pop culture language. There are people who literally think they are Jedi Knights. He followed this up with two more Star Wars movies and a series of films about archaeology. This man could do no wrong, until Phantom Menace came out. That’s when we realized that it might be time for Lucas to meet an actual black person. There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, but Lucas stood firm. He made another movie (and another) with exactly the same flaws as the first. He was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Crazy? Maybe. Hubris? Fuck the shotgun wedding to mom, Lucas was attempting to anally rape Zeus.
There was no one to tell Lucas no. After all, what were they going to say? “Hey, George, I know you’re one of the richest men in the world based entirely on a property you created, wrote and directed. Maybe you should think about this scene where Padme gets wet at the mention of genocide.” Lucas would tell that guy to pack his bags and find a new job.
BJ has the same latitude. This is a guy who comes from a rich family. He only fights because he literally can’t stomach the thought of living a life that doesn’t involve professional strangulation. He’s held both the light and welterweight belts. He beat up Matt Hughes in his prime. Going into the first Edgar fight, BJ had not been defeated at lightweight since a controversial split decision to Jens Pulver in 2002. He had decisively beaten everyone he faced since 2007 with the exception of Georges St-Pierre. Penn not only beat everyone, he did it in similar fashion, refining his approach with each fight.
The fights of the best mixed martial artists tend to look alike. This is because he has something in mind that he wants to do and the other guy is incapable of stopping him from doing it. Penn approached the fights the same way: box the other guy until he was good and hurt, take him down, beat him up and choke him out. He capped off his run with a destruction of Diego Sanchez that left Sanchez looking like he’d just summered at Crystal Lake.
BJ was damned if he would adapt to Edgar, and he paid the price. He went into the second fight believing the excuses: the judging was bogus, Abu Dhabi was a nightmarish hellscape that eats fighters alive, Edgar couldn’t do it again, etc. At the end of the second round, after which BJ had been fighting Frankie Edgar for a total of thirty-five minutes, Penn’s coaches screamed that BJ “knew what to do.” Well, no, apparently he doesn’t and you’re too browbeaten to tell him. By the time BJ had figured out what to do, he was too tired to get anything done. I thought back to MMA Live a week before the fight. In a short interview, BJ didn’t talk about training. He talked about resting. He talked about preparing his mind and spirit. It’s a shame he didn’t try to punch Edgar in the soul.
BJ has always coasted on his talent. The clock is ticking down on how long he can do that, if it hasn’t run out already. What he needs more than anything is someone around who can tell him no. Otherwise, it’s the fight equivalent of Revenge of the Sith. And no one wants to see that.