Penn Knew It Was Time To Leave

BJ Penn with the belt he won in UFC 107 in 2009. Tracy Lee photo

It may have been a shock to his fans, but I’d be even more surprised if he hadn’t been considering it for some time.

When BJ Penn proclaimed after his unanimous decision loss to Nick Diaz on Oct. 29 that “this is probably the last time you’re ever going to see me in here,” it was a shock to many that this could have been the culmination of a beloved, revered and inspiring career in the octagon.

Penn has since left the door a bit more open, stating two days later on his website that he was going to “take some time off to enjoy life, train and teach.”

He let his fans know that he’d keep them in the loop as far as his future plans.

Often times in sports, commentators love to talk about how an athlete hangs on too long and is the last one to know that they should exit gracefully. We seem to take for granted that when it comes to a top competitor’s best days being behind them, we know it before they do.

I agreed with this analysis until I listened to Tony Kornheiser, the renowned columnist and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, make the opposite case.

He contended that the athlete is always the first to know when their skills are diminishing.

They realize it before anyone and manage to fool us all for a while, before we’re able to recognize that they might not be at the top of their game.

BJ Penn reacts after KOing Matt Hughes at UFC 123 Nov. 20, 2010

It makes sense. Other than the most irrational of human beings, we all know when we’ve lost a step, can’t be quite as good, or have to adjust our definition of “success.” It’s a humbling feeling, and we can usually trick everyone into thinking it’s not happening.

But it is.

And Penn has probably been noticing it for a while, even if the rest of us have not.

It’s hard to imagine that this loss alone would have altered the future Hall of Famer’s mindset enough to send him away from mixed martial arts for good.

Having held the UFC lightweight and welterweight championship titles, we’ve seen the expectations Penn places upon himself with his willingness to take on challengers of all sizes.

As he said to Joe Rogan after the Diaz fight, “I want to perform at the top level. That’s it.”

If it is the final act of his storied career, Penn has been much more to the sport than his 16-8-2 record could ever indicate.

“The Prodigy,” as he’s been dubbed, helped MMA transition into the mainstream with his skill, his class and his desire.

A hui hou, BJ.