If ever one needed an example of how quickly fortunes change in the tumultuous world of mixed martial arts, consider the recent career trajectory of UFC legend BJ Penn. In the brief time it took to register a defeat, victory and draw, Penn has morphed from seemingly invincible lightweight world champion to welterweight also-ran.
On Saturday night in Sydney, Australia, the 32-year-old Hawaiian scrapped to an unlikely draw with leading 170-pound contender Jon Fitch and, though the result was commendable, the outcome left Penn with a confused and forlorn expression on his face. Originally expecting the short end of a close decision, Penn then revealed his surprise at receiving a share of the spoils, while Fitch ruefully shook his head in the background.
In fact, while talking over the finer points of the fight with UFC colour man Joe Rogan, there was a growing sense that Penn, bitterly disappointed with his performance, was considering retirement had he not been sent a stay of execution. The emotional contender -- one of the finest lightweights and welterweights to ever do it -- seemed, for perhaps the first time in his life, unsure of what his future would hold.
Of course, the original plan, upon losing his lightweight belt to Frankie Edgar last year, was to jump up to his old welterweight stomping ground and work his way to another title shot. All seemed right on track in November, when he dramatically stopped old rival Matt Hughes inside one round at UFC 123. Many proclaimed Penn was a new man at 170-pounds and that he was well on course to securing either a third bout with champion Georges St-Pierre or a shot at the vacant strap, should the French-Canadian eventually succumb to the wishes of fans and dip his toes in middleweight waters.
Then pesky Jon Fitch arrived and spoiled the party. Smothering and grinding on Penn's fleshy torso for much of three rounds, Fitch was unlucky not to receive the verdict on Saturday night, but performed sufficiently to force Penn to reconsider his welterweight assault. After all, in order to eventually hit the peak of the welterweight mountain, Penn will, presumably some day, have to beat the likes of Fitch to get there. On Saturday's evidence, despite a plucky first round, Penn would appear to be a little way off doing that.
So that begs the question -- what should Penn do next? Having achieved pretty much all there is to achieve in his domain, the competitive Hawaiian now has both lightweight and welterweight divisions on tap, but is clouded by a realisation that both weight classes have progressed and improved in recent months. The game has moved on, young fighters have developed and Penn, the much-maligned idol for many of them, is left eyeing up the competition, momentarily at least, from the sidelines.
Option one: Fitch rematch
It wasn't the greatest fight in the world to begin with, but both Fitch and Penn walked away on Saturday night with a nagging sense of regret. Fitch cursed not doing his homework and anticipating Penn's fast start, while the Hawaiian wished he could erase that horribly one-sided final round from his memory banks. Neither man performed to their true ability and, with the draw acting as impetus, both still have plenty to prove -- perhaps against one another in a sequel.
So let's say the pair do it again at some point this year. Chances are, Fitch, ever the diligent student, will tidy up the holes in his revision and, with the surprise element now removed, pitch three versions of the final round he produced on Saturday night. He will anticipate Penn's early charge, avoid being put on his back and then proceed do that thing that Jon Fitch does so well.
Penn, the beneficiary of shock tactics first time round, will then be asked to produce something else. He'll be pressed for a Plan B and an answer to Fitch's relentless pace and work-rate. History has told us, of course, that, while unquestionably gifted and thrilling, Penn isn't the type to outhustle a hustler.
With that in mind then, it would be difficult to see him gaining any more success in a rematch than he scored on Saturday night.
Option two: Other welterweights
Let's forget the title dream for a moment. After all, for all the while Georges St-Pierre peers down from his pedestal, there's a good chance Penn won't be trying on the crown for size anyway. Let's also forget any notion of him climbing back into the Octagon with Fitch, despite the unshakeable sense of a score still needing to be settled. As already mentioned, the first fight was no classic and, besides, nobody is crying out to see Penn confront the love-him-hate-him Fitch anyway. Sometimes it's best just to cut your losses and run.
So, with a slate rubbed clean, there's a chance Penn could find happiness elsewhere in the snug 170-pound division. Remaining at welterweight removes the strains of a weight-cut from Penn's mind and, GSP and Fitch aside, allows him to fight less familiar faces. For example, who wouldn't want to see how Penn went about trying to stunt the explosive striking of Thiago Alves? Or how about a game of ground chess with Jake Shields? Should the talented grappler fall the way of so many others and succumb to GSP in April, a match between Shields and Penn would be a ground aficionado's wet dream.
The likes of Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit would also present intriguing stylistic challenges for Penn, should he wish to reside in St-Pierre's house.
Option three: Back down to lightweight
Twelve months ago, a 155-pound Penn could seemingly do no wrong. Champion of the lightweights, 'The Prodigy' was fresh from sterling wins over top contenders Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian and appeared to be a cut above the chasing pack. He was better on the ground than most his peers and also boasted a clear edge in the striking department. It was hard to see anybody catching up with Penn in his preferred playground of 155-pounds.
Should Penn now return to his old lightweight division, he'd no doubt find success against some foes, but would also again trespass the terrain of New Jersey's Frankie Edgar, the man currently in possession of BJ's old crown. Having failed to make much of an impact on Edgar in ten rounds and fifty minutes of action, it's unlikely Penn will have much joy in the final chapter of a trilogy.
Instead, Penn may be better served hacking through the second tier of the division and playing his part in any number of alluring style match-ups. For instance, crossroads battles with the likes of ground whiz George Sotiropoulos (beaten for the first time in his UFC career this past weekend) and flashy newcomer Anthony Pettis could fascinate and split opinion, while BJ could also patiently eye up the title picture in the hope that a champion not named Edgar eventually becomes the proprietor of his former throne.
After all, Penn, though rumbled twice by Edgar, has shown no signs of weakness against any of the other swarming UFC lightweights. He'd already cleaned most of the deck during his previous reign and now, should he decide to return, Penn would expect to instantly be installed in the upper echelons of the invisible rankings from the get-go. One win could open the door again.