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An Aging Prodigy

“When the bout between B.J. Penn and Yair Rodriguez was announced, my immediate feeling was that it was stupid. Part of that opinion is rooted in the fact that Penn was one of the first fighters that brought me into the sport, and he has captured my imagination of what is possible as a mixed martial artist like no one has before or since. To say he’s a legend in the sport is trite; to my mind, the highs of his career represent the absolute ceiling of competitive martial arts.

One of the primary appeals of martial arts is the idea that technique trumps physical advantages. Bruce Lee, for instance, was the introduction of traditional martial arts for many of us. Perhaps his most famous fight scene is against the 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “The Game of Death.” In that scene, the 5-foot-8 Lee uses a variety of techniques from different disciplines to eventually overcome an opponent who absolutely dwarfed him. Of course, that was just a movie, but a part of us knows that hyper-skilled technicians can, to an extent, be better fighters than someone who is bigger, stronger and more athletic than them.

That’s why Penn is as beloved and iconic as he is. What he was able to accomplish at weights well above his natural 155-pound weight class — winning an Ultimate Fighting Championship belt at welterweight against a dominant champion, winning fights at middleweight and being competitive against a 218-pound Lyoto Machida — was unprecedented and will likely never be replicated. Penn is by no means a poor athlete, but he’s also not a very good one in terms of traditional metrics. What made him great was his pure, raw talent. The fact that he undertrained made me more of a fan, if I’m being honest, since it further proved that the fight game was one of skill and technique more than anything else…”


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