There’s a phenomenon that has gone on in sports since competitive athletics have been around: athletes just don’t know when to hang them up. This fact hit me as I saw an ad for the upcoming UFC Fight Night on January 15th, where BJ Penn will headline against Yair Rodriguez. It’s a classic story seen in sports – particularly combat sports – where the fading legend finds himself facing off against one of the sports youngest and brightest up-and-coming stars. This might be an even odder situation, though. BJ Penn, making his comeback from a nearly-two-year retirement, has not won a fight since 2010… a year before Yair even made his professional MMA debut. In the time that Yair has been a professional MMA fighter, he has gone 9-1; in that same window, BJ has found himself on the losing end of 3 bouts, with his best result being a single draw. These two men are on opposite ends of the career spectrum, at this point. BJ Penn is a legend and former multiple division UFC champion – but he faces the age-old problem, that many before him have faced. BJ Penn simply doesn’t realize that it’s time to hang the gloves up, if his recent results are anything to go by. Now, maybe BJ will stun the world (and I would be one happy BJ Penn fan), but he will likely find himself continuing a half-decade long string of disappointment. Nobody can ever take away the amazing things that BJ Penn has accomplished, but his repeated attempts to fight the obvious truth have unearthed a fact that many MMA fans doubted during his historic run: he is just a mere mortal.
Now, obviously, I’m being facetious, but it illustrates a greater point; athletes, many of whom are seen as the pinnacle of humanity by their adoring fans, fall victim to their humanity, just like anyone else. Athletes will always be victims to their infallible confidence and belief in their own abilities. To put it simply, they’ll always just be stubborn. BJ Penn is not the first athlete to stick around in his sport, well after it was time to retire. Some would argue that Michael Jordan (who honestly may not actually be from the planet Earth) overstayed his welcome, during his comeback with the Washington Wizards. Muhammad Ali is another great example, whose infamous Larry Holmes defeat will forever be a difficult memory for some of his most adoring fans. Or what about when Ken Griffey Jr. fell asleep during a game where he was pegged to come on as a pinch-hitter? I could go on and on, but it’ll all illustrate the same point. At the end of the day, some of greatest ever athletes overstayed their welcome.
Well, I can only speculate, ultimately, but it seems like it’s a simple proposition. That which makes most legendary athletes great – their will to compete and almost obsessive competitive edge – is what keeps them coming back for more. You’ll have to remember, this isn’t something you see with most mediocre players, likely because they just aren’t given a chance when they lose “it,” but it’s the legends and hall of famers that are given the leash and the chance to continue to come back. I mean, just look at their careers if you want proof. BJ Penn, generally a lightweight and welterweight (and not just any lightweight or welterweight, but a UFC Champion at both weights), was so willing to fight that he once faced off with Lyoto Machida at heavyweight. His will to compete is infallible and it’s what made him so great. He fought and fought and fought and gave us fans countless memories that we will forever cherish. He’s easily one of the greatest fighters we’ve ever seen; but if we are to use his recent performances as an indicator, the game has passed him by. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last. Legends live and die by their borderline-insane confidence in themselves. It’s what captivates us, but it’s also what makes the end of their careers so painful to watch.
I really hope I’m wrong. I hope BJ Penn comes out on Sunday and delivers a vintage performance and puts on a clinic that we haven’t seen from him in years. I’d love to see “The Prodigy” return to glory, I really would. Unfortunately, history just isn’t on his side. The jury is out until Sunday, as to whether or not BJ will defy the odds – but the odds are not in his favor.
It’s a funny thing, but even our heroes are human. Even our heroes lose. And, eventually, even our heroes realize that it’s time to hang up the gloves and call it a career.