LAS VEGAS -- We already knew one high-profile retirement was coming at UFC 137, as Mirko Filipovic had all but confirmed the end of his legendary career in the days leading up to the event.
On Saturday night, B.J. Penn unexpectedly made it two, announcing in the aftermath of his hard-fought unanimous decision loss to Nick Diaz that this could well be the last time we also see “The Prodigy” inside the Octagon.
Citing the upcoming birth of his second daughter to go with a 10-and-a-half-year, 26-fight career, Penn said he could no longer keep up with the physical toll that fighting in MMA had begun to exert on his body. He left the Octagon with his left eye discolored and swelling and went straight to the hospital without making an appearance at the postfight media conference.
UFC president Dana White said he hadn’t had a chance to speak with Penn after the fight and sounded equally unsure as everyone else about Penn’s future.
“In the 10 years we’ve all seen B.J. Penn perform and fight, you’ve never seen B.J. Penn get busted up ...,” White said. “He got busted up tonight, let me tell you. To give B.J. credit where credit is due, I didn’t know if he was going to be able to answer the bell after the second round. … He says he wants to retire. We’ll see how that plays out.”
Just 1-3-1 in his last five bouts -- including a pair of losses to Frankie Edgar in 155-pound title bouts -- Penn decamped from lightweight for the welterweight division last year, hoping to make yet another improbable run at 170 pounds. His loss to Diaz effectively derailed any immediate chance that he could earn a shot at his second welterweight title reign and meant an uncertain outlook for the 32-year-old veteran in a division that recently has undergone an injection of new contenders.
Of course, the million-dollar question is: Can we believe him? Is this really it?
It can be difficult to take this kind of declaration as gospel. Fighters often say things they don’t mean in the cage after fights, when emotions are running high and the sting of defeat is still at its sharpest. Penn has made statements like this before, saying after his February draw with Jon Fitch that he wasn’t sure how long he could soldier on in MMA.
Yet there is at least some evidence to suggest that Penn could be serious this time. After being the picture of calm during the week leading up to the fight, he appeared on the verge of tears as he made his way to the Octagon. Before this bout, Penn also had made what is fast becoming a standard admittance on the part of aging former UFC champions -- that he was no longer strictly motivated by the title and that he just wanted to take “big fights, win them and see what happens.”
His performance against Diaz on Saturday likely can be best described as vintage Penn, for better and worse. The former multidivisional UFC champion started like a house of fire, finding a home for his powerful strikes during the first five minutes and taking the opening stanza on all three judges’ scorecards. Just as he has throughout much of his career, however, Penn lost the cardio game as the fight wore on, and Diaz’s strenuous pace became unmanageable.
Diaz scored repeatedly with his high-volume punches in the second and third rounds, seemingly putting Penn on the verge of a stoppage on a couple of occasions. Penn, who had been stopped only twice in his career, weathered the storm for the final 10 minutes.
If it was indeed Penn’s final 10 minutes in the Octagon, they were difficult ones. The epic nature of the fight, however, was befitting the swan song of a celebrated career.
"B.J. is a warrior, man," White said. "What he’s thinking tonight, he might not think eight weeks from now; who knows.”