Whether we realize it or not, we tend to measure the scope of our lives in events. Sometimes, these events are seemingly disconnected, held together by the common thread of their sheer historical gravity: my grandfather fought in World War II, was around when the Stock Market crashed, experienced the cultural gut-punch of integration in Southern schools in the 1950s, and listened to Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” My father and mother, likewise, lived through the Vietnam protests, though at too young an age to fully grasp the significance of what they were seeing and hearing, The Rumble in the Jungle and the first home computers.
I’m still a little young, I think, to attach such a broad scope to my life. My reference points, instead, manifest themselves in a timeline grafted onto certain specific disciplines, certain directly connected series of events: specifically, the fight game.
The UFC has just come off a double-header weekend: the UFC 176 PPV on Saturday night co-headlined by two title fights, and the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 19, a show that needs to put out of its misery ASAP, but that’s for another day — though, hopefully, a near one. Increasingly, changes of the guard — whether overt or merely a subtle tide-change — are becoming a common occurrence at UFC events. I’ve witnessed careers kickstart, end and begin their slow, inevitable, precipitous declines. I’ve seen fighters that got me into the sport get brutally knocked out or dominated for three fights running, borne witness to the beginning and the end of certain “eras,” and seen a promotion self-cannibalize to the tune of new stars being built upon the broken backs of the old.
Last weekend, we’d see BJ Penn — The Prodigy, The Chosen One, the Freak of Nature — step foot into the Octagon for the last time. It was a jarring night for me, as I’ve followed Penn’s career ever since he debuted with a bang, KOing Joey Gilbert, Din Thomas and Caol Uno, all solid fighters, and all in the first round. Thirteen years later, he would try, and fail, to reclaim some of that old magic, and to end his career by “winning” a trilogy with old nemesis Frankie Edgard.
This fight was set up primarily because the UFC needed a couple of new coaches for the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter, and either most of their champions were already booked, or this was the storyline at which they could least tenuously grasp. Penn and Edgar had already fought twice for the lightweight title, and though Edgar won both fights by unanimous decision, the first fight was extraordinarily close, with many observers scoring the fight for Penn. Accordingly, the UFC decided to treat this third fight like a rubber match.
A lot had also changed since the pair’s last meeting. After completing a grueling trilogy with Gray Maynard that saw him retain the title and then lose a pair of heartbreakers to Ben Henderson, Edgar dropped to featherweight and immediately challenged Jose Aldo for the championship, losing a spirited but fairly definite decision. He’d bounce back with a win over Charles Oliveira before being booked to face Penn for a third time.
If the interim saw Edgar encounter mixed success, it saw the opposite for Penn. He started strong, shooting back up to 170 pounds and besting his old rival Matt Hughes in their own rubber match in a scintillating 21-second KO victory. He then drew with Jon Fitch in a fantastic fight, before dropping one-sided decisions to Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald. Following a long layoff, Penn dropped to 145 for this fight, his first ever at the weight class.
The fight was a massacre. Ever since the KO win over Hughes, fans had assumed that the “old, motivated BJ Penn” was back, and that he might rear his head again this past weekend even after consecutive beatings at the hands of Diaz and MacDonald. He did not. He was stiff, robotic, a punching bag for the younger, quicker Edgar, who lit up the former two-division champion with hard combinations and took him down at will. When the referee finally stopped the fight in the third round, awarding Edgar a TKO victory, it had all the earmarks of a mercy killing. Penn would retire in the cage following the loss.
Perspective: The last time Penn notched a victory, H1N1 flu had just been proclaimed eradicated; the Republican primaries for the 2012 election were in full swing; the Wikileaks scandal was busted wide open for the first time; at CERN, scientists trapped antimatter for the first time, which is what seemingly every Scientific American cover story has been about ever since; the Arab Spring began. When BJ Penn debuted in 2001, America Online and Time Warner had just merged; Wikipedia launched; the World Wrestling Federation bought World Championship Wrestling; Timothy McVeigh was executed.
I don’t know what’s more sobering: realizing the scope of my own life through the rise, fall, victories and defeats of professional combatants, or realizing how much the world wins, loses, gives and takes alongside.