MMA History: Revisiting BJ Penn’s career defining title defense
There was a period of time where BJ Penn was the best lightweight on the face of the earth. In fact, not only was he the top lightweight but the pound-for-pound king, as well.
Relatively new mixed martial arts fans may have only seen Penn compete during his current seven-fight losing streak, but this is most certainly not a fair representation of his abilities and achievements from earlier years. From 2003-2009, “The Prodigy” fulfilled his nickname through various career-defining performances, which included victories over welterweight champion Matt Hughes and consensus best lightweight at the time Takanori Gomi.
One of BJ Penn’s (16-14-2) final prodigious victories came at UFC 84, where the Hawaiian defended his lightweight crown for the first time against predecessor Sean “The Muscle Shark” Sherk. Sherk’s moniker was fitting, as he boasted the frame of a bodybuilder despite only being 5-foot-6 inches tall. This fight marked his return to the sport after testing positive for Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, which saw him stripped of the title after his previous outing.
In the months leading up to the event, the animosity between Penn and Sherk reached boiling point, and it became apparent that the two were competing for more than just a championship belt. Bragging rights were at stake, with Sherk notably stating: “I’ve never fought somebody I’ve hated before, [but] this fight with BJ, it’s personal.”
UFC 84 took place on May 24, 2008, in Las Vegas, Nevada, and featured 11 mixed martial arts bouts. Nine of the bouts that evening ended by way of stoppage (TKO, Knockout or Submission), thus making it one of the most electrifying and gripping cards of the year. Topped by a lightweight title fight between BJ Penn and Sean Sherk, the event promoted fights such as Wanderlei Silva vs. Keith Jardine and future champion Lyoto Machida vs. Tito Ortiz. As well as this, it marked the debut of heavy hitter Shane Carwin.
Despite numerous other exciting fights taking place, fans and media members alike were bursting with anticipation as the main event crept closer and closer. Sherk was desperate to win his belt back, and Penn was primed to remind the world why he was the divisions best. The Body Lock’s Drake Riggs recounts the ramifications the bout had on the division.
“It was kind of the big turning point at lightweight as far as the title and champions go. Prior to that lightweight was kind of a rather weak division. So much so that the UFC even got rid of it temporarily. Sherk was the second champion in promotional history, looked like he’d be a solid one… then he tested positive [which] just kind of ruined things further for the division’s reputation. So the fight was like an uncrowned champion vs. champion [match].”
The UFC briefly dismantled its lightweight division in the early 2000s due to the lack of depth the weight class possessed. This allowed promotions such as Pride and Shooto to establish a fairly robust roster of 155-pound talent. Nonetheless, the UFC is widely regarded as having the best cluster of lightweights actively competing, and have so for many years.
Let’s rewind back to May 24, 2008, where BJ Penn was set to defend his lightweight strap against Sean Sherk. “The Prodigy” was sporting his trademark RVCA shorts, which included a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. The tale of the tape proved that it was Penn who possessed a slight height and reach advantage, howbeit Sherk entered the octagon with a wealth of experience. He owned a professional record of 34-2-1 at the time of the championship encounter, with his two losses coming at the hands of welterweight legends Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre respectively. As the pair stood across from one another in the securely fastened steel cage, one thing was for sure: the sport was about to witness two athletes in their absolute primes.
The bell marked the start of the contest and Sean Sherk immediately shot for a takedown, evidently attempting to suffocate his opponent with his superior wrestling ability. Unfortunately for him, Penn boasted formidable takedown defense – possibly the best in the promotion’s history at that time – and shrugged off the effort with ease. During the initial round Penn established his jab, snapping it in the face of his opponent effortlessly. While doing this, he would slip in and out of range in order to avoid being hit by the bulky Sherk, who missed near enough every strike he threw. The first five minutes was practically a boxing match with 4oz gloves, and it was clear-cut that Penn got the nod on all judges scorecards.
The following round was much of the same, with “The Prodigy” finding a home for his precise and piercing jab, his defensive wrestling ability was still intact, and Sherk was quite literally running out of options. Blood began to lightly pour from the cheek of the challenger as Penn catapulted his cross through the guard. Although Sherk found slight success with the leg kick, it wasn’t enough to faze the champion and knock him off his gameplan. For the first time in years, Penn’s cardio was not an issue, and this was due to the recent solemnity he had imposed on his training regiment (as well as a shift in mindset).
John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock remembers Sean Sherk fighting emotionally, causing him to sway away from the inceptive strategy.
“Penn totally shined in that fight. From my recollection, Sherk seemed to fight with his emotions and did not wrestle at all.”
The reigning champ entered the third frame two rounds up, comfortably beating away at his foe on the feet. Using “The Muscle Shark” as a punching bag was fun, sure, but Penn was known as a finisher and was eager to retain that label through his first official title defense. With just seconds left in the third round, BJ rushed towards his opponent with an uppercut and hook combo, narrowly missing the intended target. As Sherk was backed up against the fence Penn took the opportunity to land one lethal blow: a deadly knee that landed flush on the jaw. That’s right, before Masvidal’s infamous knee, there was Penn’s.
The Hawaiian followed up this act of beautiful violence with a series of punches, almost causing referee Mario Yamasaki to intervene. Sherk was saved by the bell, but something was wrong – he never stood up or returned to his corner. He sat, back against the cage, for a number of seconds, looking as if he were daydreaming. Penn took it upon himself to call off the fight, waving his hands while shouting “he’s done” before Yamasaki officially ended the match. Now the undisputed lightweight champion and concurred best in his weight class, BJ Penn celebrated with his patent slapping of the head and licking of his gloves, a gesture now internationally recognized in the MMA community.
“It looks like BJ called the fight,” exclaimed commentator Joe Rogan, baffled at the thought of a fighter ruling off his own fight.
BJ Penn’s emphatic knockout victory over perennial contender Sean Sherk will be forever lodged in the history of mixed martial arts. It went down as not only one of the best knockouts in the promotion’s history but acted as the turning point for the division. Lightweight is likely the most talent stacked and exhilarating weight classes across the whole of combat sports at the time of writing and has been so for many years. Moments after the highlight reel knockout, Penn was caught muttering these words to Sherk as the two embraced: “Come by anytime,” an open invitation to train together in Hawaii. All the bad blood, foul statements, and boiled-over animosity were in the past.
Following this, the UFC’s lightweight king took to the microphone with a very important question for the fans.
“Do you want BJ Penn to fight GSP?” Penn roared. The crowd erupted in response.
“The Prodigy” was requesting a rematch three years in the making against reigning welterweight champion Georges St Pierre.
In spite of BJ Penn’s now inelegant looking record, he was once the king of kings, the best of the best, and still claims the title of divisional GOAT. May his dramatic yet explosive knockout of Sean Sherk be forever remembered by fans, and go down as one of the most exciting finishes of all time.
Steven specialises in MMA and Lethwei. He loves a good 1-2 down the middle.