Monday, July 7, 2014 | 12:20 a.m.
The blood flowing into his eyes should have blinded B.J. Penn.
Instead, the facial gash facilitated Penn seeing with a new level of clarity. As Frankie Edgar elbowed his complexion into a red mess in the main event of “The Ultimate Fighter” 19 finale Sunday at Mandalay Bay Events Center, the 35-year-old Penn realized his stint in mixed martial arts needed to end.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘why did you step into the octagon after the beating Rory MacDonald gave you?’” Penn explained. “The reason is because I wanted to find out. If I didn’t make this night happen for myself, I would have always wondered, always gone back and forth…I guess I just needed some closure.”
The UFC’s International Fight Week and first foray into promoting fight cards on back-to-back nights in the same location concluded with Edgar winning a third fight against Penn via TKO at 4:16 of the third round. The victory showed Edgar remains among the top fighters in the world, and a championship contender in the featherweight division.
But it will be more remembered for proving the opposite about Penn. The former lightweight and welterweight champion looked lethargic trying to hit Edgar while setting himself up as an easy target.
There was a sense that everyone in the arena, even Edgar, felt it was an unfortunate way to close a storied career.
“As the finish was going on, it was bittersweet,” Edgar conceded. “I didn’t get up and celebrate like crazy because I kind of felt what was going to happen.”
Penn retired immediately after the fight, but it wasn’t the first time the Hawaiian announced that news inside the octagon. He used similar addresses in his last two losses, to Rory MacDonald in 2012 and Nick Diaz in 2011.
This one seemed different. For one, UFC President Dana White wasn’t there to hear it. He had wandered off shaking his head before the end of the fight, finding it too difficult to watch one of his biggest stars rendered helpless.
Afterwards, White stressed that his conscience would no longer allow him to book fights for Penn even if the fighter persisted. Penn made it sound like that wouldn’t be the case.
Every word he spoke after the loss conveyed finality. Asked what kind of legacy he hoped to leave, Penn dropped the microphone at the post-fight press conference and broke down in tears.
“He’s one of the best 155-pounders of all-time,” White said. “He built that weight class, and he was responsible for helping build the UFC. That’s his legacy.”
Penn first reached a UFC title fight at age 23, hence “The Prodigy" nickname. He lost to Jens Pulver by majority-decision in the UFC 35 lightweight championship bout, but captured the welterweight belt two years later by submitting Matt Hughes in the first round at UFC 46.
Penn left the UFC amid a contract dispute and failed in two bids to regain his welterweight belt years later, losing first a rematch to Hughes and then a fight to Georges St. Pierre.
But he held the lightweight championship for two years from 2008 to 2010, with many at the time considering him the best pound-for-pound fighter above the likes of Anderson Silva and St. Pierre. Edgar arrived and stole the belt off the Penn before eventually beating him twice more.
Penn’s encounters with Hughes, St. Pierre and Edgar will all go down in UFC lore.
“That’s what makes a career great, running into all these people,” Penn said. “I was just blessed to have these rivalries with these three people.”
Penn got the Hughes loss back with a knockout victory at UFC 123, but the pair of losses to Edgar and St. Pierre always bugged him. The Diaz defeat came in a No. 1 contenders bout, meaning he wouldn’t get a shot to meet St. Pierre again.
But when a conversation with White last year gave life to the possibility of a third fight with Edgar, Penn couldn’t say no.
“B.J. just didn’t say, ‘hey I want another fight,’” White explained. “B.J. went after the No. 3 guy in the world, one of the baddest dudes on the planet. He went after a monster.”
It was too much. Penn barely had a moment of success, getting pummeled by Edgar’s boxing and swarmed by his takedowns.
“When the fight started getting real tough,” Penn said, “I realized it takes a high, high energy level to compete with the top people in the world.”
Penn surely sprouted that epiphany into opponents a few times over the years. Along with Randy Couture, he walks away as one of only two fighters in UFC history to win championships in two different weight classes.
At a spry 32-years-old, Edgar could yet follow in Penn’s path. Penn will be watching.
He’s partnered with the fighting promotion in co-owning two UFC Gyms in Hawaii. Also bound for the UFC Hall of Fame, Penn won’t stray far from the sport.
“That’s a lot of what I’ve done in my life and a lot of what I’ve known so it’s going to be hard to completely walk away,” Penn said.