When B.J. Penn exploded onto the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene, "The Prodigy" was a quickly given and just as apt moniker. Debuting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rather than paying his dues on the regional circuit, the highly decorated and even more highly touted Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) specialist scored three first round stoppages to earn himself a shot at the lightweight title wrapped around Jen Pulver's waist.
The fight was a classic. The two 155-pounders were the first in their weight class to headline a UFC pay-per-view (PPV) and while the lightweights didn't gain a foothold in the promotion until several years later, they are now a viable moneymaker thanks in part to Penn, Frankie Edgar and the current champion Ben Henderson. Early estimates of UFC 144's buyrate, featuring the title showdown between "The Answer" and "Smooth", clock in at nearly 400,000.
Before The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5, the lowest the reality series dipped was 170-pounds. Welterweight fighters were featured in the second and fourth seasons and Matt Hughes acted as coach in the sophomore year. TUF 5 saw the reemergence of lightweights, both inside the Octagon and out as Pulver and Penn were tapped as coaches.
They were and have been the smallest coaches in TUF history. That is, until this season when bantamweights Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber take the reins of 16 contestants looking to be the next Ultimate Fighter.
Small as they may be, the 135-pound champion and his challenger can still scrap. At the TUF 5 Finale, Penn and Pulver helped prove the old adage true: it's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of fight in the dog.
Let's take a look back at the lightweight rematch.
They meet in the center of the Octagon and Penn throws a combination which causes his opponent to lose his balance. The Hawaiian continues to swarm, peppering Pulver with hooks and uppercuts. Unrelenting, Penn keeps up the barrage before pushing the former lightweight champion against the cage and then securing a takedown. From there, he lands more punches and elbows on the quickly looking to be overmatched opponent.
Pulver manages to get to his feet but he's immediately slammed back down. In this position, Penn looks to land more ground and pound and "Lil Evil" gives up his back. Penn, the BJJ specialist, slides over for an armbar -- the submission photographed above -- but Pulver is able to escape the hold, turning into his opponent. He also turned right into a triangle choke attempt.
Despite not being the vaunted grappler "The Prodigy" is, Pulver is more than experienced when it comes to avoid submissions having done so for nearly a decade at that point. This attempt is no different. He loosens himself from the position and ends up in Penn's full guard to the roar of the crowd. The Hawaiian avoids most of the offense Pulver throws his way during this time save for a big elbow that catches Penn cleanly.
They're back to their feet and spend the final minute of the opening round clinching, throwing short hooks and uppercuts to the head and knees to the body before breaking and starting all over again. A wild head kick from Pulver whiffs over his opponent's head and the fight looks much different going into the second round as it did early on in the first.
They're back in the center of the cage, picking away at each with single punches. An uppercut from Pulver catches Penn; the Hawaiian throws a right that rattles "Lil Evil." A big left from the former champion is caught by Penn and he uses it to secure a trip takedown, landing in half-guard.
Keeping his head down to avoid punches, Penn throws his own while slowly but deliberately making his way to full mount. From there, Penn brutalizes his opponent with vicious ground and pound. Pulver -- as he did in the first -- gives up his back which leads to even more ground and pound and eventually the end of the fight.
Pulver defended as well and as long as he could but with someone as talented as Penn on your back, defenses will eventually falter. Wrapping his legs around Pulver's body -- and trapping the former champ's left arm as well -- Penn sinks in a rear naked choke and forces his opponent to tap. The submission -- cranked a little longer than it probably should have -- was sweet retribution for the Hilo boy.
As much of victory as it was for Penn, it was also a win for the smaller guys fighting in the UFC. The fifth season of TUF blew the doors open for 155-pounders, an act hoping to be replicated by last season's featherweight and bantamweight cast.
It also helped establish "The Prodigy" as a star. Will the same be said for Cruz come July?