“I spent the night at the bar; he spent the night at the hospital.”—BJ Penn
Back in 2006 before “superfight” was a buzzword, BJ Penn was in the middle of carving out his fighting legacy as a pioneer and legend of the sport, and Georges St-Pierre was still in the infancy of his legacy. At the time, Penn was the first fighter in the UFC to have won two different belts in two different weight divisions—lightweight and welterweight. He was considered one of the pound-for-pound best, given his proclivity for taking on any opponent at any weight class. GSP was still working his way up, but fans knew there was something special about him, and the thought of GSP and BJ Penn fighting each other had most fight fans eager with antici… pation.
At UFC 58, Penn and GSP were set to face off in a number one-contender matchup, with the winner receiving the opportunity to face off against then welterweight champion Matt Hughes. Penn had already beaten Hughes once as a lightweight moving up a weight class and taking the title from Hughes. The three-round welterweight fight saw GSP apply what would become his signature style—keeping opponents at the end of his jab and kicks, racking up points with takedowns and ground attacks, and clinching against the cage to tire his opponents. Penn, however, was able to counter and do some damage on the inside and, early on, broke GSP’s face, bloodying up his nose, and swelling his eye.
Despite the obvious damage, GSP did enough to control the fight’s pace, control the location of the fight, and control BJ and was awarded the split decision. Later, Penn, who was disappointed with the judges’ verdict, alluded to the fact that the damage he had done to GSP’s face was more than enough to earn him the win. Penn was quoted as saying, “I spent the night at the bar; he spent the night at the hospital.”
It’s a common misconception among MMA fans (and quite a few fighters and MMA writers) that somehow physical damage counts or is evidence of a win. It’s not hard to see why that perception exists. The physical proof is hard to argue against. It’s hard to look at a fighter that appears as if he/she has come out of a wood chipper, let a lone imagine he/she was the victor in a fight. The natural assumption is that the opponent who inflicted said damage (especially if the opponent appears unscathed) must have won. If you were to look at both Penn and GSP after their fight, you’d think that the damage would speak to the real winner. You’d also be dead wrong. Damage is not a criterion by which a fight is judged in the UFC. When BJ Penn let his feelings about the damage he inflicted on GSP known, it inadvertently helped to perpetuate the assumption that somehow damage counts.
While this was the thought in 2006—that damage wins fights—things haven’t really changed over the last eight years. Recently, welterweight champion Johny Hendricks used damage as a measuring stick to argue that he deserved a win over—you guessed it—Georges St-Pierre. At UFC 167, Hendricks battered GSP and turned his face into a broken and bumpy mess, yet GSP did enough in the judges eyes to squeak out a controversial decision win.
In a post-fight interview with UFC.com’s Megan Olivi, Hendricks was adamant that the damage he inflicted on GSP, and the fact that he himself had nary a scratch, was proof enough he won the fight. “Do I look like I got into a fight?” Hendricks said. It also didn’t help matters that the UFC’s president also used damage as the benchmark for what he believed was a Hendricks win. “It’s about damage; this is a fight; it’s whoever inflicts the most damage,” said Dana White in the UFC 167 post-fight press conference, demonstrating his own lack of knowledge about the sport he promotes.
Of course damage cuts both ways, and at UFC 171 when Hendricks fought Robbie Lawler in another controversial win, this time for the vacant welterweight championship, Hendricks came out of the fight doing his own GSP-damaged impression.
That night, the cries of damage as a standard for winning were being hurled back at Hendricks, who looked every bit the part of a man who had been molly-wopped (even if he wasn’t feeling that way), by the same fans who believed the damage he wreaked against GSP should have been used against him. The worm had turned. Even GSP, talking to Arel Helwani on the MMA Hour, weighed in with his own thoughts about damage as it related to the Hendricks and Lawler fight:
I believe Lawler, the rounds that he won, it was more decisively, and he did more damage on the face, but sometimes that doesn’t mean anything. Lawler had a lot of damage too, but you couldn’t see the damage on the legs. Damage on the face sometimes is superficial, so that’s one of the reasons I think Hendricks won the fight.
In 2006, BJ vocalized what many fight fans (and some fighters) still believe—damage counts or at least, it should count. It’s not surprising this rallying cry came from BJ Penn considering the amount of damage he inflicted on his opponents through the years (hello Diego Sanchez and Joe Stevenson); however, it simply doesn’t matter insofar as the judging of a fight goes. Damage can be an ugly thing in the cage, but like all blemishes, it’s subjective. Some fighters simply wear damage better than others.