Issue 053

August 2009

BJ Penn has prodigious natural talent, ambitions that know no bounds, and a mouth made for riling opponents. Granted exclusive access to his training camp as he prepares for his upcoming fight with Kenny Florian, "The Prodigy" gives us a sample of all three.

BJ Penn is being put through a series of exercises that seem designed to test his speed, endurance, flexibility, explosiveness, and coordination. His stocky 5’9” frame is deceptive. Clad in a loose-fitting RVCA t-shirt, he negotiates his way through the endless physical exams with a grace and dexterity that seems at odds with his physical make-up.  

This takes place under an overcast sky. The Californian sun seems to be in retreat, but the combination of the heat and the challenges he is pitted against means Penn is soon sweating. Penn’s pride in his Hawaiian nationality is as prominent as his cauliflower ears, so it's odd that he should be training outside a warehouse in San Clemente.  

He has relocated here in anticipation of his August fight with Kenny Florian and will spend a total of a month and a half preparing under the watchful eye of coaches Marv Marinovich and Jason Parillo. It seems hard to believe, but between 2004 and 2007 Penn was considered one of the laziest fighters in the sport. Blessed with prodigious natural talent, he neglected his physical conditioning in favor of eating fast food and ballooned his way through the weight divisions. This didn’t stop him from winning though. It was during his ‘Burger King’ phase that he defeated Matt Hughes, Duane Ludwig, Rodrigo, and Renzo Gracie.  

But times have changed, and so has Penn’s attitude toward training. Whereas he once relied almost exclusively on his abilities, he now combines his world-class skills with a set of physical attributes that have changed him as a fighter. He walked through Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, and Sean Sherk before being halted by Georges St Pierre during a second attempt at the welterweight gold. The controversy following the St Pierre fight in response to ‘greasing’ allegations led to a change in the UFC rules regarding Vaseline but the result stands regardless.

Penn defends his lightweight title for the first time in over a year when he meets Florian, and training is taking place here for a number of very good reasons. First, Florian is a dangerous and well-rounded competitor, and so requires Penn’s full attention. Second, the recent birth of Penn’s first daughter means there are too many distractions at home, hence the temporary move to California.  

“I just wanted to get away for a little bit, I thought it would be a good change,” says Penn. “I’ll probably have my next camp back in Hawaii, it’s kind of good away from my daughter and stuff. It gives me a chance to relax and focus and prepare for Kenny Florian.  

“I think Kenny is a good fighter, I see him as an able opponent, and he’s very, very hungry. He’s in great shape, and this is his big shot. But that belt doesn’t belong to him. I don’t know how many more title shots he’s going to get after this one. I know he’s going to come full force and at his best. He’s a good fighter.”  

Penn can be so laid back that at times you wonder where the fire comes from. Where does the uber-aggressive side of his personality retreat to when he’s not in the ring? He’s so chilled out he often sounds bored, but every once in a while a spark appears. Penn has a combative side to him that doesn’t restrict itself to physical combat. His famous trash-talking and some of the incendiary comments he has made in the past aren’t intended to be disrespectful. They’re more akin to mischievousness, and Penn will admit that he likes to get under his opponent’s skin prior to a fight.  

He and Florian engaged in a brief war of words earlier this year when Penn claimed Florian contacted him with a warning that St Pierre would try to cheat during their fight. Florian strenuously denies the claims and brushed it off as early psychological warfare on Penn’s part.  

“That’s my only thing with Kenny, I respected him for a long time, known him for a long time, he’s come out and trained with me, but the whole thing is he texted me an email about Georges being a big ‘roider’ and a greaser and stuff. It just goes to show the kind of guy Kenny really is,” says Penn.  

As if the situation weren’t murky enough, there is the added factor of Florian going to train with GSP to prepare for Penn. “He’s hoping and he’s praying that I’m not going to be the same, after the last fight with Georges and the beating that I got in that,” says Penn. “It is some kind of BS though, because not only is he lying to me that he sent the email, but he’s also lying to Georges.”  

While Penn prepares for Florian by bringing in wrestlers and southpaw kickboxers to work with (“I’m not taking this lightly,” he says) Florian is reportedly working with top Japanese jiu-jitsu fighter Hatsu Hioki. “He might even be thinking, ‘Maybe I can try to put BJ on his back, try to finish him off,’” says Penn. “I’m sure he’s good at grappling; he’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu. If I want this thing on the ground I’ll take it there, but I’ve got other plans.”  

If Penn’s plans mean striking with Florian, he’s going to have his work cut out for him. Florian is a product of the Boston-based gym Sityodtong, led by famed Muay Thai coach Mark DellaGrotte. Penn’s striking prowess is well documented, and five of his 13 wins are by way of strikes. He even stood toe-to-toe with UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida back in 2005, losing by decision. “He punches hard, he kicks hard,” says Penn of Machida. “He’s not the biggest 205lb guy, but I guarantee you, he hits hard. He kicked me one time in the ribs, oh man...”  

That Penn went the distance with Machida is a remarkable feat in itself. Penn weighed a little over 180lb for the fight, while Machida tipped the scales at around 215lb. When they met in Japan in 2005, few Americans even knew who Machida was and Penn was widely lambasted for even wanting to fight the half-Brazilian, half-Japanese karateka.  

Now he has the UFC light heavyweight title around his waist, every UFC fan knows Machida’s name, and Penn says he is happy he’s got to where he is. “Machida’s the real deal. I like him as champion. I enjoy watching him fight, and I consider myself a fan of his.” While few predicted that Machida would win in such dominant fashion, Penn says he was one of the few who stood by Machida. “I said it! I’m the one who said it man, ‘Machida’s gonna knock Rashad out’. There he did! I think Rashad is a great fighter, I don’t know if this is the ‘era of Machida’, but I have a lot of respect for him.”  

With Machida’s ascent to the top of the UFC 205lb division, people have suddenly started talking about the martial arts aspect of MMA. Penn was awarded his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in 2000 after only three years training (which contributed to his nickname of ‘The Prodigy’) but it was Penn’s street fighting as a youngster that saw him start his journey on the path of martial arts. “I’m a fighter first, I grew up fighting and martial arts was something I did second. I love the whole martial arts aspect, I love wearing the gi, I love the black belt, I love all these different things.” So what is the difference between a fighter and a martial artist? “I guess a fighter is happy he can kick everyone’s ass, a martial artist is about the whole spiritual side of things.”  

Hold on there a second. Is the UFC lightweight champion telling us that the reason he fights is simply so he can kick somebody’s ass? “Sometimes it’s just about winning fights and kicking ass, and then sometimes I step back and think, ‘Oh wow man, I am the world champion, that’s me!’ It’s a challenge to see how far I can push myself; martial arts, this whole thing, is to see how far I can push myself. That’s all someone does when they step up a weight class, or try to fight a champion.  I think that’s the spirit and goodness of martial arts.” 

Penn’s position as one of the sport’s enduring characters is assured. It’s amazing that even though he’s fought since 2000 he only has 20 fights to his name. It may not be as many as some of today’s younger fighters, but one look at his resume proves Penn has never been about taking easy fights.  

He’s also never been one to shy away from controversy. From his public spats with Dana White to his many verbal clashes with opponents, from licking blood off his gloves to getting in trouble with the law, Penn has always pushed against established notions of what is acceptable, but the Prodigy seems to be mellowing out.  

He’s not stopped his trash-talking (or his legal battles) but the birth of his daughter and the loss to GSP seem to have given him new focus. BJ frankly admits that GSP gave him “a beating”. Lesser men would have crumbled from such an assault. It is worth remembering that Penn did not quit in that fight – the doctors advised his corner that they should retire him from the fight, proving that even in defeat Penn’s warrior heart is considerable. As much of a martial artist as Penn is, he’s a fighter first and foremost, and that’s how he wants people to remember him.  

“I want to be remembered as the guy who came out and tried to do his best, excel in the sport, who didn’t listen to or gave a shit what anybody else thought, who always did it my way.  

“A guy who never thought twice about doing steroids, who never thought about doing any cheap shit. People can look back and they can ask, ‘Okay but did he become a champion?’ and they can see my two titles. If you do it straight and do it right, you can become a champion.”  

BJ Penn: Top 5 fights

Caol Uno – UFC 34, November 2 2001

Shooto legend Uno came into the bout with eight times as many fights under his belt than the inexperienced Penn. That didn’t phase the Hawaiian, who pounded out Uno in just 11 seconds. The almost pneumatic beating of Penn’s fist into the face of the downed Uno is the stuff that highlight reels are made of.

Takanori Gomi – Rumble on the Rock 4, October 10 2003

After experiencing a frustrating draw against Caol Uno fighting for the vacant UFC title, Penn put himself back on track with this superb performance. Gomi had only lost once prior (a split decision against Joachim Hansen) and was considered the best lightweight in the world at the time. Penn beat the Japanese fighter in every range, bloodying up Gomi before tapping him out with a rear naked choke in the third round.

Matt Hughes - UFC 46, January 31 2004

Beating the UFC’s most dominant Champion at the height of his prowess would’ve been hard for any man, but to move up in weight to do so could’ve been considered downright foolish. BJ didn’t think so and submitted the champ in the first round.

Jens Pulver – TUF 5 Finale, June 23 2007

After losing a majority decision in their first meeting in 2002, Penn was out for revenge. Add to this the rivalry that had been building during their time as coaches on season five of TUF (not to mention Penn losing a ping pong coaches challenge to Pulver), and sparks were set to fly. Penn put the rivalry firmly to bed with a dominant and deliberate dismantling of the former champ.

Sean Sherk – UFC 84, May 24 2008

In the first defense of his lightweight title many expected a wrestler vs. BJJ show with each fighter resorting to their roots. Not so as BJ showcased excellent, fluid boxing skills to put away Sherk within three rounds.

Written by Hywel Teague, with contributions from Gary Alexander. Thanks go to the Penn family for their help in making this possible