A Force of Nature
BJ Penn seems to exist apart from other fighters. He does things that should be impossible, like moving up in weight and taking the belt, or being the only American to win Mundials (the world series of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) ever. And he looks ordinary, nondescript, with a smooth, seal-like body. My editor said, “Tell BJ to get running; for the cover photo, I want lean and mean BJ, not Buddha BJ.” He was joking, but I thought, I prefer Buddha BJ. As soon as you watch him start to move in the cage, you begin to understand why so many people believe BJ is the proven pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. It’s not his physique but his elegance, his rightness of movement. He’s a killer in there; he’s a shark in the water. And something about him transcends even that.
“Baby” Jay Dee Penn earned his nickname “The Prodigy” because while he only started learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 1997, in 2000 he was the first non-Brazilian black belt to win his weight class at Mundials. That’s insane. After three years of Jiu-Jitsu, most people will be a purple or, (if they’re athletic and dedicated, seven-days-a-week dudes) a brown belt. Regardless, the Mundials is a Brazilian playground, the best of the best. What BJ did; there’s something unnatural about it. It has the feel of one of those movies where the leading kid finds a magic baseball glove and can suddenly pitch in the Majors.
BJ’s prodigious abilities served him well as he transitioned to MMA, and he continued to upset the order of the universe. His stand-up seems as good as his ground game. He blew through the Lightweight Division of the UFC, until he lost a close decision to Jens Pulver, mostly because he stood and tried to trade – on the ground he passed Jen’s guard like it was tissue paper. He rode Takanori Gomi, the “FireBall Kid,” (who later seemed unstoppable in Pride) like a pet pony. He moved up a weight class and choked out Matt Hughes, arguably the best fighter in the world. He even gave a good heavyweight all he could handle when he lost a tough decision to a then undefeated Lyoto Machida.
In more recent times, modern MMA caught up. Penn lost twice, first to Georges St. Pierre (in a split decision) and then to Matt Hughes in their rematch, with what looked like conditioning problems. His superlative abilities aren’t enough for him to dominate at 170 pounds anymore. Not without being in shape. But still, he could win any fight he’s in with the “BJ factor of unseemly amounts of talent. At any time he could pull off something sick and stand the world on its ear. The betting line in Vegas better account for it.
BUT WHAT MAKES BJ BJ?
I tracked down accomplished fighter and legendary grappler Dave Camarillo, the author of Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu. Dave had been around BJ from the beginning, at Ralph Gracie’s academy. Dave maintains that the primary thing that makes BJ great is the family support he has. “His father is a very driven, really positive guy,” said Camarillo. “He supported BJ in every way. BJ’s positive outlook is maybe his greatest strength.”
Additionally, Dave stated, “His initial development was just stupendous. You could see him technically growing by the hour. You’d catch him in something, and the next day it wouldn’t be there anymore.”
I asked David to describe BJ’s game to me. In Jiu-Jitsu, a fighter’s game is an individual style, a representation of his background and his teachers, but also a reflection of his own personality. “BJ controls you, he understands what you are doing and what you want to do, and he doesn’t let you do it. He takes you out of your game. For instance, I have a fast, attacking game and BJ slows me down.”
FIGHT! flew me to the town of Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii. I ended up sitting on the sidewalk outside of BJ’s gym, waiting for JD Penn, BJ’s older brother and manager. JD is also the founder of Rumble World and a Jiu-Jitsu black belt. JD had been training in Las Vegas with John Lewis; BJ had visited him and met Dana White.
It was a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the clouds huge and low, and Hilo felt quiet, a small town far away from anywhere, on the lip of a big ocean. The foliage was dank and green, and the air was wet with moisture and the smell of the tropics.
JD rolled up in a big truck, and said to me with a smile, “You’re here in time for the hurricane, huh?” It turned out that Hurricane Flossie, a category four storm, was bearing down on Hawaii, alarming the newscasters but not the locals. My first trip to Hawaii and I timed it perfectly. The next four days were rainy, threatening, and ominous as I tried to unlock the riddle of BJ.
On Monday morning, I caught a ride with JD down to the gym in time for BJ’s morning workout. BJ was down in the ring with Junior Tuyo, his friend, training partner, and conscience. You can say what you want, but BJ Penn isn’t physically intimidating. I looked right past him the first time, maybe because he was on his back doing sit-ups. But the more I was around him, the more attention I paid.
Junior is powerful, dark, covered with barely visible tattoos, and quiet but friendly. I think of him as BJ’s conscience because he wakes BJ up, and monitors his diet and workouts. The diet came from Tony Aponte, a sports nutritionist from Seattle. Like a lot of fighters, BJ sometimes has food issues. But now BJ has discovered the value of good nutrition. They worked out for the next three hours pretty steadily, and I joined them for some of it, but I was fighting a cold and didn’t want to pass it along.
HILO BOYS JUST SCRAP
After they got back from their final run, we jumped in Junior’s car to get lunch. Junior was driving, BJ was in the front seat and I was in the back. As we meandered through town, I asked BJ about Hilo.
BJ smiled like the sun coming out. There are two different BJs: if he likes the topic, and thinks it is funny, he is wreathed in smiles. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, his face closes down. He’s not a hard guy to read.
“Hilo?” he asked, turning to me in the backseat, “Hilo is such a small place, eh? You’re gonna see everyone again and again. If you got a problem with somebody, you can’t escape it.” His Hawaiian drawl nearly disappears when he is talking to me, but comes back strong when talking to his friends and neighbors – which is everyone. Everyone we see on the street or in the gym gives BJ the shaka, the hang-loose Hawaiian salute, and he returns it, bradda.
BJ spins some tales of street fights that happened when he was younger, 15 or 16, and it becomes apparent that the thing to do in Hilo is fight. “I fought on every stop at that beach over there,” he says in passing, and launches into a convoluted story about a brawl with a guy who’s now on Death Row in Oahu for multiple murders. “It was about pride, sure, but it was just fun, you know? Just a rush.” Anybody who produced a knife or a gun was from out of town; Hilo boys would fight and get over it.
“You’d fight the same guy several times – I fought one guy five times – but everybody knows everybody, so you’d find out the next day that the guy was your cousin or something.” His face lights up in a huge, Buddha-esque grin, and his eyes nearly vanish in the smile. That’s the Hilo way – just scrap.
Dave Camarillo’s words had planted a seed, and I wanted to find out what I could about the Penn family. BJ’s parents very kindly agreed to talk to me one morning (the day the hurricane was supposed to hit) at their lovely house overlooking Hilo bay. The clouds were low on the trees, and we sat on the porch and listened to the rain come and go. His father is white and his mother is native Hawaiian. They are both self-made people, very strong and assertive. I could see what Dave had been talking about; they were positive and powerful. Supportive, too; they both were wearing the new BJ Penn t-shirt, like any proud parents might.
BJ’s mother was one of seven sisters – the daughter of lei sellers (sellers of welcoming flowers to tourists) – and the only one to put herself through college. She is now the Director of the USDA for the Western Pacific, and helps developing rural communities, which is her way of giving back to the community. BJ’s father was from Kansas, and had passed through Hawaii in 1964 in the service, and when he got out of the military he came back. They have been very successful entrepreneurs, and have a powerful sense of family. “We worked together in all kinds of things, oil, rental cars, real estate…and we bring in our sons on everything, so they understand it, and have to work.” They are a team; the whole family is involved.
They love to talk about their boys, and it became apparent that BJ isn’t the only Jiu-Jitsu prodigy; all four brothers are black belts, and JD and Reagan are extremely good – maybe more technical than Baby Jay. His mom said with a warm smile, “My boys have the killer instinct. But when they’re not competing, they’re very humble.”
I listened to the family legend (every family has its own legends) about how BJ and the brothers found Jiu-Jitsu. BJ was a wrestling fanatic, maybe from birth, and his heroes were Rocky and Hulk Hogan. He would read wrestling magazines at four years old, and prove he’d read them, in order to get more. He would watch Rocky movies and take the hits with Rocky on the couch, reacting to every blow.
The brothers watched the 2nd UFC and decided they were fighters, and they’d all box or wrestle in the front yard. A man moved in down the block, Tom Callos, who’d studied with Ralph Gracie. He was gearing up for his 5th dan Tae Kwon Do test. He asked BJ’s dad if the kids could come train with him, and BJ declined because, “I already thought I was the best fighter in the world.”
BJ finally agreed to train with Tom, and he realized quickly that with Jiu-Jitsu he could beat everyone in Hilo (he was in the full swing of street-fi ghting) and rule the town. Tom, to his credit, saw that he had something special on his hands, and cajoled BJ into coming to train with Ralph Gracie for a week in Mountain,Ca. BJ thought he was going to crush Ralph; he’d been training for a few months and had it mastered. But when Ralph beat him, a whole world opened up. Ralph also saw the potential, and talked to BJ’s dad.
Eventually BJ ended up going to Ralph’s gym in Oakland. BJ was nervous about flying and living on the mainland alone, so far from the town he loved. But on the plane a thought crept into his head, this might be what I do. “Other kids did four years in college, I did my education in Jiu-Jitsu,” BJ says, and credits Ralph with giving him great technique and fundamentals.
The Penns are Jiu-Jitsu savants, through some combination of encyclopedic memory and body knowledge, coupled with natural strength and flexibility. They’re just much better, much more quickly, than the average person.
By all accounts, it’s a randomly occurring genius, sprung like Athena from the forehead of a God. Sure, you can break it down into its component parts: BJ is fast, strong, agile, and has tremendous flexibility. Eddie Bravo has said BJ is so strong that his tendons must be outsized; he has “chimpanzee tendons.” But BJ is better than a sum of his parts.
The truth is, BJ is just really good at this, at manipulating his body and his opponent’s. He has a great feel for it. I’d spoken to Jens Pulver earlier, the man who’d beaten BJ the first time but just lost the rematch. Jens had said admiringly, “BJ – what makes him great is that his natural instincts are sick. When it all goes upside down, the fi ght turns into a mad firefight, his instincts are top-notch. He does the right thing.”
But there’s much more to the story than that, however neat it may appear. How many basketball players were as quick and coordinated as Michael Jordan? Not many, but there were some out there, and they never came close to Michael, because to go with the physical gifts, Michael had the work ethic, the will to win, the relentless drive to improve his game, to study tape, to beat his man. BJ has that drive. Some of it comes from his upbringing. His parents are winners and want their kids to be winners. Some of it comes from Hilo, where you can’t ever back down from a fight. But some of it is self-created, from inside a kid who dressed up like Rocky and reacted to the punches.
Fight commentators will look for the easy handle on a fighter, like poverty is the thing that makes a fighter hungry. But the truth is, pressure and fire can come from all kinds of different places; young Cassius Clay was solid middle class.
In the gym, BJ is always watching. He sees everything. Even when he seems to be giving you his full attention, he’s aware of the way other people are rolling and what they’re doing. His parents tell stories of BJ studying Jiu-Jitsu tapes for ten to fourteen hours a day, of his intense discipline – banging pots and pans together to wake his brother up for training. BJ presents to the world a guy who is a natural, but it is obvious that coming up, he drilled and worked and trained Jiu-Jitsu like a man possessed. He said, “Before I couldn’t do anything but think about Jiu-Jitsu all day, lying in bed, in the shower…this goes to this goes to that… but that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m glad. I don’t want to go back to that level of obsession.”
Watching BJ roll, his agility is apparent, and what is also striking are how educated his feet and legs seem, like another pair of hands, searching out and clinging to the right spots. Boxers talk about an “educated jab” that can do a lot of things – BJ has educated feet.
Joe Lauzon, a fighter who was coached by BJ on the SpikeTV show, had told me, “BJ has such complete faith in everything he does, he doesn’t do anything half-assed…he kept showing us different sweeps or moves, and each one was ’the best’ move he had. To BJ, each move can be, and is, the best move at the right time.”
BJ’s striking coach, Rudy Valentino, said, “With every fi ght he learns something new and applies it in his next fight. BJ rolls with beginners sometimes, because when you analyze their weaknesses in a fresh way, you can apply it to others.”
BJ’S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG
Tony Desouza is a friend and training partner to BJ, and was his wrestling coach on the SpikeTV show. I know Tony from Brazil, when he was a wandering ronin. I asked Tony about BJ’s game, what he thought of it. Tony squinted and pondered, and then said, “He’s always searching for ways to improve; physically, mentally, spiritually.”
The physical ways are instantly apparent; BJ is in shape. On Monday mornings, Junior wakes BJ up and drives him to the gym. They work out, pretty steadily, from eight in the morning until after eleven; weights, bag work, roadwork. The night I was there, BJ came in at five, and did his “fight-gone-bad” drills: three five minute rounds, broken into a minute on the mitts with Rudy, a minute grappling with whomever was in the cage, then back to the mitts. After that, BJ taught the gi class, and rolled pretty hard with his brother Regan for three or four rounds. He’s keeping a schedule like that four days a week, with two lighter days and a day of rest. That’s not so bad for an elite professional MMA fighter, you say. But this is more than ninety days out from his next fight. He’s made it his way of life now, staying in shape.
In the past, BJ was notorious; he’d work out for thirty minutes every other day, and go fight Renzo or whomever, relying on his superlative skills and instincts. He was partying and surfing. It caught up to him in the shape of Georges St. Pierre and his Hughes rematch. So BJ decided to change his life – he took it on himself. He said, “You know that guy that comes in the gym that doesn’t know anything, but he’s just a beast: strong and fast and really hard to handle? I want to be like that guy, but with knowledge.”
I asked BJ the inevitable question: who do you want next? And I got the answer I expected. First Sherk, the lightweight title, and then back to the welterweight title and Hughes or GSP or Serra, whomever. I nod judiciously, why not?
Pat Miletich, the legendary trainer who had prepared both Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver to fight BJ, had said, “the thing about BJ is that he’s extremely dangerous early on: he’s so gifted, so good on the ground. But if you can survive the onslaught, and push him into the second or third round, you can start to dictate the pace.” BJ and Junior are shutting that door hard. And if your strategy in fighting BJ is to hope that he’s out of shape, what will you do now?
Rudy Valentino is BJ’s striking coach, but he is also a lot more. Rudy’s a compact man with a neat mustache, and a universe of experience behind him. He told me that he wasn’t so concerned with BJ’s striking, he was focused on BJ’s spirit. “Every warrior in history is tied to his roots, to the land. It’s about identity, knowing who you are, and it makes you strong. I’m here to make BJ a better man.”
Rudy has trained martial arts since he was five, was raised in Kenpo by some of the American originators, and he lived in Thailand in the seventies to train Muay Thai. He’s trained seven World Champion fi ghters. He’s also a historian, who works for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and he reads everything; he’s writing a book. He’s a former pro surfer who is now surfing professionally again. During the hurricane swell he went out and rode the thirty-foot waves, and when someone joked with him about how risky it was, he smiled and shrugged, “If that’s how I go, so be it,” and his eyes were calm and wise. You don’t have to be just one thing.
I watched him coach, and was satisfied; he’s the real deal. He knows, down through his bones, what he’s talking about. We talked about BJ’s spiritual growth, and this is where BJ has made the most progress. Rudy said, “Yeah, BJ learns very fast, but he was immature, his mind needed to be trained. He’s stronger now.” Rudy considers his role in helping BJ’s mental and spiritual state more important than the physical. The way he’s doing it is by making BJ aware of his roots.
Rudy talked a little bit about the “Aloha spirit,” which may sound like a Hawaiian cliché but is very real. The spirit is about being open and giving, about generosity and helping others, and is still alive in Hawaii, on the big island. Being friendly and helpful, being a good person. That’s what makes a great fighter great.
I see it demonstrated in the amount of time BJ will give to fans that stop by – basically, as much as they want. He takes some little girls down to the cage and poses for fi fteen minutes with them, and chats with their mother. He teaches night classes; he really gets out there and teaches. He takes time with me, to try and explain himself. He feels connected to Hilo, to Hawaii.
In the second Pulver fi ght, BJ used an ancient Hawaiian technique called the Huki that’s a version of the trip-takedown that isolates an arm. He’s reading books about his Hawaiian culture. He’s very aware of where he’s from, he’s aware that he’s got responsibilities as a role-model.
In Hawaiian legends, when a warrior defeated another, he might eat his enemies heart, and thus take on his mana, his spirit – and the spirits of all those his enemy had vanquished. It’s a lot like a fi ghter. When he beats someone, he takes their legend, everyone they beat, and weaves it into his own. When BJ beat Matt Hughes for the fi rst time, he took some of Matt Hughes’ legend. With the rematch, Matt took it back. But with this wiser, stronger, more mature BJ, anyone who stands in the cage with him will have their mana woven into his. He’s in shape, his mind is right, and there’s always the