BJ Penn picks up his phone in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He stands atop the same steps Sylvester Stallone famously ran in “Rocky,” where a statue of the fictional boxer now stands triumphantly.
Penn will defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title against Kenny Florian in the City of Brotherly Love on August 8 at UFC 101: Declaration and he’s excited to speak to me. It’s odd considering that he buried most MMA media outlets during the UFC 101 conference call. We exchange pleasantries and then his voice turns into a sprint, running right through our conversation. “Danny, hold on! I’ll call you right back. Hold on, hold on, hold on…okay….bye.”
He’s not calling back, I think to myself. Its nothing personal—just the way it goes. He’s a legit star. His headlining title bout against Sean Sherk—the last time Penn fought at 155-pounds—at UFC 84 was a top-10 pay-per-view draw in 2008 alongside major events like Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture, De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao and Wrestlemania. He’s more than MMA popular; he’s mainstream.
My phone rings. It’s BJ, apologetic. “It was the old man and he gets angry if I don’t pick up,” he says.
It wasn’t Penn’s father, though. It was Marv Marinovich, acclaimed strength and conditioning coach of Pittsburg Steelers’ All-Pro defensive back and Super Bowl champion Troy Polamalu. Marinovich emphasizes functional speed, power and conditioning, and Penn says the training has “me to another level.”
The camp has been hard but fun for the Hawaiian. Penn returned to California, a few hundred miles south of where he earned his nickname, “The Prodigy,” more than a decade ago at the American Kickboxing Academy and Ralph Gracie’s jiu jitsu school, and it reminds him of times when all he thought about and all he did was train.
Penn is in an odd place, defending his title while coming off a loss. Penn’s accusations of greasing and steroid use by his opponent following the loss to Georges St-Pierre and his claims of text messages supposedly sent to him by title challenger Kenny Florian have cast a cloud over the pre-fight build up. Penn, for a change, doesn’t care to talk about it. Instead, he wants to solidify “The Prodigy”’s legacy.
“I don’t want to sit here and beat [fans] down for it, but they don’t know the history of mixed martial arts,” says Penn. “The sport is growing so fast and at such a rapid rate that they have no idea who’s who or any of this stuff,” he explains, adding most probably started watching him in the last year, missing his classic championship battles with Jens Pulver and Matt Hughes.
“At least they know who I am,” he says laughing. “You can portray me anyway you want to, you can portray me as an asshole, you can portray me as this and that but as long as you’re telling the truth, you know?”
When I prod him about the hot subject of Florian training with St-Pierre for their upcoming tilt, he says he doesn’t mind talking about it because it’s not important—the fight itself is.
“I think he’s trying to find anything that he can to give him an edge to win the fight because he wants to be the champ,” he says, “If he has to go train with Santa Claus, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Penn knows what he’s gotta do at UFC 101. “This is my chance to go out,” Penn says, “And make everyone eat their words.”
FIGHT! Fans: Do you think we will see an in-shape, focused, and dangerous BJ Penn at UFC 101?