A little over a decade ago, Jay Dee “BJ” Penn made his mixed martial arts debut by scoring a 1st round TKO victory over Joey Gilbert at UFC 31. He earned the nickname “The Prodigy” because of his natural in-cage ability that easily had him pegged as the future of the sport. But with youth comes a certain level of brashness for a fighter with his unique ability. Despite winning both the lightweight and welterweight titles, Penn frustrated fans and UFC President Dana White because of his lack of focus when it came to training and overall mental maturity. Fast forward to 2011 and a 32-year-old BJ Penn is no longer the reckless party animal that he was at 22. With a record of 16-7-2 he’s won championships, headlined major fights, taken home a number of fight bonuses and is a sure shot hall-of-famer. The spectacle and hoopla that comes with fighting in front of thousands of rabid fans is old hat to Baby Jay today. With 106 UFC events passing since his debut, Penn prepares to take on the dangerous Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz at UFC 137 in Las Vegas, NV. Today, a different BJ Penn prepares to step into the cage. This is a fighter that doesn’t fight for sport, but because it’s his job.
“At first I said that I didn’t want to fight for ten years because that means I am getting old,” Penn says over the phone as he makes his final preparations for his October 29th fight. “I look back now and it’s good to have the experience under my belt. Being a 22-year-old kid fighting and being on TV you think you’re hot shit. As time goes on you get used to it. Today I just realize that this is where I make my living. This is what I do with my life and this is all I know. I’m much more comfortable with it. Before it was wild ride and now it’s just my life. I just want to do my best and be happy with what I see in the mirror.”
As the years went on, Penn was forced to make changes in and out of the cage. He’s no longer fighting at 155lbs – where he still holds the UFC record for most wins – and has opted to fight at 170lbs. The training that he never took serious has become integral to his performance inside of the Octagon. The sleepless nights partying and spending time with faceless groupies has given way to evenings in is Hawaiian confines and spending time with his girlfriend, Shealen Uaiwa, and his three-year-old daughter, Aeva Lili’u.
“I thought life was about fighting and going out and having a good time. Having a daughter you realize that life is about much more than that,” the Hawaiian jiujitsu practitioner explains. “There is a lot more on the line. This is a job and I’m here to support my family and give my daughter the best opportunity that I can. It also gives me a reason to come home instead of staying out all night and getting into trouble.” Yes, this is the new and improved BJ Penn. Ten years in the fight game will likely change any man. For Penn, it’s all about getting the job done so he can take care of his family. He’s well aware that the days of relying simply on his talent are long gone. But he’s also not ready to hang his gloves up just yet – although the idea has crossed his mind.
“I have had a love/hate relationship with the sport since day one. One day I say I want to fight another ten years and the next day I’ll say that this is the end,” Penn says about his tug of war with continuing his fighting career. But while some may retire because they can no longer compete at a high level, Penn has yet to have that problem. Instead, his decision making process has more to do with what’s at home than what is in the cage. “The reason why I would give it up is for my family. I hate having to go away for a month. My daughter sees me packing my bags and will throw all of my clothes out. All of those things make you feel bad.”
At UFC 137 he’ll be facing a fighter who may slightly resemble the old BJ Penn. Nick Diaz is incredibly talented, but has been known to be a bit of a hothead who could care less about anything outside of his job of kicking ass. If Penn ever wants to sniff another shot at the UFC welterweight title, he’s aware that all roads go through Diaz and his 10-fight winning streak. Despite at one time being hell bent on being the champion, Penn says that he no longer consumes himself with those thoughts. He’s lost to 170lbs title holder Georges St-Pierre on two occasions and Dana White hasn’t warmed to the idea of giving him a third shot.
“I don’t even know what to say when it comes to that,” Penn responds when asked about another title shot. “I think Dana is in the money making game and if it makes sense for me to fight the champion then I think Dana will make that move. He’s in this game for the same reasons that I am, to make money.”
It also doesn’t help that Penn is facing a man who he has trained and formed a friendship with over the years. But with the consummate professional that Penn is, feelings don’t get in the way of fighting. “It’s all the same. I’ve been in this sport for a long time and I’m doing this for me and my family. Even though it’s not a personal thing we’re going to get in there we’re going to get it on,” but afterwards, regardless of the outcome, Penn will harbor no ill will towards Diaz. For Penn, this is all about getting the job done. The partying, the notoriety and the fame have all been washed away like the sand at the beautiful beaches in his hometown of Hawaii. Once the waves of war drag away from the shore, the only thing left standing is the sound foundation that he is built. And that’s all that BJ Penn cares about. “This is nothing. Such is life, it is what it is.”