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BJ Penn: Outside the Octagon

Through mixed martial arts, BJ Penn became Hawaii's most well-known athlete, but not always for the right reasons. Now, he's evolving into one of the world's most influential martial arts teachers.


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Photo: Olivier Koning

Running through downtown Hilo near the house he grew up in, early morning sun reflecting off his shaved head, BJ "The Prodigy" Penn moves like a panther chasing its prey.

As he gets closer, wearing board shorts and a “Team Penn” T-shirt, you notice the cauliflower ears—so misshapen from years of grappling that you wonder how the ear buds for his iPod can possibly stay in. The 31-year-old prizefighter looks like a bigger, badder version of the quasi juvenile delinquent he once was.

Penn is a two-time world champion and the biggest name in mixed martial arts (MMA)—a kicking, punching, wrestling, almost-anything-goes spectacle held in an eight-sided cage enclosed by a five-foot-high, chain-link fence. Sen. John McCain famously called it “human cockfighting.” MMA has made Penn an international star and Hawaii’s most famous athlete since Duke Kahanamoku. But outside the octagon, he is quietly maturing into the world’s most influential martial arts role model since Bruce Lee.

MMA’s popularity has exploded since 1993, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) held its first event. The soft-spoken Penn has won UFC world championship belts in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions, and today it’s tough to drive more than a block in Hilo without seeing a BJ Penn T-shirt or bumper sticker.

Anyone can train at the Penn gym, located in a classic building where Hilo soda crackers were once made. The main floor is a typical, air-conditioned workout facility, but downstairs could be the set of a 1940s film-noir boxing movie. Penn also has his own MMA video game and clothing line. With his brothers, he’s launched The 808 Scene, a new weekly variety show on KHON-TV. He’s been the subject of two documentaries, countless YouTube videos, a popular iPhone app, and has just published his autobiography, Why I Fight: The Belt Is Just an Accessory. Daily visits to his website, bjpenn.com, are mandatory for any serious MMA fan or Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) student. Local kids, martial artists, MMA fans and Hawaiian Pride activists all claim him as their own.

“When BJ Penn talks, kids listen,” says Tom Callos, a tae kwon do master who was Penn’s first teacher. “Through his website he’s taught more people than I’ll ever teach in my lifetime. No [martial arts] teacher has reached more students, with the exception of Bruce Lee’s books.” 

The future home of the Penn Hawaii Youth Foundation, to include a commercial kitchen, media center and accommodations for visiting instructors and artists.

Photo: Zdenek Mlika

In 1995, Penn was a tough, 17-year-old local boy who lived to “just scrap.” For him and the kids he grew up with, street fighting was just another contact sport, and a way to establish one’s place in the adolescent-male pecking order. After graduating from Hilo High School, he spent his time hanging out at the beach, chasing girls and fighting for fun.

BJ is the third of four sons in a prominent local family. His mother, Oahu-born Lorraine Shin, is a successful businesswoman of Korean and Hawaiian ancestry who once ran for Hawaii County Council. His father, JD “Pops” Penn, moved to Hawai‘i from Kansas in the mid-’70s after serving in Vietnam. The couple raised their boys in a large, plantation-era house with sweeping views of Hilo Bay. BJ now lives down the street with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter.

While the Penns were upper-middle class, the rest of their Puueo neighborhood was not.

Puueo had two big apartment complexes that would rent to almost anyone. The cheap rents and lax standards attracted tenants with no visible means of support—and created the meanest streets in Hilo. Reagan, the youngest Penn brother, says, “There was always somebody on the street ready to try and take your bike when you were riding home.” Hard drugs were readily available (including, allegedly, under the counter at a neighborhood superette). Some nights squatters broke into vacant rooms at the two budget hotels and had to be rousted out in the morning. Police confirm two drive-by shootings in the early ’90s.

Then there were the youth brawls in the local park, especially on Sundays. This really was human cockfighting, local style, and BJ was often at the center of the action.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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