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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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The pugilist at rest.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Fortune intervened when Tom Callos moved in down the street. Callos was training for his fifth-degree black belt. His first day in town, he put up fliers seeking students for Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ)—which, at the time, was a martial art virtually unknown outside Brazil. Pops Penn had practiced karate and aikido as a young man, and knew how effectively traditional martial arts could teach discipline, respect and humility. Pops arranged a meeting between his wayward son and the martial arts master.

Callos merely toyed with Penn that first class, tapping him out whenever he felt like it. (Tap out is martial arts speak for making the opponent cry “uncle.”) Being so thoroughly dominated by someone more than twice his age was a humbling, yet eye-opening, experience for the guy who fancied himself the best fighter in Hilo.

“Back then I had no clue,” Penn recalls. “I did jujitsu because it was fun and I was good at it. I thought it could gain me some status and respect. I just wanted to own Hilo.”

Penn got so good so fast that people started calling him “the Prodigy.” Within a few months Callos taught him all the BJJ he knew, and it was time for Penn to move on.

Callos hooked him up with his own teacher in California, Ralph Gracie, a member of the legendary Brazilian family that had brought BJJ to the U.S. only a few years earlier.

Penn earned his BJJ black belt in only three-and-a-half years—less than half the time it takes most people. When he competed in Rio de Janeiro in 2000, Andre Pederneiras, head of Penn’s BJJ organization, saw how good he was and promoted him to black belt on the spot. He became first non-Brazilian to win the BJJ World Championships’ black belt division.

Many encouraged Penn to turn pro and try ultimate fighting, a fledgling sport also known as “cage fighting.” In those early, no-holds-barred days, biting, eye gouging and groin strikes were prohibited—but not much else.

He wasn’t interested. BJJ was the hot new thing and he planned to open a school in Hilo. “I got my black belt in 2000. That was my college and my diploma … I just wanted to teach and travel. Others tried to push me, saying I was a great natural fighter. But [MMA] wasn’t one of my goals.”

MMA noir: downstairs at the Penn gym.

Photo: Jesse Tunison

He changed his mind and, a year later, won his first UFC bout in the first round. “After that, all I wanted to do was get the UFC belt and then retire,” he says. But it didn’t work out that way. In 2002, he lost his lightweight title fight. Penn jumped up a weight class and won the welterweight title in 2004 (then lost it in 2006). He finally won the lightweight title in 2008, then lost April 10 in Abu Dhabi. At the time of this writing, the rematch was scheduled for Aug. 28 in Boston.

Penn’s ascendency in mixed martial arts paralleled that of the UFC, but the real story—for both the fighter and the sport—happened outside the octagon. First, there was the money. Most fighters earned a pittance, while promoters made millions. Penn made $3,000 for his first UFC fight in 2001; the Associated Press reported that, in 2006, the UFC raked in at least $205 million from pay-per-view alone. (Penn fights back by refusing to make post-fight comments on TV, but speaks freely on his website.)

The UFC sells the sport as hyper-masculine encounters of barely controlled violence played out under laser lights to a heavy-metal soundtrack and accessorized with leggy “octagon girls.”

In a throwback to his ruffian youth, the UFC hype machine cast Penn as the bad guy.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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