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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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Penn Hawaii Youth Foundation kids in action.

PHoto: Zdenek Mlika

He willingly played the part. One UFC video hyping an upcoming Penn bout featured ominous organ music in the background as Penn’s face loomed inches from the camera, calling out to his rival that “I’m going to try to kill you and I’m not joking about this.” A couple of victory celebrations featured Penn parading around the octagon on the shoulders of Jay Dee, his brother and corner man, licking the loser’s blood off his gloves. The image was set.

Actors love playing evil characters. (Think Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, or Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) But the real-life, bad-guy role Penn created started to take over, and got loose outside the cage. In May 2005, he was arrested for allegedly hitting a police officer outside a Waikiki nightclub. He pleaded no contest to assault and served one year’s probation. He began training less and partying more. His career flatlined, and those who had always considered him “just another punk” nodded knowingly.

Then, two events turned his life around. His daughter was born in October 2008. Three months later, he lost his welterweight title fight to archrival Georges St. Pierre. Penn decided that being the biggest badass in Hilo was no legacy for a father to leave, and cruising on natural talent alone wouldn’t take him as far as he knew he could go. “I decided I didn’t want to be another ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ guy,” Penn says.

He started to take being a role model seriously, and began speaking to Big Island school and community groups. To model healthful eating, he put up videos of his meals on his website. He even shot a video of his teeth—31 years old, no cavities. Penn is also virtually the only one in the UFC to publicly condemn steroids in a sport where testing is so flimsy that some say 90 percent of the competitors “juice.”

BJ, left, with big brother Jay Dee.

Photo: Zdenek Mlika

Team Penn also underwent a radical transformation. Penn has acknowledged that he trained only about an hour each day for some fights; it often showed in the cage. To get back in shape he hired controversial trainer Marv Marinovich, the NFL’s first strength and conditioning coach. Penn began practicing a favorite exercise of ancient Hawaiian warriors (and modern Hawai‘i lifeguards): running as far as possible in eight feet of water while carrying a 50-pound stone. He became so strong, he’s now one of the few athletes who can jump straight out of three feet of water onto a swimming-pool deck. (The YouTube video went viral.)

At the same time, his longtime MMA coach, Hilo native Rudy Valentino, began mentoring him on the deeper aspects of their shared Hawaiian heritage. Hawaiian flags and other iconography became part of Penn’s MMA persona. Instead of the heavy metal other fighters played while entering the octagon, Penn’s walkout music was by Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, and he wore a “Hawaiian Unity” T-shirt.

The connection between the man and the image was more than UFC hype. One day, Valentino took his protégée to Mookini heaiu, near the birthplace of Kamehameha I. Neither man was able to articulate the spiritual experience of that day, but both agree it had a profound effect on the young fighter.

Tom Callos, Penn’s first teacher, came back into the picture. Callos had returned to California in 1998 and developed the Ultimate Black Belt Test program for martial arts teachers. It focuses as much on the environment, the community and values that can be taught via martial arts as it does on the kicking and punching moves. Callos often cited the Dali Lama and eco-activist Julia Butterfly Hill. In addition to thousands of pushups and crunches, and hours of sparring, students in Callos’ program are required to perform 1,000 acts of kindness, repair three broken relationships and undertake serious community service projects.

Callos has returned to Hilo to incorporate these principles locally and revive the Penn Hawaii Youth Foundation, a moribund nonprofit established in 2004. The foundation’s mission: “To encourage positive values in Hawaii’s youth through the martial arts way … and foster the Hawaiian values of kindness, humility, respect, ‘ohana, teamwork and patience.” The goal, according to the website, was “to show youth that true strength comes through the mind, not the fist.”

But aren’t these the kids who idolize Penn for violence? Isn’t teaching them how to fight better akin to giving a fifth of whiskey to an alcoholic, or a blowtorch to a pyromaniac?

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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