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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“It depends on the instructors and the school,” says Dr. David Mayeda, a youth violence expert who works as a juvenile-justice analyst for Hawaii’s attorney general. Mayeda is also co-author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Arts and Violence in American Society. He is also an ex-high-school wrestler who recently competed in two amateur MMA bouts.
Mayeda notes that traditional martial arts demands that one fight only in self defense. “Other important social skills [must] be integrated into a program, like being a good family person, a good friend and a good student.” Without that, he says, “you risk giving potentially violent kids more tools with which to hurt somebody.”
Each week, two dozen kids come to Penn’s gym for martial arts training they couldn’t otherwise afford. Respect, focus, education, responsibility and other life lessons are emphasized. Anger-management programs are available to all—and required for some.
Penn also uses his website, bjpenn.com, to reach fans and martial-arts students around the world. The site, which can get up to two million hits in the month leading up to a fight, is overseen by BJ’s brother, Reagan, a BJJ black belt and a computer über-geek. BJpenn.com is so popular that, during the tsunami that threatened Hilo on Feb. 27, 2010, CNN picked up the feed from the site, which was streaming live coverage off the lanai of the Penn home. BJ provided commentary.
BJ Penn is caught in the dichotomy of mixed martial arts,” says Mayeda. “He’s in the UFC and they’re going to market … a very biased perception of him that is going to highlight his problems in the past. We don’t see nearly as much how he’s trying to rectify that through his local programs.”
Penn’s fierce, I’m-gonna-rip-your-lungs-out stare is now reserved for the octagon. Meet him on the street and he’ll smile, murmur “howzit” and move in for a quick honi. He doesn’t offer an aggressively firm handshake. Rather, it’s a gentle clasp; he doesn’t need a bone-crushing squeeze to prove how tough he is.
In traditional martial arts, the advanced student is encouraged to “stand on the master’s shoulders” and go even further. The master and student roles constantly shift between Penn and Callos. As MMA matures, their savvy combination of traditional values and 21st-century technology is providing the philosophical foundation of a most modern martial art.
Author Peter Serafin was the editor of Hawaii Island Journal, worked in Tokyo as a reporter for The Japan Times and Billboard magazine, and has written for numerous other publications here and abroad. He currently divides his time between the Big Island and Japan.