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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
“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.