Why does BJ Penn still fight?
The former two-division UFC champion has experienced more fame and glory at 35 than most of us could garner in 100 lifetimes.
He also hails from a prosperous Hilo family, so money has never been an issue.
Penn’s mixed martial arts record of 16-9-2 is deceptive because he spent a sizable portion of his career fighting bigger men, including former UFC light-heavyweight king Lyoto Machida. In his last six fights, however, he’s gone 1-4-1. He also sustained physical punishment in his last two fights — decision losses to welterweights Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald — that could kill a lesser man. He hasn’t fought since the MacDonald bout, Dec. 8, 2012.
In addition, Penn and his longtime partner, Shea Uaiwa, have two beautiful daughters, Aeva Lili‘u, 5, and Kulia, 2.
All things considered, it’s fair to ask why Penn still fights. But “The Prodigy” — so nicknamed because at 20 he became the first American to win a jiu-jitsu black belt world title — has never been defined by conventional wisdom nor shied away from a challenge.
“I got the opportunity to fight Frankie Edgar again,” Penn said Wednesday after a political fundraiser for his mother, Office of Hawaiian Affairs candidate Lorraine Shin. “That was enough to make me step back in. And once I got involved, I realized how much I missed it.”
Edgar, you might recall, entered the Octagon against Penn a decided underdog on April 10, 2010, and exited with Penn’s UFC lightweight belt after winning a close and controversial unanimous decision. In their rematch 4 1/2 months later, Edgar, again the underdog, employed an effective stick-and-move strategy and retained the belt.
After losing the 155-pound title to Benson Henderson, as well as a rematch, the 32-year-old Edgar (16-4-1) dropped to 145 pounds for a title shot against Jose Aldo, which he lost by a close but unanimous decision. In his last fight, Edgar won a unanimous decision against Charles Oliveira, again at 145.
Penn and Edgar will fight Sunday, July 6, in Las Vegas, in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 19 finale. The bout, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, will be at 145 pounds, the lightest Penn has been in his professional career.
Appearing trim, fit and relaxed, Penn said he weighed 155 Wednesday and was confident about making weight.
“I haven’t been 145 pounds since I was 19 years old,” he said. “I feel so good at this weight right now, this might be a very comfortable weight for me.”
And although Penn is the underdog this time, he thinks his hand will be raised at the bout’s conclusion.
“I know I’m not supposed to win. I think he’s a 2 1/2-to-1 favorite. It doesn’t make sense that I’m supposed to win the fight. But with all that said, I’m very confident and I want to just get this show on the road already,” Penn said.
Finding training partners to emulate Edgar’s strong wrestling, quick feet and hit-and-run tactics isn’t easy. Penn brought in former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, Ultimate Fighter alum Nik Lentz and undefeated prospect Mirsad Bektic to play the role of Edgar in sparring.
“I know he’s gonna come after me with boxing and wrestling,” Penn said. “I’m gonna keep the fight boxing and jiu-jitsu. And we’ll see who comes out the victor. I feel I’ve got some new things to bring to the table. I’m excited right now and I just want to show everybody what I can do when I get in there.”
This is the second time Penn has been a coach on The Ultimate Fighter series. The first was in 2007, against former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver, who handed Penn his first loss 5 1/2 years earlier in a title bout. The animosity between Penn and Pulver was palpable, and Penn won a second-round submission by rear-naked choke.
Penn described his relationship with Edgar, a New Jersey native, as “much different.”
“Me and Frankie are just two competitive people who both want to be the world champ,” he said. “Me and Pulver was a total different dynamic. But with that said, with Frankie having beaten me twice, I want to beat him worse than I ever wanted to beat Jens.”
Penn said if he bests Edgar, he wants a shot at Aldo, the UFC’s formidable featherweight champion. A win against the Brazilian would give Penn UFC belts in three weight divisions, something no one has done. He said if he’s successful, he’d like to return to 155 to reclaim the lightweight belt. Then, he’d be in a position to call out Georges St-Pierre, the former UFC welterweight champion, who’s also notched two victories against Penn.
“I’d tell St-Pierre to come down and fight me at 155 pounds, my best weight,” he said.
Penn’s first fight was a first-round TKO win against little-known and long-forgotten Joey Gilbert at UFC 31, 13 years ago. He describes today’s UFC as “way different” then when he started.
“I don’t know anybody at the fights,” he said. “We all used to be like brothers before. It was so much smaller, the events. But now it’s so big. Everything’s strictly business. But that’s as it should be. Business is business.”
Penn is also aware pundits and fans are questioning how much he has left as a fighter.
“I’m 35 years old,” he said. “How’s that gonna help you? I’ve got all this experience, all these fights under the belt. How’s it gonna help you, being 35? Being 35’s not gonna help you, at all.
“I can do this for as long as I keep winning. And I cannot do this for too long if I keep losing.”
Win, lose or draw, Penn is a worldwide martial arts icon and the UFC’s first pay-per-view draw as a main event headliner. And in Hawaii, where “go for broke” is a mantra, Penn’s willingness to stand toe-to-toe with the world’s best fighters has cemented his status as a beloved local legend.
“It’s so amazing how people treat me in Hawaii,” he said. “I lose a fight and I’m walking down the road and people smile and wave to me. I talk to my friend and say, ‘I just lost the fight. Why do people love me so much?’ He says, ‘Because they would have lost the way you just lost.’
“I’m so grateful and I’m humbled by how I’m treated by the community.”
The Ultimate Fighter 19 finale will be broadcast live 3 p.m. July 6 on Fox Sports 1, Oceanic Time Warner digital cable channel 214.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.