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BJ Penn – A Fighter, Not An Athlete

"I’m just planning on going out there and being myself and hopefully it’s the best BJ Penn anyone has ever seen and everyone’s gonna end up looking at me and saying, man, this guy is the real deal.”

You don’t know BJ Penn. And according to the former two division UFC champion, neither does the man who Penn is looking to regain his lightweight crown from this weekend in Boston, Frankie Edgar.

But he says we’re about to find out who he is.

“Everyone’s favorite thing to say is that BJ Penn is some rich, lazy kid and they don’t know who I am,” said Penn. “They don’t know me, they never met me. Frankie Edgar doesn’t know me, he never met me, and I feel like I’m reborn. I even want to thank Frankie Edgar for doing this to me because him and the rest of the world are gonna get to see who BJ Penn really is – finally. I’m not trying to be a braggart or blow my own horn, but I really feel that what anyone has ever seen me do in my career, we can top all those things in this fight and in the fights in the future. I’m really excited and I’m pumped. I want to fight.”

It’s what you always want to hear from Penn, because even if he says otherwise, we do know who he is. The most decorated lightweight champion in history, a prodigious talent who has competed against the best in the world from 155 pounds to heavyweight, Penn likely has a place waiting for him in the UFC Hall of Fame one day. But if one thing has been painfully clear over the course of his nine year MMA career is that if he’s on his game mentally and suitably motivated, he’s one of the best ever. When he’s not, he’s merely just another talented fighter.

Some would say that in April, when he lost his belt to Edgar by a close five round unanimous decision, he wasn’t motivated enough, and he paid for it. Others would say he was surprised by the movement and style of the New Jersey product, and wasn’t able to adjust in time. For his part, Penn takes the high road when it comes to both trains of thought.

“I don’t want to take away from Frankie Edgar and say that I didn’t get up for him,” he said. “I’m always up for a fight. I made my own mistakes in preparing for the fight, and those are mistakes I have to live with. I was worrying about my physical body at the time, and now I want my mind, body, and spirit to all be as one and I really feel that they are all one right now.”

“And he didn’t surprise me,” Penn continues. “I knew he was tough, I knew he could box and had wrestling. Him and his team had a great gameplan and they came out and did their thing. Whether they believed in ‘The Secret’ and willed themselves to win that night, who knows, but Frankie Edgar walked away with the victory that night, and props to him. He’s got a UFC belt at home sitting on his dresser, or I don’t know what he does with it, but good for him, and he doesn’t know me, he never met me, but he’s gonna find out.”

The world getting to see the “real” BJ Penn is a recurring theme these days for the pride of Hilo, and if anything, he sounds relaxed yet intense, if that makes any sense, as he prepares for the latest biggest fight of his life. And at 31, he’s picked the right time to straighten his ship’s voyage and truly get down to business, not only in the lightweight division, but in what he hopes is a return trip to the 170-pound weight class.

“I couldn’t be happier in my life, my training couldn’t be better, and I’m very excited,” he said. “Now with the way my training’s going, I’m back to my original goal of wanting to become the lightweight champion and the welterweight champion and I feel like now’s my chance. I really want to be a lot more active in the Octagon and I’m just a very happy person right now in my life. Honestly, without giving too much away, I’m just planning on going out there and being myself and hopefully it’s the best BJ Penn anyone has ever seen and everyone’s gonna end up looking at me and saying, man, this guy is the real deal.”

One of the reasons for Penn’s reinvention of himself this time around may be to prove that despite being one of just a handful of fighters remaining from the early days of Zuffa’s UFC ownership, he is still on top of his game nearly a decade later, and perhaps just entering his physical prime. But an even bigger reason may be to set an example for his nearly two year old daughter Aeva Lili’u. Even the slightest mention of her causes Penn’s voice to soften, and you can tell that he’s glad she doesn’t quite understand what her dad does for a living yet.

“I kinda hope that it still takes her a little while longer to be able to recognize her father on TV,” he said. “I don’t want her to see me get injured; that plays very much on my mind. But I want her to be proud of me and I want her to grow up and be like, ‘you know BJ Penn? That’s my dad.’ I want to do all these things, I want to create a great life for her, and my legacy will be her legacy.”

And he plans on part of that legacy being that he was not only be as one of the most talented fighters to ever grace the Octagon, but one who eventually found consistency.

“Honestly, I feel like I’ve been an amateur all this time,” said Penn, 15-6-1 as a pro. “I want to be a lot more consistent. I don’t want to come out and win two or three and then lose some lackluster fight and everybody goes ‘what the hell? That’s not BJ Penn.’ I’m done being an amateur, it’s time to be a professional. I have everything I need here inside me. I can do it. Anybody can tell me ‘no BJ, you can’t win a fight training like that.’ And I’ll look at them and say, ‘no, YOU can’t.’ I can.”

With that, the fire is back, and as Penn points out, it’s not the fire of an athlete, but of a fighter, and this fighter has some things he wants to get off his chest.

“I look at these guys and I’m not an athlete,” he said. “They’re athletes, and I’m a fighter. I fight, I get emotional, I get pissed off, I cry, I do all these different things, and for them, they’re just out there competing one more day. And for me, it still is a fight and it still is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It isn’t the Ultimate Fitness Challenge, for me it still is what it always was, and that’s why I wanted to be involved in this sport. There is definitely some animosity when I see Frankie Edgar say something like ‘you know I feel bad for Gray Maynard that he keeps getting passed up on his title shot.’ And I’m looking at him and saying, ‘why do you feel bad?’ Is it because he’s getting passed up for me? I didn’t see you complaining that Gray Maynard was getting passed up when you were getting the shot. But all of a sudden BJ Penn’s getting the shot and you feel bad. And I could say a lot of harsh things when it comes to something like that because we all know how important it is to have that UFC belt. We know what it means in sponsors and paying our bills.”

He pauses and collects himself, knowing that negative emotion is never any good when it comes to building up the positive energy he needs to get his belt back. So we change the subject, kind of, and I ask ‘so what’s the difference between an athlete and a fighter?’  

“An athlete can go and compete against anyone, anytime, has no problem with how he wins, and that means nothing to him; it’s just a W,” explains Penn. “A fighter is a perfectionist and an emotional person. He wants to do things perfectly, and if not, it’s not good enough. And in some ways he needs that emotion, he needs that drive for perfection to make him want to fight. I need to feel that to go out there and fight. So in a way, Frankie Edgar did do me a favor by saying those things about me passing up Gray Maynard for the title shot. What he did was bring out the fighter in me. An athlete can fight his friends. I can’t fight my friends. It’s harder for me, and I think that’s the difference between an athlete and a fighter.”

Meet BJ Penn.