Hawaiian native Jay Dee “BJ” Penn is one of the most talented fighters in the UFC. In 2000, he became the first non-Brazilian to win a gold medal at the World Jiujitsu Championship in Brazil. Four years later, he displayed his mastery of mixed martial arts by jumping a weight class to defeat the reigning UFC welterweight champion, Matt Hughes. On January 31, 2009, he will try to repeat his feat of martial arts skill by taking on the current UFC welterweight champion, George St. Pierre, who is regularly ranked along with Penn as one of the top five mixed martial arts fighters in the world.
Here is a partial transcript of David Samuels’ ringside conversation with Penn before the Rampage Jackson-Forrest Griffin fight last summer:
David Samuels: First of all, it’s a real honor and a pleasure to meet you. Watching you, Anderson Silva, George St. Pierre, is really a different experience than watching even an old school martial arts-trained fighter like Chuck Liddell. You guys came up as MMA fighters. You don’t get caught between stances. Is that an accurate perception? Do you see a difference between you and George and the generation that came before you?
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BJ Penn: Well definitely, in the days of early UFC, you would probably see that a lot. Chuck was probably right on the verge. I came a little bit after Chuck. That’s a good observation.
DS: You got your start in Gracie jujitsu. Talk about the influence of Gracie jujitsu on the development of MMA, and whether the sport has moved beyond the foundation provided by the Gracies.
BJ: The sport has definitely moved beyond that founding idea of MMA, but without a doubt we wouldn’t be sitting here right now if the Gracies didn’t come here and teach their style and create the UFC.
DS: Talk to me about the influence that Brazilian fighters have had on mixed martial arts in America.
BJ: Without a doubt, if it wasn’t for the Brazilians, beginning with the Gracies, we wouldn’t be here. They’re a fighting culture, and they will always have fighters forever, until we stop doing this sport. Out of Brazil, they’re always gonna have another Wanderlei Silva, another Minotauro, another Anderson Silva. They come from a hard place, and they’re there to fight, and they want to kick your ass.
DS: Tell me about going down to Brazil and being the first non-Brazilian in history to come back with a gold medal in the black belt category in jujitsu.
BJ: I remember getting to the finals, and I remember telling myself, you know what, I might never be in this position again. And I think that’s the time I changed my life. That was the first time when I told myself, ‘I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna do it right now. It doesn’t matter what anybody says. It doesn’t matter what the odds are. If my arm breaks or my leg breaks, I’m gonna win this match. I’m gonna get it done.’
DS: Was the whole audience rooting for your Brazilian opponent?
BJ: Oh yeah, for sure. a lot of people were rooting for the opponent. I remember running up into the bleachers and then a bunch of them are talking saying, 'You’re the first, you’re the first.' It really didn’t mean that much—when it happened, I was like, 'Whatever, I’m the first.' But now as time goes by, I look back and I’m like, Man, I was the first -- like maybe the first guy in Japan who beat the Japanese at Judo, you know?
DS: The UFC took a championship belt away from you, and you had your back and forth with them about it. Do you think that UFC establishing itself as the only organization in a sport that’s growing by leaps and bounds, is that something that is entirely good for the sport of mixed martial arts?
BJ: Um, you know it’s good and bad. It’s got to be good for the UFC. Of course in a lot of ways it could be bad for the fighters as far as free agency goes and bidding wars goes. If there’s nobody else to bid on the other side, then of course, you know what I mean. It’s only obvious that it wouldn’t favor the fighters as much. I wish I owned the UFC, you know?
DS: Do you think, realistically, you and other guys of your caliber, do you guys expect, ‘I’m gonna spend my lifetime fighting the fights that Dana White wants me to fight on any given day?’ Or do you say there’s a balance of power here that’s gonna shift someday?
BJ: As a fighter, you always hope that there’s someone out there that could give you another paycheck, you know what I mean? I have a great relationship with the UFC right now. I’m not going anywhere. But what if that relationship was to fall apart next year? Of course that’s in the back of every fighter’s mind. So without a doubt, all the questions you’re asking and the same point you’re trying to get to, every fighter feels it. And then on the flipside, of course they’re gonna run the UFC with an iron hand, you know what I mean? That’s what I would do if I owned it.
DS: There are stories of particular fighters who sit for suspiciously long periods of time because Dana doesn’t like this fighter, or doesn’t like that fighter. When you look at the matchups, do you see him playing favorites?
BJ: I mean, every human being is gonna have their personal favorites no matter who they are, you know? Chuck Liddell—Chuck does a lot for him, he does a lot for Chuck. But if you’re in the UFC, you’ve got a contract and you want to fight, I’m pretty sure it’s pretty easy to get a fight. All you gotta do is give Dana a call.
DS: Hawaiians are mellow people. How did you first get into fighting? How did you first encounter jujitsu?
BJ: Hawaiians are mellow people, but we all live on an island so we see each other all the time. So like you either got to be real nice, because once you have a problem with somebody, you’re gonna see them over and over and over, and you’re gonna end up fighting. That’s why we fight. We’re all stuck in one area. You can’t get away.
As far as jujitsu, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I saw the UFC a couple times, I didn’t care about it. This guy Tom Challis moved down my street. I saw his kids playing outside. And he kept bugging my dad for me to come and do some grappling with him. And I was like ‘aw, why do I need that?’ My dad’s like, ‘you know what, if you just go once, I’ll tell him you don’t like it anymore.’ I went down, the guy choked me out, tapped me out, and I was in. I was like, ‘I can take over Hilo [a town on the Island of Hawaii] with this.’