B.J. Penn has been an Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor since 2001, and he's participated in some form of fighting since he was 17.
He's 30 now, wears the UFC's lightweight belt, and tonight attempts to beat the skilled welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre in a mixed martial arts battle scheduled for five rounds at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. If victorious in the 170-pound bout, Hawaii's Penn will become the first UFC fighter to simultaneously hold two belts.
Penn, who once fought in UFC 31 and is still around as a champion in UFC 94, enjoys the glamour of fighting in a packed Vegas venue on Super Bowl weekend and the handsome profits generated by increasing interest in his combat sport.
Hard-won respect in a sport requiring discipline in several skills, including some that originated in the Far East, has built in Penn a deep appreciation for the "spiritual" part of fighting.
He also has been outspoken when he sees peers falling short of what he views as MMA's principles, believing that MMA has a distant link to the ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi that promotes health, meditation and exercise. As a result, he believes MMA should be intolerant of any performance-enhancing drug use.
"Martial arts was founded on the spirit that it's not only a sport, but a way of life," Penn said. "I know there are a lot of others who are willing to take shortcuts for the sake of money, but when I see that . . . I get real irritated. I hate it."
Penn came down especially hard on his opponent last year, Sean Sherk, who tested positive for a steroid after a successful 2007 title defense and was ultimately stripped of his belt before losing to Penn.
Current UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, meanwhile, has ended interviews or threatened to cut them short at the mere mention of body size or performance-enhancing substances.
"I know these people coming up don't have $10 million in the bank, and that the athletic commissions and UFC are doing their best to stop it, but if you know that you can take product up until two weeks before the fight, then jump off it and test clean, there's nothing we can do about it. It's all about your values," Penn said.
Penn admits he has fallen short of the sport's high standards himself, engaging in past street fights and getting into a 2005 squabble at a Waikiki nightclub when he allegedly shoved a police officer aside; he pleaded no-contest in court.
The past year has seen a string of problems involving MMA fighters, starting in July, when former light-heavyweight Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's wild driving resulted in a police chase into Newport Beach and a misdemeanor guilty plea by the fighter earlier this month.
Then, starting in December, in a period of less than three weeks, former UFC fighter Justin Levens and his wife were found shot dead in Laguna Niguel in an apparent murder-suicide, with Levens identified as the likely shooter; ex-UFC fighter Justin Eilers was shot and killed in a domestic disturbance in Idaho, and current UFC fighter Josh Neer was arrested in Iowa after leading police on a high-speed chase.
"You feel bad when you hear all that stuff, it makes us sound almost like WWE," Penn said. ". . . MMA's still a new sport, there's not a whole lot of money around, so some guys are dealing with the same issues everyday, low-income people face. These people sometimes are literally fighting to stay alive."
Penn can relate. In his book, "Mixed Martial Arts: The Book of Knowledge," the fighter known as "The Prodigy" wrote about how frightened he was as a 17-year-old when his father sent him away from Hawaii to train at Ralph Gracie's jiu-jitsu academy in California.
Instead, he found a higher calling, one that takes him tonight to what he calls the "top of the MMA mountain."