Against St. Pierre, Penn eyes second belt, new chapter in history
Lightweight champ B.J. Penn battles Georges St. Pierre for his welterweight title
Penn has been the face of Hawaiian MMA, as well as a politico, model, hero
He hopes to get a second belt and add a new chapter to Hawaiian MMA history
Eyeing personal, professional and cultural history, B.J. Penn carries many people and traditions with him into Saturday's UFC welterweight title challenge against Georges St. Pierre.
Born and bred out of the fighting city of Hilo, Hawaii, the 30-year-old MMA star may not be the first athlete to represent the Islands martial spirit. Yet, in this era of expansion and acceptance for the sport, he's far and away the most popular, and undoubtedly the best.
"Mixed martial arts has been going on for decades now in Hawaii," said Rudy Valentino, Penn's chief trainer and a Hawaiian martial arts historian. "It came full circle when B.J. won in the UFC and won the world championship."
Born of a Caucasian father and Korean-American mother, Penn has emerged as much more than the face of Hawaiian MMA. As his stature has grown, so too has the Hilo Boy's voice on important issues. He's a spokesman for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. He speaks like politics -- even if past indiscretions, including a run-in with police outside a Honolulu nightclub in 2005, suggest a difficult path -- could be a consideration someday. Whether he wants the position or not, Hawaiian youth already consider him a role model and hero.
Penn, because of his success in the cage, is very much the voice of a nation. And as an athlete, particularly one who fights for a living, he makes a perfect conduit between ancient fighting traditions of the Islands and modern day concerns about young, disenfranchised men and women.
"What he's doing for the youth of Hawaii, he's trying to send them in the right direction," Valentino said. "What's he's done for the people of Hawaii is to give them hope that you can be champion in anything you do."
During the 1920s, that distinction belonged to a slender Japanese emigrant, Seishiro "Henry" Okazaki. Combining different arts into an effective form of self-defense and fighting, Okazaki met many challengers along the way who aimed to test their style against his: a mixture of boxing, Japanese jujitsu and the ancient Hawaiian art of bone breaking, the Lua.
A hotbed of jujitsu, thanks to a significant number of Japanese workers toiling on the Big Island's plantations, Hilo was Okazaki's fighting epicenter. In 1922, he faced the toughest match of his life. British boxer Carl "Kayo" Morris traveled to the islands in search of mixed-discipline bouts. After roughing up several local fighters, Morris came across Okazaki, whom he battered in the first of six three-minute rounds. However, the Japanese fighter survived a broken nose before putting the boxer out with an injured arm. The victory propelled Okazaki into hallowed ground, and helped establish a new style of martial arts, Danzan-Ryu jujitsu.
Style showdowns are no longer a point of interest, of course. When Penn steps into the cage against St. Pierre on Jan. 31 (PPV, 10 p.m. ET), the Hawaiian will meet a man who, like himself, excels in all areas of the fight game.
"This is a fight that mixed martial arts deserves," Penn said. "It's the essence of mixed martial arts."
To win, Penn says, technique won't be the difference. Will is his chosen battlefield inside the MGM Grand.
After losing a razor-thin split decision to St. Pierre in 2006, Penn eventually moved down to 155 pounds, where he rather easily won the UFC title. Content is hardly an accurate description of the man. While challenging bouts await him in one of the deepest divisions in the sport, Penn, concerned the French-Canadian champion would move up to middleweight, demanded the UFC put together a rematch for him as soon as possible.
True to his Brazilian jiu-jitsu roots, Penn (13-4-1) will once again be the lighter man Saturday. While St. Pierre is considered big for the division, Penn will enter the cage the same weight he steps on the scale, right around the division limit of 170. That's a departure from the pair's first encounter, when Penn said dropping a dozen pounds left him sluggish and slow.
"Does it make sense to cut 17 pounds in one week?" the Hawaiian wondered aloud in the weeks leading up the showdown. For St. Pierre (17-2), the answer is undeniable, even if Penn doesn't see the logic.
"I train myself to fight an army," said the 27-year-old welterweight champ. "So one guy will not be able to break me."
Penn, who aims to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously, strongly disagrees.
"I'm going to attack his heart and I'm going to make him give up," he said. "That's how I'm going after this fight."
The challenger's camp, led by Valentino, a disciple of the Okazaki-inspired arts, constantly verbalize that history is in their corner. Their man is physically and mentally prepared to meet the stiffest test of his career. History, Hilo and Okazaki will accompany Penn into the fight, and they expect a new chapter in Hawaiian fight lore to been written by the time Penn exits.
"I don't know how I'm going to get this thing done," said the current Hilo Boy. "But I'm going to walk out the champion."
MORE UFC 94
FOWLKES: Top storylines for UFC 94
MMAWEEKLY.COM: Penn, St. Pierre eager to battle it out