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Penn focused on nurturing talent, not wasting it

LAS VEGAS – When B.J. Penn was 20 years old, he could sit on the ground and, without using his hands, reach his foot up and scratch his head behind his ears.

Now a graybeard of 30, Penn admits that stunt may be a little bit out of his reach.

“I used to do a lot of things with my feet, but now that I’m getting older … ” Penn said, laughing heartily. “I’m pretty flexible. A lot more flexible than everybody else, but I’m not as flexible as I used to be.”

Penn, though, will take that tradeoff, since he says he’s never been as good a fighter as he is now, even if he can’t scratch his ear with his toes.

Now the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight champion, Penn will attempt to make history on Saturday at UFC 94 in the MGM Grand Garden Arena when he challenges Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight belt in a bid to become the first man to hold two UFC titles simultaneously.

His cauliflower ears give away his profession as one of the world’s elite mixed martial arts fighters, but he shares a lot more in common with the fans who will fill the Grand Garden in terms of build than he does with St. Pierre, who appears as if he could do well in a bodybuilding competition.

UFC president Dana White, who convinced Penn to become a mixed martial artist nearly a decade ago after practicing jiu-jitsu with him, was raving about Penn’s athleticism following a news conference Wednesday.

White said ex-UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture, a world-class wrestler, once told him that he had difficulty taking Penn down and that Penn once took him down. He raved about Penn’s boxing prowess.

Nearly every word that has been written and word that has been spoken about UFC 94 – which is expected to draw in excess of 1.3 million pay-per-view buys – has referenced St. Pierre’s exceptional athleticism.

But White said Penn’s athleticism also extends well beyond his skill in combat sports.

“To be honest with you, and I’ve said this, I think B.J. could have played in the NBA if he wanted to,” White said. “He’s that talented. He has a chance to become one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history.”

That Penn is in position to win what could be the biggest match in the company’s history is little more than a matter of luck. In the early part of this decade, White and UFC co-owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta hired John Lewis to teach them jiu-jitsu.

Lewis and Penn were friends and one day, Lewis asked Penn to come along to roll with his clients.

Penn was preparing to compete in the world jiu-jitsu championships – he would go on to become the first American-born man to win a world title – and was grappling daily with Lewis, who was working with wealthy clients on the side to supplement his income.

“My friend John Lewis, a good buddy of mine, said, ‘Hey, let’s not grapple because we don’t want to have a hard match with each other. Let’s just grapple with these guys,’” Penn said. “They were actually taking private lessons from him. He said it in a nice way, just joking around, ‘I don’t want to lose my business. Just come and help me out.’

“I remember exactly meeting Dana and meeting Lorenzo. I remember Dana asking me, ‘Hey kid, you ever going to get into this stuff [MMA]?’ And I told him to let me finish jiu-jitsu first.”

When White wants something, he rarely gives up until he gets it, and he badly wanted Penn in the UFC. He was convinced that with a little coaching, Penn could develop into at least a decent fighter.

He pestered and pestered until Penn concurred. He made his MMA debut on May 24, 2001, at UFC 31 against Joey Gilbert.

“Joey was considered a pretty tough guy at that point,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “After B.J. beat him very impressively, we were all thinking that this kid might be even better than we thought.”

Penn was quickly dubbed “The Prodigy” and expectations grew proportionately around him. Winning wouldn’t be enough. Winning championships wouldn’t be enough. This was a guy expected to dominate and win titles in multiple weight classes.

“It has been very difficult throughout the years, everybody saying I’m going to do this and do that, and I’m so great,” Penn said. “The fans put me through all that, but it’s actually what made me who I am today. I want to prove all of them right.”

He has accomplished more than reasonably could have been expected, yet it never seemed enough. He’s one of only two men in UFC history to have won a championship in two weight classes, along with Couture.

And he did much of it while abusing his body, partying until the wee hours, drinking and treating training as little more than an afterthought.

“Some of the things I did to my body,” Penn says, bowing his head. “I can’t believe some of it myself. Some of the stories I could tell you. Stupid.

“There were a lot of times I should have been finished and should have been put away,” Penn said of the many times he fought while in less-than-optimum condition. “But I somehow stuck it out and got through those fights and, eventually, I ended winning some of them.”

Penn said he wasn’t at full strength when he lost a bitterly contested three-round decision to St. Pierre at UFC 58 on March 4, 2006, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

“I’d say I was 70 to 75 [percent when I fought St. Pierre]. It was the whole thing, the way I was living my life. I was going out at night, just abusing my body, not training like I should. I trained just enough to get by. I thought Georges was just another guy. I really underestimated him. I thought he was just another guy out there.”

What he found was that he was fighting one of the elite men in the history of the game. And though he tired badly and didn’t have the zip that he had in the first, when he battered and bloodied St. Pierre, he still nearly pulled off the win.

St. Pierre is much better coming into the rematch, but concedes that Penn has improved dramatically.

Penn has listened to St. Pierre do countless interviews over the last several months to promote the fight. He’s heard St. Pierre say he wants to win to add to his legacy. He’s listened as St. Pierre has described how he wants to win this fight more than any he’s ever fought.

And Penn simply smirks. St. Pierre, he said, doesn’t really know what he’s gotten himself into.

“He fought B.J. Penn before, but he hasn’t fought this B.J. Penn,” Penn said. “I was letting all this talent that I have go flushing down the drain. Having talent doesn’t do you any good if you don’t do anything with it. I have had a lot of talks and a lot of fights with Dana, but the one thing that he was right about was when he came to me a couple of years ago and said, ‘B.J., I think you have a ton of talent, but you’re [expletive] up your career.’ He was very blunt, like Dana is, but he was right.

“You don’t necessarily want to hear that, but it was right and I really did need to hear it. I was just a stupid [expletive]-up. I didn’t do the things that a real professional would do.”

He sighed and shook his head, looking at the floor.

“You know, it’s a shame I did that and wasted some of this talent that I have, but at least I realized it before it was completely too late,” Penn said. “I got the message. I’ve turned my life around. I don’t know what they’re expecting from me, but if Georges and his team think he’s going to come out and throw me around, they’re in for a big surprise.

“This is the B.J. Penn that should have been here all along. It’s a huge fight and I have done the things you need to do when you’re in a huge fight facing someone of Georges’ caliber. I’m ready to go out there and kick his ass.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009