The stunning knockout of old rival Matt Hughes coupled with the uncontrolled and boyish celebrations by BJ Penn may have surprised those who felt the former lightweight champion had lost his will to fight MMA.
They were wrong. But only those who hadn’t flipped through BJ’s excellent biography – a must-read for MMA and Jiu-Jitsu fans alike – could have doubted him. In the book “Why I Fight,” the Hawaiian black belt explains how his consciousness as a fighter was forged starting with his early Jiu-Jitsu training, during his years at Ralph Gracie’s academy in San Jose, California, and how all of a sudden he found himself in an underground MMA event in California. After swiftly putting away his opponent with a rear-naked choke, he purported: “It was the greatest feeling of my life.”
Check out some excerpts from the part of the book where BJ was still a blue belt hooked on Jiu-Jitsu.
At the start of the book, BJ was a a teenager when he decided to dedicate himself to training Jiu-Jitsu and headed for California in early summer of 1997. During his first month of training he had the opportunity to roll with the UFC’s big star at the time, Frank Shamrock, who at first he didn’t recognize.
On his first championship, while still a white belt, he recounts:
“When the announcer called out my name, I was as nervous as I’d ever been and I almost started crying. Here I was in some gymnasium in front of an audience waiting to see me perform. Unlike soccer, where you went onto the field in front of all these people you knew, as part of a team, I was now entering this thing alone. It felt like the eyes of the world were focused on me. I walked out to the mat, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just did what felt right to me.
“Luckily everything came to me quickly and naturally. I won my own weight class rather easily, and even won the open division, despite fighting a guy who was about 220 pounds to my 135.
I flying triangled him for the submission. (…) When the competition was over it felt as good as anything I had ever done in my life.”
BJ also speaks of training with Ralph, when sometimes he would get beat up, but how that was what taught him that he could really get good some day. It was there that BJ started training his standup and seeing how he really knew how to handle himself. But his focus was Jiu-Jitsu.
“For this one (the Joe Moreira) I would be fighting in the blue belt division even though I had yet to earn my blue. (…) This was something Ralph had been known to do to students: put them in a tougher division to see how they performed. It would either humble them or give them a chance to excel.”
On an adamant suggestion from Ralph, BJ made his MMA debut against a kickboxer.
“California legalized MMA in December 2005, and here I was sometime around 1997, fighting in some gymnasium while wearing a pair of tight little black Speedostyle shorts, up against a kickboxer in a pair of long black karate pants who had to be at least twenty pounds heavier than me and quite a few inches taller. But whatever, a fight’s a fight.”
BJ then recounts his conversation with another athlete fighting that night, Dave Terrell, a Cesar Gracie student who would later go on to figure in the UFC.
“We talked for a minute and then I told him, ‘I’m really nervous about this. I had a hard time sleeping last night.’
“Terrell, who was looking down at the floor, picked up his head and in all seriousness said, ‘Hard time sleeping? I haven’t slept in three weeks!'”