Monday, July 7, 2014

Ode to BJ Penn


Fun fact: I saw BJ Penn's first seven MMA fights live and in person. That's right, his UFC debut - back at UFC 31 in 2001 at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City - was the first time he'd fought in the cage. Prior to that, he was "just" some highly-touted Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu phenom with a ton of hype behind him.

The hype was justified, obviously. He put away a scrub named Joey Gilbert that night at UFC 31, got voted by online fans to be the co-main event for UFC 32 (yeah, that was a thing), and went on to crush Din Thomas and Caol Uno before going the distance against champ Jens Pulver.

I'm not going to go into detail about his career path and record - anyone can look that up on Wikipedia, or relive that greatness through any UFC-produced video montage. But I will talk about how Penn has always been cool as hell in person. Granted, I haven't interacted with him in years, but when sitting cageside for UFCs was my beat, you could count on the Hawaiian for two things: a smile that lit up the room and a magnetic personality that just begged for bro-hugs and pats on the back. And those qualities were made so much more special by understanding that Penn would fight anyone - and could probably beat most of them handily.

That Penn, who had more talent than any single human deserved, and who didn't mind if a reporter or two chilled in his hotel room before a fight, is the Penn I want to remember. Not the one who fought one fight too many and was a shadow of his former self when he fell to Frankie Edgar at the TUF Finale last night.

To me, BJ Penn is still that superhero who pushed the boundaries of what magic a fighter could do in the Octagon. To me, he's still that grinning dude getting a young Benji Radach drunk in downtown Bossier City, L.A. after UFC 37. He's the coolest fighter in the world. And he always will be.

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