(Photo courtesy of myspace.com/rudyvhawaii)
By CagePotato.com contributor Elias Cepeda
The feelings behind BJ Penn’s notorious “gameface,” used to run deep. In the days and hours leading up to his fights he could be as dour and tense as his expression, and the anxiousness continued even as he ran to the Octagon to fight, a bundle of nervous energy.
But just before his UFC lightweight title defense last August in Philadelphia against top contender Kenny Florian, Penn’s head trainer Rudy Valentino saw a change in his fighter. “Just before we got out of the arena he was laughing and talking about, ‘I’m going to enjoy this fight, I’m going to go out and enjoy every fight from now on,’” the coach told CagePotato from Memphis, where Penn (14-5-1) will face Diego Sanchez (23-2) on Saturday night at UFC 107.
“That night BJ was just fighting to fight. It was the Florian fight where he began to turn it on.”
The idea that Penn may just now beginning to find his groove, mentally, is a scary one. Especially if his violent dismantling of Florian that night is any indication of what a more relaxed “Prodigy” can do.
Valentino had long hoped that Penn would find himself in this place; that he would once more fight simply for the love of it, with no pressure on his shoulders. “Yeah,” Valentino says. “Especially after he fought Georges St. Pierre. He needed that type of mindset, to be more positive.”
Last January, Penn lost via TKO to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre after taking a beating for four rounds in a rematch of their closely contested 2006 bout. The loss and the ensuing controversy over St. Pierre’s corner violating athletic commission rules by applying Vaseline to the Canadian’s torso in-between rounds, left Penn bitterly disappointed.
But Penn’s new live-in-the-moment attitude towards fighting and his work with conditioning experts Marv and Gary Marinovich for the last two camps has spurred the champion on. “Now we have the two best guys in the nation and they really turned BJ around. The last time they only got to work with him for a little bit. This time they’ve been with BJ for eight weeks,” Valentino says.
The one area where pundits may suspect Sanchez may hold an advantage over Penn on fight night is conditioning. Not surprisingly, Penn’s coach feels differently. “Diego is a cardio machine and all of that but he just got a new strength and conditioning coach. And we were watching his strength and conditioning training and its all old school compared to what BJ is doing now,” Valentino says.
“BJ has now made the transition from just doing the strength training with them to utilizing it in a professional fight. That’s what gives him confidence…he doesn’t have to look up at the time to see if he has two minutes left or what, he knows he can do it.”
Behind the apparent confidence that Penn had always displayed leading up to fights, was an internal doubt that, despite his talent and skill, he might not be able to go the distance and reach his potential. Fans may now wonder if despite his improved conditioning, his happiness and contentment might lead to his losing a little bit of the mean edge needed to win fights.
But Valentino insists that Penn’s newfound peace hasn’t softened the Hawaiian scrapper at all. To the contrary, his happiness is the result of confidence and the melting away of other, periphery concerns, Valentino says. That is, Penn is happy now, because he gets to fully experience the pure process of fighting that he has loved since his childhood. It isn’t visions of fairies and sugar plums dancing around in Penn’s head that makes him smile more these days — it is looking forward to ripping off limbs and cutting off his opponent’s air supply. And though Penn is content as a human being at any given moment, there is still one major point of irritation for him that keeps him motivated professionally.
Dating back to his very first title fight in January 2002, Penn seems to have perpetually contemplated retirement before and after every major contest. With multiple titles in multiple divisions, fame, money and just enough eccentricity to do something unexpected, the threat that the 30 year old could retire at any moment always seems real enough. It is something that Penn and even his coaches have spoken about in the past.
But Valentino says that retirement talk should cease right now. “Yes. Put that away right now. There’s one big fight that he really wants. He doesn’t care if it’s for a title or what; he just wants to fight him. And that’s Georges St. Pierre. That’s for the future. Right now we’re focused on the lightweight division. But BJ doesn’t want to retire before fighting Georges St. Pierre again.”