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Exclusive: BJ Penn’s Coach Rudy Valentino Says Prodigy Is Happier, More Confident — And Still Wants GSP

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By 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.”

Cagepotato Comments

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Elentius- December 11, 2009 at 11:48 am
@ steampunk22

Good points there, but GSP walks around at 190. He cuts weight easily to 170 because of his wrestling nature. He stated that himself. I still agree that he does not fight at 185 because of prep time and also because a lot of 185ers are over 2 bills before they fight and over 6 feet tall with a long reach while GSP is only 5'10". I am not a big guy and have a similar frame to GSP. I would not want to fight 185ers that are normally over 2 hundred and inches taller. GSP is a bad mother f'er and Blow Job is a whiney little vampire bitch. GSP will own him again.
Smitty- December 11, 2009 at 9:48 am
Hey exes.for.iballs and steampunk 22,.....did you guys just now almost cyber kiss? (just fuckin with ya)
Harry Sack- December 11, 2009 at 7:12 am
GSP dominated BJ so badly that nobody who was there even gave a shit that there were allegations of vaseline. BJ says he's back and ready to take on GSP with a level of skill not seen thus far? Okay - you are going to have to do more against Diego than you did against Florian. While BJ did solidly beat up Florian - he wow'ed nobody. Nobody. He was expected to win that fight and did so in pedestrian fashion. He isnt as explosive as he used to be (ask Sherk) - and you dont make up for that by crying about steroids and vaseline. I like BJ and his game but GSP has separated himself. Period.
Häkkiperuna- December 11, 2009 at 2:29 am
I'm not a huge fan of BJ, but I'd have to say he deserves the GSP fight more than Tito deserves to fight Chuck again. Not saying that GSP cheated, but as we all know, BJ told the commission beforehand to watch for the vaseline, and they still didn't do anything about it.
Elias- December 10, 2009 at 9:23 pm

nicey- December 10, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Arastmaus- December 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm
"Elias Says:
Thu, 12/10/2009 - 23:09

@squirrel & Arast,

I really should see the stories I've written on GSP and Diego as well. Interviewing them and writing about them gets me straight up randy!"

I wasn't suggesting that you were sexually attracted to BJ Penn or anything... I was just suggesting that... you were... sexually attracted to... B...J...

Huh... Ok, you caught me. I totally think you are sexually attracted to BJ Penn.
Elias- December 10, 2009 at 9:09 pm
@squirrel & Arast,

I really should see the stories I've written on GSP and Diego as well. Interviewing them and writing about them gets me straight up randy!
steampunk22- December 10, 2009 at 8:50 pm
Actually I'm more of a ground fighter. *comedic drum roll*

Yeah no problem man, I mostly try and be polite. Its the Canadian Curse!!!!

Plus I'm off work with an injury right now so I've got nothing better to do than craft properly worded, grammatically correct, informative and awe inspiring contributions to CagePotato.

exes.for.iballs- December 10, 2009 at 8:41 pm

I did not know that. You see, cp is where I get all my mma news, and up until recently haven't even been able to do that for lack of a pc. Thanks for settin me straight without cursing or threatening my life or telling me I should kill myself like so many others would have done. You're a stand up guy.
Arastmaus- December 10, 2009 at 8:38 pm
"Squirrelnuts Says:
Thu, 12/10/2009 - 22:08

wow, the guy who wrote that article truly believes the sun shines from BJ's arse."

No doubt. Someone has a thing for giant round headed baby looking mother fuckers or something.
mma85- December 10, 2009 at 8:27 pm
To the death for real this time!! hahaha

I would absolutely love to see another bj/gsp fight for the sole reason that it would be so incredibly gratifying to see bj get eaten alive once again. To be beaten down all over again would be demoralizing for bj and it would be fantastic. Still wont be enough to stop the whining though, obviously.
steampunk22- December 10, 2009 at 8:23 pm

GSP hasn't moved up in weight because he doesnt want to physically deal with weight gain in regards to the timeframe the UFC will grant him to gain it. He has repeatedly gone on record saying he would consider fighting at middleweight if the UFC gave him a large amount of time to gain the weight naturally. He does not want to simply gain water weight, or be expected to throw the weight on in a matter of 4-6 months. You can't knock him for that, the dude just wants to be healthy.

Its not a matter of desire for a greater challenfe or fear of losing, its a matter of health, and the UFC respecting his desire to do things in a healthy fashion.

GSP walks around at 170. He trains at 170. He fights at 170 (roughly, the point is that he keeps his weight consistent no matter the circumstances). He doesnt cut weight because he doesnt want to put his body through the issues associated with cutting. Thats all, man, he's not dodging or ducking. All this info is pretty well known. At least I thought it was. ;P
steampunk22- December 10, 2009 at 8:22 pm

I think Mir. I would've said BJ up until I saw this latest Countdown, and the Helwani/White interview. Mir is pretty much obsessed with Lesnar at this point. Its a little freaky.
Squirrelnuts- December 10, 2009 at 8:08 pm
wow, the guy who wrote that article truly believes the sun shines from BJ's arse.
Arastmaus- December 10, 2009 at 8:02 pm
People are very quick to bring up GSP's "cheating" in their second fight, yet they all seem to forget BJ Penn's flagrant eye gouging in their first fight... a fight that he STILL lost.

This thing is dead. GSP is the better fighter, and the better man all around.
exes.for.iballs- December 10, 2009 at 7:48 pm
GSP will never move up to 185. He won't be able to lay and pray guys that are actually bigger than him. That's one thing I've never liked about him. He's beaten everybody credible in his weight and he's showed no desire to move up like other greats in mma.

Also he's gay.
dlb- December 10, 2009 at 7:03 pm
Making GSP fight Penn again is an absolute waste. After he beats Hardy and Koscheck (again) he has to be looking at establishing his legacy as one of the best p4p MMA fighters of all-time. You don't do that by getting a guy to step up to your weight and beating him for the third time.

Sucks for BJ that he's still pissed off and wants to prove something but he shouldn't even be on GSP's radar. Nor should the UFC want to make that match. Far more intriguing fights at 185.
mthomas- December 10, 2009 at 6:57 pm
Who do you guys think is more hell-bent on a 3rd fight more @ this point? Frank Mir or BJ Penn? Mir, at least, has won one!
mthomas- December 10, 2009 at 6:54 pm
IMO the lightweight division is one of the few (besides interestingly. the heavyweight division) that has a decent number of deserving candidates for a title shot (Tyson Griffin, Frankie Edgar, Grey Maynard) left and for BJ to try and move up again would just put the division on hold AGAIN. Not that there is anything wrong with Penn wanting to challenge himself. If he just wants to fight GSP again, why don't they do it wihtout their belts on the line? If Penn wants to fight GSP again, he needs to do 3 things:
1. Beat 1 or 2 of the upper tier welterweights first before getting a crack @ the Champ (sorry Dan Hardy)
2. Show up in better shape and ready to match GSPs pace. His cardio looks MUCH better since he got his new Strength and Conditioning coach, but that's also @ 155.
3. Talk WAY less trash before the fight if he does get another shot! His mouthing off last time against a classy guy like GSP just made me less sympatheitic to him as he got manhandled for 4 rounds.

Oh, and make an example out of Diego Sanchez this weekend!
tallkitchenbags- December 10, 2009 at 6:24 pm
bj's time has come and gone. dude needs to realize that.

SAT question time: BJ Penn is to GSP as:
a: couture is to coleman
b: bob sapp is to butterbean
c: tito is to chuck
d: matt hughes is to evolutionary science
exes.for.iballs- December 10, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Ok.. You're right. I was hoping everyone just forgot about how he finished hendo and ludder(sp) on the ground. Oh well.

I still think Penn is the best p4p. He's just not as strong as GSP.

I just don't get why everyone hates bj so. (although I do hate GSP for pretty much no reason)
rampageisgod- December 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm
exes. my bad
rampageisgod- December 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm
If they lost then they wouldn't be better than Fedor. You fight to win. We were lucky enough to see two p4p fighters go at it and Penn lost. I am aware of why they have weight classes but if two fighters agree to a fight you can't use that excuse.
Kimbos Bread- December 10, 2009 at 5:22 pm
BJ needs to follow in Tito's footsteps a marry a pornstar. Preferably Britney Swallows. Then we can go on calling him BJ Swallows.