PHILADELPHIA -- There are those who think BJ Penn 's mind is still caught up on Georges St. Pierre and "Greasegate," those who think Penn might have trouble finding the motivation to train hard for Kenny Florian, and those who think Penn may be nearing his end of the line as an elite fighter. In the past, Penn would take umbrage with all those characterizations and lash out.
This time, he's going to let his actions speak for him.
In preparation for his UFC 101 lightweight defense, Penn made the ultimate sacrifice, separating himself from his baby daughter. When Penn left Hawaii to move his camp to San Clemente, Calif., his daughter Aeva was just eight months old. Now two months have passed, fully one-quarter of her life that he has given up in order to dedicate himself to his mission.
Proud Hawaiian that he is, he also has a hard time leaving his home, and often calls to find out the latest news. Come Saturday night, he hopes that the latest news is his successful title defense.
"I've sacrificed a lot, but I'm in a good frame of mind," he said. "I don't feel any distractions. I think the best thing for me was to be away from my daughter because I'm soft around her and I don't want to soften up."
In his last days before action, Penn's camp, led by his brother JD, has wound him down, shifting him into relaxation mode; the calm before the storm. Penn has done little sightseeing and rarely goes out in public. He has his own personal chef who cooks his meals at a house he's staying at in a suburb a few miles from the busy downtown district.
"We would love to do some tourist-type stuff, but he can't expend the energy," JD Penn told FanHouse, though he noted that BJ did visit the infamous "Rocky" steps on his first day in town. Since then however, it's been movies and relaxation which are only interrupted by his workouts and UFC media duties.
On Thursday at the pre-fight press conference, BJ Penn showed the intensity that has marked many of his best performances in the cage. He did not shake Florian's hand, stared him down during a photo opportunity and never cracked a smile on the stage. Even after being introduced by White, he had little to say.
Staying with that no-nonsense theme, even the pre-fight buildup has been remarkably understated for a Penn fight. In past bouts, he has often raised the stakes by turning up the verbal heat on his opponent. He called Sean Sherk out on his previous positive steroids test; he told GSP he was willing to die in the cage. This time around, though it's been downright civil. Penn has voiced a respect for Florian's growth as a fighter and said he didn't even mind Florian calling him out, saying that after all, every fighter has the same goal.
"Eventually he's got to go for the title and move forward," he said. "He wants to be the champion. There's no sense fighting if you don't want to be a champion."
The only issue between the two has been fairly benign, a dispute over a text message that Penn alleges Florian sent one of his camp members warning him of St. Pierre's supposed propensity for greasing prior to UFC 94. Florian says the message was in reference to Roger Huerta, but Penn disputes that, saying that he used the message to warn the Nevada state athletic commission before the bout. As we all know, GSP's alleged greasing became a big story.
But Penn says he's put that behind him, and neither man got particularly heated about the exchange, simply voicing their respective side of the story.
Focusing on what happens in the cage, Penn feels that his ace in the hole was his physical preparation with infamous trainer Marv Marinovich (father of ex-USC and Oakland Raiders QB Todd Marinovich). That work, which focused on core strength, speed and stamina, could pay dividends in a match that goes into the fourth and fifth rounds of a championship bout.
Penn has repeatedly been accused of having a questionable gas tank, and voiced a belief that unfairly or not, that will continue to be perpetuated even though those who know him best say it's a thing of the past.
"The biggest enemy of BJ Penn is BJ Penn," Dana White said. "The kid's been so talented his whole life that you get to a point in your life when focusing and training and all that stuff is hard. But what I see know is a focused, fired-up BJ Penn that does not want to lose his lightweight title."
In the past, Penn would acclimate himself to the local time from four to six weeks out. But that proved to be so draining that this time around, his camp has only done it for the week leading up to the fight. For the seven nights prior to UFC 101, Penn has been staying up to 3 am or 4 am local time so his body is prepared for the time shift and still performing at an optimal level so late in the evening. (His title match is scheduled to begin around midnight local time.)
Indeed, he seems to have put the past behind him and is firing on all cylinders. And when that is the case, he is good enough that his opponent almost doesn't matter. A motivated Penn is a nightmare at 155 pounds, and apparently, the fire is lit.
"His mental state is phenomenal right now," JD Penn said. "All that energy he had after [the St. Pierre fight], that bad energy or frustration, he redirected and put the focus into this fight. He doesn't have anything to hinder him or hold him back."