Penn Pens An Entertaining Read
Wednesday - April 28, 2010
BJ Penn’s Why I Fight: The Belt Is Just An Accessory is a fair biography wanting to be great. It could have been, had the author done what seems most difficult for him to do: talk deeply about himself. Too often he pulls back when a bit more insight would open up the hidden world of what is still a largely misunderstood sport.
In the preface, Penn explains his trepidation about jumping into the world of publishing. He says starring in The Ultimate Fighter was easy enough, and that had he been asked to pen a short magazine piece or perhaps even an entire book about fighting, he could have done that with little difficulty. But when it comes to writing about himself, that’s where the discomfort appears.
While Penn is ultimately confident in his athletic abilities, a different person often arises when a microphone enters the picture. This contrast between the two sides of Penn was evident a year ago when he spent some time with Wounded Warriors at Hickam Air Force Base. Penn seemed nervous as he took his seat to answer questions from the gallery of specially invited fans. A smiling and relaxed BJ Penn immediately appeared once he moved beyond the formal setting and began shaking hands and posing for pictures with the airmen.
The author’s guarded nature may come from the belief that, as he says in the book, more than a few times he has been made out to be the bad guy in the media - not by reporters but by other fighters looking to make a name for themselves or, more often, by the very organization for which he worked. In fact, it is his retelling of his dealings with the UFC that make for the best reading and most open discussions.
Penn is openly critical of the organization and its leader throughout the book, at times saying UFC president Dana White was more eager to see his own star rise than that of his fighters. Penn says his first opinion of White - whom he met in a Las Vegas gym before White became involved with the UFC - was as an enthusiastic but not very talented student of jiujitsu. His opinion would change as his career and his disagreements with the organization grew.
On this subject, he is uniquely qualified to comment. Penn’s rise mirrored that of the UFC. He began when MMA was banned in more places than it was accepted, and continued as both he and the sport became regular features in the mainstream media.
“In those days, White was not the cocky and smiley guy he is today,” he writes. “He really didn’t know what he was doing, and everything seemed to overwhelm him.”
Penn’s first fight for the UFC paid him a whopping $3,000 if he won, $1,500 if he didn’t. His second fight was for “eight and eight,” meaning $8,000 for the fight and another $8,000 if he won.
The purses would continue to inch upward, always with White’s continuous promises of big paydays. Penn writes he eventually figured out that White’s word was as meaningless as his stated support of the lightweight champ. This became apparent as Penn found himself in a legal fight with the UFC over his right to the lightweight belt. That disagreement was highlighted by an offer from a UFC lawyer for Penn to publicly apologize to White in the center of the octagon at an upcoming event.
“There was no way in the world I was ever going to do it. At this point, if I did enter the cage with White standing inside of it, the only thing that’d be left on the floor would be him.”
The two would resolve their differences, but the relationship that started with a friendship devolved into a cautious situation of mistrust.
“The pressure to perform and safeguard other people’s money had changed him, even though he was constantly bragging to anyone willing to listen about how ‘big this thing was going to be.’
Things between us would never be the same,” writes Penn.
One of the most revealing sections of the book, where he discusses the trappings of fame, introduces a part of his life that requires more clarity: his 2005 arrest in Waikiki.
Penn describes himself as an innocent person who involuntarily got caught up in a bad scene after seeing his brother Reagen “being pounded by not one but several guys” outside of Zanzabar night club.
Published reports the following day said Penn was arrested for hitting a police officer with a blind-side punch.
The court accepted a deferred no-contest plea agreement, in which Penn’s record was wiped clean after abiding by the conditions set by the court. Penn’s attorney maintained that at no time did they ever agree that he assaulted the officer.
Though Penn’s retelling of the events may be exact, the author would have benefited had he allowed the reader deeper into his feelings about how fame can lead to dangerous situations and that, as a celebrity fighter, he may not have the freedom of movement he enjoyed when he was just a martial artist in Hilo.
Another section that needs greater explanation is a strange story involving a street fight, where the uncle of an opponent apparently found a few mercenaries to exact a little payback. Again, his memory may be correct, but writing the uncle “went out and found these three guys from around the world who could teach it. One of the guys was an Israeli Special Forces fighter trained in Krav Maga ... the second was a martial artist from somewhere in Africa, and the last guy was this older Indonesian guy who carried a big stick with him, literally,” warrants further explanation.
Fans of the fighter will enjoy this 304-page biography while those unfamiliar with his career will better understand why he is likely Hawaii’s most popular athlete.
The grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t ruin the experience of the easy-to-read book. The in-depth history of his bouts with Georges St-Pierre will fire up supporters, and his description of dojo justice will bring a smile to anyone’s face who has dealt with overly aggressive students.
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