B.J. Penn relishes the opportunity to fight in a main event. | Photo: Sherdog.com
B.J. Penn at times sounds like a man divided, eternally grateful for the fame, fortune and opportunity mixed martial arts has provided him, yet admittedly resentful of the physical, mental and personal demands the sport has placed upon him. As a result, the 32-year-old Hawaiian often finds himself fielding questions on the subject of retirement.
“For me, it’s always been a love-hate relationship with mixed martial arts and maybe even the UFC at times,” Penn said during a pre-fight teleconference, “but I’m not planning on going anywhere soon. You never know when you [will] get that opportunity to get a title shot or maybe get a title. I’d love to stick around as long as [UFC hall of famer] Randy [Couture] stuck around -- if I could do something like that.
“One day, I want to fight 100 more fights, and the next day I don’t know if I want to do this anymore,” he added. “I think a lot of fighters feel that way, but I’m just more vocal about it.”
Penn (16-7-2, 12-6-2 UFC) will collide with former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz in the UFC 137 main event this Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. The two men make for unlikely cagemates, as they were thrust into the limelight when a knee injury forced UFC welterweight boss Georges St. Pierre to withdraw from his scheduled title defense against Carlos Condit. The late change tied a fitting bow on the tumult that has surrounded the show almost from the start. Penn was originally slotted to meet Condit; Diaz was first booked to challenge St. Pierre.
“None of it bothers me at all,” said Penn, who remains one of only two men -- Couture is the other -- ever to win Ultimate Fighting Championship gold in two weight classes. “I’ve been training for a fight. I’m ready to fight. We’re fighters. It’s not a fight either of us asked for, but it’s a job and, at the end of the day, we’ve all got to go to work.”
Penn, who in recent years has become one of the UFC’s most reliable draws, has headlined events in nine of his last 11 outings. Still, the experience never loses its luster.
“I was excited to be [in] the main event,” Penn said. “It’s always a good thing. It definitely makes it special. There have been a lot of changes through this whole thing. Now, the next thing I know, I’m in the main event. It’s just been a wild ride. What more can I ask for?”
One of the sport’s more intriguing figures, Diaz (25-7, 1 NC, 6-4 UFC) has come under fire from the UFC for his unwillingness to cover the public relations side of his profession. The 28-year-old was ousted from a scheduled five-round title fight against St. Pierre after he failed to appear at a pre-fight press conference and has a long history of shying away from the spotlight. Penn seems amused by Diaz’s actions.
“Nick is Nick. He’s going to do what he does,” he said. “I enjoy watching the stuff that Nick does. He doesn’t change. He’s just always himself. That has nothing to do with me. He does always show up for the fight and fight, so I don’t think we have to worry about that.
“I’m a fan of Nick Diaz,” Penn added. “I’ve been a fan of Nick Diaz [since] before he was in the UFC, and I enjoy watching his antics. The only thing that’s going to bother me is when Nick is punching me in the middle of the Octagon. That’s the only time he’s going to be bothering me. Nick is a great character of the sport. He is who he is. He’s a gutsy guy, and that’s the way he fights. I don’t want to say it’s good for the sport -- a guy not showing up to a press conference -- but it is another character in the sport.”
Though questions abound regarding the manner in which Diaz carries himself outside the cage, there are none when it comes to his abilities inside it. A Cesar Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with professional boxing experience, Diaz will enter the cage on a career-best 10-fight winning streak. He last appeared in April, when he dispatched Paul Daley on first-round punches in a riveting encounter under the Strikeforce banner. Diaz and his considerable tools have Penn’s respect.
“I really feel Nick is the best boxer in mixed martial arts today,” said Penn, “and it shows.”
Nearly eight months have passed since Penn battled the world-ranked Jon Fitch to a draw at UFC 127. The result continued an alarming career trend for the gifted but inconsistent Hawaiian, as he has won only one fight outside of the lightweight division since 2005. However, Penn sees some striking similarities between his game and that of his latest opponent.
“We’re kind of similar, I guess,” he said. “He’s got striking and jiu-jitsu, and that’s kind of my two strengths also. I try to work on my takedowns here and there and I’m sure Nick does, [too], but Nick’s got great cardiovascular endurance. I think it’s going to be a fun fight, and I think it’s going to be a great fight for the fans.”
In addition to his potent offensive attack, which is buoyed by high-volume, accurate punching and an excellent ground game, Diaz has become well known for his tendency to taunt opponents during fights. Penn has prepared himself for a tongue lashing.
“I probably expect it to happen,” he said. “A fight’s a fight, and there’s no friends in the Octagon. I expect him to come out and say a bunch of things. I may be saying some stuff myself. That’s just the nature of the game. Fighting is a tough sport. Tough people are involved. You want to be as professional as you can, but sometimes your emotions get to you.
“Of course, I expect him to say stuff,” Penn added. “That’s just the nature of the fight. I won’t hold any of that against him personally. I’m sure I’ve gotten under people’s skin over the years with some of the things I’ve done and I’ve said.”
Penn and Diaz are not foreign to one another. In fact, Penn trained with the volatile Stockton, Calif., native and his younger brother, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner Nate Diaz, prior to his successful lightweight title defense against Kenny Florian at UFC 101 in August 2009. Penn does not view the experience as an advantage or a disadvantage, nor will he allow it to alter his approach.
“I’ve trained with him before, but as far as [thinking], ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do because I know this from training with them,’ it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “Whatever happens in the Octagon, it’s different. I’ve never really changed much my whole career. I just try to come in and fight my best and try to take the other guy out.”