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Cover Story
Home > 2008 > July > Cover Story > The Ultimate Fighter

The Ultimate Fighter
BJ Penn is a star in the world of mixed martial arts.

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Fight photos courtesy of UFC

May, he successfully defended his lightweight title in the infamous Ultimate Fighting Championship octagon, where things often get bloody. A fourth-generation Korean on his mother’s side, this 29-year-old Hawaii native likes to attribute his hot-blooded fighting chops to his Korean roots. (So, try not to make him angry.)

It never really got dull in BJ Penn’s house, growing up with four brothers. Like many households with multiple boys, there were always some fights and plenty of farts. And of course, no one would ever take the blame.

“I remember my mom would always say, ‘Who made bangu? Who made bangu?’” Penn recalls with a chuckle.

Penn was raised and still lives in the sleepy, coastal town of Hilo, Hawaii. Located on the Big Island, the area is best known for Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Penn’s eruptions are just as explosive and destructive.

The 29-year-old Penn is a superstar in mixed martial arts (MMA), a brutal sport gaining worldwide popularity and mainstream recognition and killing interest in boxing.

Penn is the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight champion and considered by many, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

It’s an incredible feat, considering Penn grew up as a small, shy kid from the country and didn’t learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu until he was 17. His rapid rise in the martial art, having achieved a black belt in three years and becoming a world champion shortly thereafter, earned him the nickname, “The Prodigy.”

“First, it starts with a kid who likes what he’s doing,” Penn explains. “Then peers around him tell him he’s good. Then guys he looks up to tell him he’s the best. Then one day, he starts believing it.

“I’ve believed it since I got in the UFC, that I’m better than all these other guys. Maybe not better, but willing to do what the other guys wouldn’t. I’m willing to do what it takes.”

His real name is Jay Dee Penn. He was nicknamed “BJ,” which stands for “Baby Jay,” because he has two older brothers who have the exact same name. The older one goes by Jay. The middle goes by Jay Dee and serves as Penn’s manager. Penn’s father, who created the confusion, is also Jay Dee.

Penn spent his first years in bustling Honolulu before moving to quiet Hilo when he was 4. The Big Island is friendly, unpretentious and super laid-back, just like Penn. The island’s Korean American mayor, Harry Kim, wears jeans to work.

Penn was a curious boy who could read at an early age. He loved the ocean, movies, soccer and Hulk Hogan. Despite being one of the smaller kids, he got into his share of neighborhood brawls. He made up for his lack of size with his quickness and heart.

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