Former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion BJ Penn recently took time out of his training schedule to talk with USA Today’s Sergio Non about everything from his past, present and future, including next weekend’s main event bout against Nick Diaz.
Below are some excerpts from that interview: (Full Write Up)
Q: You had to deal with a shoulder injury earlier this year, going back to before the Jon Fitch fight in February. What was the nature of the injury? How is the joint feeling these days?
Penn: After one of the workouts, my shoulder felt really, really sore. It felt like I couldn’t move it, but I ended up fighting and I did fine during the fight.
But my shoulder kept hurting, so I finally took an MRI, and the doctor was like, “Why didn’t you tell me your shoulder got dislocated?” So (I said), “My shoulder didn’t get dislocated.” And he said, “That’s what the injuries show.” Maybe some kind of separation or dislocation.
The shoulder’s fine. Everything’s right on schedule for the next fight.
When you first heard about the changes for UFC 137, what went through your head?
I was very surprised. At first, we didn’t have an opponent. Matt Hughes texted me and said, “Who are you fighting now?” I thought, “Oh, maybe Carlos Condit got injured.” Then I went to bjpenn.com, checked the news to see what was going on, and it said Carlos Condit was moved to Georges St. Pierre. That’s where I found the news from.
From there, I was just sitting there. I really didn’t know what was going on. I was halfway in the middle of my training camp. I was up here in California and I was without an opponent.
After he announced that Condit would move into the main event, UFC President Dana White thought you might be a little irritated about the switch. How much did the change bother you?
I wouldn’t say irritated, but I was just wondering what was going on. When that happened, he said, “Call me and let me know when you guys feel like fighting,” this and that.
I said we’d love to rematch Fitch. He’s one of the top contenders in the division and we didn’t like how the fight went down in Australia. He got back to us and said, “Look, Fitch is still injured. Fitch is still out until December.”
I guess at the same time, Cesar Gracie and Nick Diaz were talking to the UFC and they were trying to put a fight together with someone. At the end of the day, I guess we both figured out the only way to move forward in our careers was to put this fight on.
A lot of Nick’s opponents seem a bit baffled by his high-volume punching style. How would you rate him as a striker compared other guys you’ve faced?
I think with Nick Diaz’s background — he spars with Andre Ward; he was signed to fight Jeff Lacy; he was being considered to fight Roy Jones Jr. — he’s got to be the best boxer in mixed martial arts today.
Freddie Roach once said you’re the best boxer in mixed martial arts.
And BJ Penn said Nick Diaz is the best boxer in mixed martial arts.
You’ve called Nick’s grappling a “pure” style of jiu-jitsu. What do you mean by that?
He doesn’t blend it as much with the wrestling. He goes for the submissions; he goes for the armlocks and chokes and different things. He kind of started from the same guys I started from. They’ve got really good jiu-jitsu there, and Nick Diaz is a great pupil from that school.
Nick said: “I’m not going to hold BJ Penn down the whole time like these guys have done.” How smart of a strategy is that against a dangerous guy like you?
That’s never been Nick’s style anyway. Nick comes to fight. Nick comes to finish fights. I think he’s going to go out there and he’s going to do his thing. … He’s not there for the judges, so I believe him when he says that.
Because we have similar backgrounds, boxing and jiu-jitsu, I think Nick’s willing to let the fight go wherever it goes.
In what area do you have the biggest edge over Nick?
When it comes to fighting, I guess I’ve been around for awhile. The way I just look at it, we’ve got different edges here and there. Maybe I do certain things on the ground that he doesn’t, or I do certain things standing up that he doesn’t. As far as a clearcut advantage in any area, we’re going to have to wait and find out on that night and see how the fight unfolds.
When the Countdown people came to film you, you expressed some reluctance about specifically saying you would beat Nick. How come?
(chuckles) There’s a lot more back story to this whole thing, but I don’t need the trouble with Dana White right now.
Just want to keep things even with Dana for now?
Yeah. Now’s not the time.
What do you think of Nick’s behavior outside the cage?
I think Nick Diaz is Nick Diaz. He’s going to do what he wants to do. Nick Diaz is actually one of my favorite fighters. I love watching him fight and he’s a great personality in this sport.
He ended up making Dana White mad not going to those interviews. I hate those things too. I don’t want to be involved, when they call me to fly halfway around the world to do a press conference for 15 minutes, but those things happen.
Nothing that Nick Diaz does with all that stuff, none of that bothers me. It’s actually quite entertaining from just sitting on the side and watching.
You once said that you have to dislike the person you’re fighting. What do you dislike about Nick Diaz?
I’ve really got nothing against Nick Diaz.
The person who said that a few years ago (has changed). For me, nowadays, all it is is a job. I just want to get some big fights, maybe even get another belt. But I’ve got no problems with any other fighters.
The biggest fight is with myself — I realize that after 10 years. Keeping my emotions in check, and moving forward with my career and my life. I fight because I still feel that I want to hit — I know there’s no thing as a perfect performance — that peak performance that can outweigh all my performances that I’ve done before.
I’m sure my fans would want to see me fight certain fighters and beat certain fighters, but as of now, in my head, I’m at peace. Everything is clear for me.
You surprised a lot of people, including Fitch, when you came out wrestling against him. Was that just a specific thing for that fight, or is that something you’d like to incorporate more into your fighting, generally speaking, going forward?
Takedowns are always good; I’m a jiu-jitsu guy and stuff. But I didn’t want Fitch to try to take me down and get on me and try to win round-by-round like that from the beginning of the fight. So that was a specific thing I did for that fight.
But there’s nothing wrong with taking someone down and trying to submit them.
For a long time you weren’t doing that. How much did that have to do with the specific match-ups?
You fight like you train. If you just go in there and all you do is sparring and boxing, then that’s all you’ll do (in the fight). If all you do is takedowns, then you’ll do takedowns. It’s whatever you condition your mind and body to do.
And before I wasn’t really trying to set any game plans or anything. I was just going out there, and wherever the fight would go, I would try to make it happen.
I’m still not a big game plan guy. You’ve got to be ready for what anybody brings to the table.
How much interest do you still have in a rematch with Fitch?
I want to fight Jon Fitch again, but I guess it’s whatever the UFC wants to put together. At the end of the day, they know what fights the fans want to watch.
If we end up winning this fight and Dana says you can take a title shot or you can fight Jon Fitch, I’ll probably go for the title shot.
Whatever fight Dana White wants to put together, and Lorenzo Fertitta, I’ll give it my best shot. I don’t know how far away I would be from a title shot, considering that Dana White was saying if I beat Jon Fitch, I would get a title shot.
But I’m not sitting there dwelling on any of that. I’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of me at the moment.
You recently said you’ve never reached your potential. Why do you think that’s been the case?
I’m 32. You look at fighters like Randy Couture, who fought well into his 40s, or just different fighters, and I think they improved with time. I consider myself in some ways still improving. With that said, I think with all these improvements I’m making, I can keep upping my level and taking myself to a new level every time I step into the Octagon.
You spend 10 years in the UFC, you pick up new things here and there. I learn from the people I fight. I learned a lot from all my opponents in the past.
What areas have you seen yourself improving the most lately?
I guess just my whole mixed martial arts game, whether it be striking, wrestling or jiu-jitsu. I’m just constantly trying to improve that, and I’m constantly trying to work with other conditioning coaches and find the best conditioning style that suits me.
I’ve been working with a company called Phase IV. We’ve been doing a lot of aerobic base building. Now that we’re getting closer to the fight, we’re trying to get more anaerobic and more explosive.
You did CrossFit for awhile. Worked with Marv Marinovich a couple of years ago. Why has it been difficult to settle on a conditioning program for the long term?
I don’t know if I get bored or it’s just that constant search to find out what is the best thing for me.
It’s easy for strength and conditioning coaches. They want to be more hands on than just strength and conditioning, so over time, you’ve got different ideas about different things, so you just try to keep moving forward as best as you can.
So at some point, you eventually find yourself disagreeing with them?
Not big disagreements, but it happens all the time. You see strength and conditioning coaches move around to different athletes.
I think it’s a lot like the Bruce Lee mentality. Take what you can use, and whatever you can’t use, there’s no need for that, because this game is so precise (that) you can’t be wasting your time.
One thing you’ve done from time to time is bring in guys to mix it up, like Marv Marinovich for fitness or Matt Hughes with wrestling. Who have you brought in this time around?
We had some long, taller, lanky guys come in for the boxing. And southpaws. We used Renato Verissimo for some grappling, because he’s got a long (frame) like Nick Diaz.
No real big names that I think you’d know off the top, but some young, hungry guys. So it was great work.
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