B.J. Penn is a friend of mine. I gave him his very first Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons, and for a year we trained together two to three days a week. Whenever B.J. Penn tells the story of how he got started in the martial arts, he’s always kind enough to mention me, which is great. The only problem is he doesn’t tell the story right. His version is close, but it’s not perfect.
So, I’m here to set the record straight.
After moving to Hilo, Hawaii, so my girlfriend could attend college, we found a house to rent and moved in. Knowing that nobody was doing Brazilian ji-jitsu there, I visited all the local gyms and put up a sign before even unpacking my gi: “Training Partners Wanted. Looking for Wrestlers or Judo Players to Train With.”
Here’s where my story differs from B.J.’s.
The next day I received my first call at our new home. Even though I knew almost no one in Hilo, I recognized the voice. It was B.J.’s father, Jay Dee Penn, my new landlord. He said, “My boys are interested in your grappling class and all this jiu-jitsu stuff. When does it start?” I laughed and told him the details, and he responded that his boys would come over and meet me for a workout.
I think they missed our first planned workout, which would explain why B.J. recalls me bugging his dad to get them to come. B.J. eventually showed up with his brother Reagan. Even though they didn’t know how to defend themselves, they were interested, strong, willing and tough, so they became my new and steadfast training partners.
I told the Penns that while I only knew a little Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I had been a martial artist and teacher for most of my adult life. First, I would teach them what I knew, and then we would work on mastering the techniques. Because I could tap them out with ease, they thought I was really good, but I remember telling them, “Wait until you roll with some blue belts. They’re like gods!”
After a few workouts, B.J.’s friends started showing up to train. Once, B.J.’s older brother Jay Dee came by, and I couldn’t tap him out. Despite his ever-present smile, he was one strong guy. One of B.J.’s friends, Cabbage, started training with us and eventually became a professional fighter. Cabbage was a nice kid who had really long hair, a big belly, and sweated twice as much as most people. When you rolled with Cabbage, you were going to get wet.
The truth is I never had to bug B.J. to work out because the guy never missed a training session. He could go as long and as hard as I could and then some. Also, he was as fast a learner as I had ever encountered.
One day, about four or five months into our training, I made the mistake of telling the boys that we were going to do some light stand-up sparring. I told B.J., “So let’s just, you know, sort of slap-box a little.” I was an above-average fighter with decent hand speed, and I wasn’t a stranger to sparring. Before I could throw a decent backfist, he slapped me about five times in the face. I was surprised, to say the least, and I think I chased him around for another 30 seconds or so, giving him the opportunity to slap me a few more times. That was the last time I sparred with B.J.
After testing for my 5th-degree black belt with Master Ernie Reyes, Sr., my training dropped off a bit because I was suffering from a lot of hip pain (which, a couple of years later, had to be replaced). However, B.J. and his friends kept on training, and I would show up when I could.
When Mr. Reyes celebrated his birthday, I told B.J.’s father that his son should accompany me, and while there I would introduce him to Ralph Gracie. Well, Ralph, David Camerillo, Renato “Charuto” Verissimo, and B.J. were about to make history. B.J. moved to California, and every time I saw him in the coming years he would be better, trickier and tougher.
You can teach an entire lifetime and never have a B.J. Penn come out of your school. I feel lucky to know him and his brothers and parents, because they’re as kind and gracious as anyone you could meet.
When I lived in Hilo, B.J.’s father built an addition on my house, free of charge, so some of my black belts could stay with me during the summer. He gave me a beautiful building rent free for an entire year.
And worthy of note, even B.J.’s mother, Lorraine Shin, was a tough grappler. My wife and Lorraine once participated in one of our Brazilian-jiu-jitsu classes, and Lorraine gave my wife a solid Penn-family thrashing. That was the last time my wife put on a gi.
About seven months into training, I recall B.J.’s father came to me and said, “You know, B.J.’s going to be a great champion someday.” I smiled and thought about how many times I had heard that—both from parents in general, and about B.J. himself.
I tried to encourage B.J. to train in judo, as I knew Mike Swain and thought that going to the Olympics was a much better goal than entering a sport that didn’t pay. Little did I know that mixed martial arts was going to explode.
At the Penn house, the front door is always open (literally). Kids come and go, the refrigerator opens and closes like the door to a 7-Eleven, and the basement is almost always loaded with mats, uniforms and some of the best fighters in the world. I miss the Penn family like I miss Hawaii—deeply.
That little ad I posted is part of the reason Hilo is now a Mecca for fighters and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners. While I would like to take credit for B.J.’s amazing skills, I can’t. The credit belongs entirely to B.J. Penn and his family. As for my skills, last year I earned my purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I think I’m on the 25-year black belt plan. For sure, I’m no B.J. Penn.
B.J. may not remember exactly how he started training, but every MMA fan in the world knows what he’s done since. As for my time with B.J. Penn and his family—what a gift! This summer I’m heading back to take some more lessons under B.J. and his amazing stable of teachers and fighters. (A good number of his most experienced students started with us more than 10 years ago.) Good things have happened for B.J. Penn, but I have a feeling the best times are yet to come.