ByElias Cepeda, writer at
Elias Cepeda

Returning former two-division world champion BJ Penn will have four different cornermen from three different states and three different gyms when he takes on Yair Rodriguez in the main event of Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 103. BJ’s brother and fellow black belt and fighter Reagan, longtime coach Jason Parillo from California, and newer coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn out of Albuquerque will all have Penn’s back on fight night.

The situation has been described as a first and it may specifically be, but BJ Penn training with and being seconded by many different coaches is actually an historical norm, not an aberration.

Penn first began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with neighbor Tom Callos back in Hawaii as a teenager, but soon afterwards his training became constantly intertwined with travel. Penn’s dad shipped him off to the mainland and Northern California to learn to fight from Ralph Gracie.

Later, went back home to Hawaii, began to train under Renato “Charuto” Verissimo and with his brothers, after switching his team to Brazil’s Nova Uniao. Penn also trained in Brazil where he became the first American to win a BJJ world championship.

During his peak title-reign years Penn also worked with kickboxing coach Rudy Valentino, a fellow proud Hawaiian at home in Hilo, but also with Southern California’s Jason Parillo at the private RVCA gym in Costa Mesa. Throughout his prime, Penn would spend time with all those coaches and more, at different times, then they would come together for stints in camp and on fight nights.

That disparate work isn’t even counting the many training trips Penn took to places like Oregon at the old Team Quest where he worked with Randy Couture, or cornermen of his in years past like former UFC champ Frank Shamrock.

The point is that BJ Penn’s training environments have always been changing, moving beasts, and his fight night cornering has varied. Even the most constant coaching parts of Penn’s are usually fit in with newer parts as is the case with longtime coach Parillo cornering Penn alongside new coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn this time around.

Heck, Parillo wasn’t even a part of Penn’s last training camp - for Frankie Edgar, back in 2014 - yet Penn called the coach at the last minute and asked him to make the fight week trip with him and be in his corner. Why would a fighter do that, you may ask?

After all, a coach who wasn’t involved in a training camp has no idea what a fighter has been working on, where he or she has been strong or weak in sparring, and has had no input on strategy or tactics. Well, during fight week and on fight night familiarity and trust go a long way for a fighter’s mindset.

Having someone you trust and who has been there with you before, and who knows you well has a value in and of itself, even if you didn’t get the benefit of their training in the months prior. We’d been told by people close to Penn that his camp for the 2014 Edgar fight wasn’t very confidence inspiring.

Perhaps, then, Penn’s thinking in bringing in Parillo for fight week despite not having trained with him for the bout was “well, camp didn’t go great but dammit I’ll still have my real people with me, warming me up and walking onto the battlefield with me.”

Given the constant turbulence of Penn’s training over his entire long career, it is then difficult to know what conclusions to draw from Penn’s disparate and necessarily disjointed instruction this time around, or throughout his career, overall. We could make an assumption that all that travel during training camps is tiring and draining.

On the other hand, BJ has accomplished all that he has (world title reigns at two different classes, and fights at five total weight categories) with what has to honestly be called pretty chaotic training schedules. What we’re saying is, maybe it works for him.

Penn is an expert at controlling chaos in the ring, and perhaps chaos outside of it in the lead up to fights doesn’t much interfere with his preparation. Perhaps it is even necessary to him in some way.

So, we end where we began. BJ Penn has trained all over the place to prepare for his latest comeback.

He’s worked in California, at home and in New Mexico, and he’ll have coaches from all those places with him Sunday. We can make guesses about how well prepared he will be to take on a dangerous fighter like Yair Rodriguez after such a hectic camp, but the structure itself likely can’t give us much in the way of answers.

We can say, however, that Team Penn should definitely have made decisions about who speaks, and when, in between rounds on Sunday. Uncertainty and chaos, there, can lead to garbled instructions and a confused fighter.

Beyond that, BJ Penn has been BJ Penn leading up to this fight, and that meant yet another crazy, high-mileage training camp. Will it have helped, or hurt?

We can’t say, and likely will never be able to. All we know is that it’s normal for BJ.


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