Hawaii's B.J. Penn enjoying adventure in Abu Dhabi
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
Although B.J. Penn has fought everywhere from England to Japan while spreading the message of mixed martial arts, the UFC lightweight champion still is a bit amazed he's 14 time zones away from his Hawaii home, fighting in a temporary venue and worrying about sandstorms.
Yet Penn says he's having a great time in Abu Dhabi, where he'll fight Frank Edgar this weekend in UFC 112, which ranks among the most unlikely ventures in the league's ambitious plans for worldwide expansion.
After nearly two weeks in the Middle East, Penn says he has been pleasantly surprised by the modernity and friendliness of the United Arab Emirates' capital city.
"I think it's today that I realized this isn't a vacation," Penn told The Associated Press on Wednesday in a phone interview. "The people are nice. Everybody speaks English, and they're putting us up in a great place. It isn't too hard to get around, so it's easy to just concentrate on what I have to do."
Penn is finishing his training in a makeshift workout room in the garage of a buddy's home, but he expects to perform well on a card headlined by middleweight champion Anderson Silva's sixth title defense against Demian Maia. Brazilian veteran Renzo Gracie also will face Matt Hughes in an outdoor octagon at the Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island, just outside the city.
Although Penn is a well-known homebody who still lives and trains in his native Hilo, Hawaii, he jumped when UFC president Dana White offered him the chance to fight on the opposite side of the planet, sharing the UFC's belief that the sport's worldwide acceptance and prominence is just a matter of time.
"I'm definitely excited to be a part of the UFC spreading out globally around the world," said Penn, who has fought in the U.S. for the past five years except for a trip to Newcastle, England, in January 2008. "I think it's something we can look back at later in our lives and know we created a great era for the sport. It's great to be on the front of that, to be making a difference out there."
Penn traveled to Abu Dhabi 11 days ago, figuring he needed plenty of time for his body to adjust from Hawaii time. He trained every day last week, working out on a few temporary mats in the garage of a friend he met during his last trip to the Middle East.
Sounds primitive? It isn't.
"We've got a whole staff, and they're taking great care of us," Penn said. "It's a great setup, and it's easy to get your work done and to have a good time when you're not working. ... When I'm knocking around town, if it weren't for all the Filipinos around here, I'd just feel like an average Joe. All the Filipinos think I'm Filipino, but I don't have the heart to tell them I'm not. I just sign the autographs and take the pictures."
Judging by the betting lines, most UFC observers seem to think Penn's fight will be the easiest part of his Middle East experience. Penn recently was an 8-1 favorite over Edgar (11-1), a New Jersey native who serves as an assistant coach to Rutgers' wrestling team.
Yet Penn expresses nothing but respect for Edgar, even while thinking out loud about his future. Penn has beaten the most serious challengers to his lightweight belt, and his loss last year to champion Georges St. Pierre in a move up to welterweight still looms as unfinished business in his mind.
"If everything goes well on April 10, I definitely would consider moving up to 170," Penn said. "Not that it's 100 percent guaranteed. There's still a lot of good contenders in the 155-pound division, but I'm thinking about it. If I do make that move, I'm going to move slow. I'm not going to try to rush anything."
And he's still focused on Edgar — and on making a good impression on Abu Dhabi. Although he's heard rumors the UFC staff is a bit concerned about the possibility of sandstorms, Penn smiled when he heard the temperature is likely to be in the mid-80s with significant humidity on fight night.
"That's no problem," he said. "Hawaii weather."