Penn, B.J. Why I Fight: The Belt Is Just an Accessory. William Morrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0061803659 320 pp. $
I know absolutely nothing about Brazilian juj-itsu (BJJ), and found this memoir of a champion BJJ fighter assumed more knowledge than I had. Ten years ago, B.J. Penn became the first American-born winner of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in the black-belt category. This autobiography is a reflection on the moments that led up this victory: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The tale of B.J.’s childhood in Hawaii gives props to his parents, focuses on the strength of family and the failings of his private school education, and busts down stereotypes of an idyllic and laid back lifestyle of surfing and sunning. There are adrenaline fueled moments of jumping off 30 foot high bridges into hammerhead shark infested waters between rumble style fights (like in the Outsiders!) for no good reason. B.J. is always the guy to stand up and be ready for a fight, and this tendency serves him well when he begins training with a CA transplant who is a tae kwon do expert who is just learning BJJ himself.
The quality of the writing is merely mediocre. The ghostwriter allows B.J.’s voice to really come through–he has a wonderfully engaging conversational style–but tighter editing would have made this a much more pleasant read. I kept thinking that I had lost my place, because whole phrases are repeated nearly word for word. A few grammatical errors, which may have just been B.J.’s way of talking, were grating to me. There are many acronyms that are not deciphered in context, and there isn’t a glossary. I admit to being clueless about mixed martial arts, and the authors assume the reader knows some of the moves. That said, it’s a pretty inspiring story, in part because B.J. says what’s on his mind, and later in his career, speaks out against illegal practices, which resulted in policy changes. Photos in the center of the book include high quality action shots of pivotal moments during tournaments as well as portraiture.
Since a good third of the book covers the author’s youth, and he has success early in life, this is a book with potential teen appeal, especially to followers of the sport or teens who aspire to this career choice.