LAS VEGAS – UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn has not historically been a trash talker prior to most of his mixed martial arts fights.
Oh, he's let loose with a few stinging barbs now and then, but by and large, Penn has mostly spoken publicly about his own dreams and ambitions and hasn't denigrated his opponents.
But for the last several months, Penn hasn't done an interview without taking a none-too-veiled shot at Sean Sherk, his opponent for the UFC lightweight title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden.
Former champion Sherk tested positive for steroids after his successful title defense against Hermes Franca last July in Sacramento, Calif. After a long and emotional appeal, in which he vehemently denied knowingly taking steroids, Sherk had his year-long suspension cut in half by the California State Athletic Commission.
But if he were ever to forget that his urine sample showed elevated traces of the anabolic steroid nandrolone, Penn has been there to remind him of it.
The UFC has dubbed the fight card "Ill Will," trying to push the thought that the two dislike each other. UFC president Dana White, who calls them the greatest lightweights in the history of mixed martial arts, said of the emotion the bout will generate, "It doesn't hurt that they hate each other."
By and large, Sherk and Penn have been respectful of each other's talents in recent public comments. Penn praised Sherk's all-around game and conceded he agreed with White's assertion that Sherk is one of the best lightweights ever despite the fact that Sherk has only fought twice in the 155-pound division.
The steroid issue, though, is one that nags at Penn.
"It's hard for me, as a guy who has never used performance-enhancing drugs before, waking up day in and day out and your body's in pain and you're doing all these things, and it gets to you after a while when you find out someone else is using performance enhancing drugs," Penn said.
It's not a vehicle, Penn insists, to get under Sherk's skin and to get him off his game plan. He insists he's genuinely insulted by any artificial attempt to improve.
After listening to Penn drone on for more than five months this way, the natural reaction is to suggest he's full of it. But Penn has been so strident on the issue that perhaps, just perhaps, it's more than just a ploy to irritate Sherk.
Penn's trainer, Rudy Valentino, insists Penn finds it disgusting.
"B.J.'s had fights where he wasn't in the kind of shape he needed to be in, but he never looked for a shortcut like that," Valentino said. "But doing steroids is almost like a cop-out."
Both fighters have passed drug tests given to them by the Nevada Athletic Commission during their training camps. They'll be tested again on Saturday post-fight. Sherk insists he's hardly bothered and said he's had the same muscular build he exhibits now since he was 14 years old.
"I always loved working with weights," Sherk said.
Penn has his doubts whether it was just lifting weights that enabled Sherk to build such a muscular physique that he came to be known as the "Muscle Shark."
But Penn has greater ambitions than simply railing on the dangers of steroids. After many years of squandering his enormous talent, he said after a workout Tuesday at the MGM Grand that the message has finally gotten through.
Penn is already one of two fighters in UFC history to hold championships in two weight classes, as he won the welterweight title in 2004. White hammered Penn on the notion that he wasn't taking advantage of the prime years of his life to build a legacy that will be talked about decades into the future.
He listened as UFC television analyst Joe Rogan said much the same thing. He read columns chiding him for not pushing himself to get the most out of ability.
Mixed martial arts is still in its infancy. And Penn, who walked out on the welterweight title after winning, has finally come to the understanding that, if he really commits himself, he might go down as the greatest fighter of the game's early era.
"Dana just hammered me with that over and over and I heard Joe Rogan and so many other people that it just made me think about it," Penn said. "And I said, 'You know, they're right.' This isn't like baseball, which has been around for 100 years or more. When you try to say who the best baseball player who ever lived is, you can't really do it because you haven't seen a lot of those players play in person.
"But this is such a young sport, if you've been around, you pretty much have seen all the fighters. And I realized that I could be in that company. But I had to work for it. Guys 10, 20 years down the road will thank me, because this is going to be a global sport and they're going to be making so much money. I'm one of the guys who has been here from the earliest days. And if I go out and beat a Sean Sherk and beat a St. Pierre and beat a couple of other guys, the guys down the road when they think of how much money they're making, they're going to think of me and what I did."
Penn is so committed to that approach that he says he no longer has the wandering eye. He was sued by Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, when he went to fight in another organization in 2004.
The temptation might be there for him to look around again since his brother, Jay Dee, works for Elite XC, which is trying to establish itself as the primary American alternative to the UFC.
Penn, though, said he's not interested in leaving the UFC, because he knows that the bulk of the world's best fighters are signed with the UFC.
And with his goal of being recognized as the all-time greatest mixed martial artist by the time he retires, he'll need the UFC to accomplish that goal. As long as he's getting along personally with White, he's going nowhere, he said.
White has urged him to stick at lightweight and clean out the division before thinking of moving up in weight. In the past, Penn has talked of holding at least three championships simultaneously.
He's largely upheld his end of the bargain, but if he manages to beat Sherk on Saturday, expect him to plead for a bout with welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. St. Pierre narrowly edged Penn in a 2006 bout in which Penn began strong and then faded due to poor conditioning.
White has announced that the winner of the Roger Huerta-Kenny Florian bout at UFC 87 in August will get the next crack at the lightweight belt, but if Penn is successful, it's almost certain the Huerta-Florian winner will be fighting for a vacant title.
"Honestly, if I go out there and I destroy Sean Sherk in one round, I'm really going to have a hard time getting motivated to fight Florian or Huerta," Penn said. "No matter what anybody says, it would be hard. A fight with Matt Hughes would be a great one for Hawaii, but a fight with St. Pierre, that would be one for the world."
But Penn goes to great lengths to make the point that he's only talking about fighting St. Pierre because he was asked. His concentration is entirely on Sherk, he said.
And while he says he's angry because he believes Sherk cheated, he's aware that the powerful Minnesotan will be a handful for him.
"Taking steroids or Human Growth Hormone or EPO or any of that kind of stuff perverts our sport and takes the purity out of it," Penn said. "You know how much criticism I've gotten for things I've done, or haven't done, but I can honestly say I've never fought with any foreign substance in my body. And I never will. I don't expect to get praised for that, because it's the right thing to do. I'm just offended that someone would hurt our sport by cheating like that."