Much like his nickname states, B.J. Penn was a prodigy in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Initially training with Ralph Gracie and later Andre Pederneiras, Penn was the first non-Brazilian to win the black-belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, and would earn many more accolades in his grappling career in the late 90s. Eventually, Penn would begin working out at American Kickboxing Academy with Bob Cook, Javier Mendez and Frank Shamrock, which is where Penn decided to improve the other aspects of his martial arts game by learning striking, not with any intent to fight necessarily, but because (as he says) he had little else to do.
It was UFC veteran John Lewis who phoned Penn out of the blue to see if he was ready for an MMA fight in "King of the Cage" against none other than Caol Uno. The fight was scheduled to happen in February 2001, at the Soboba Casino in San Jacinto where many KOTC events were held. At this point in history, Uno was easily a veteran in the sport with 15 fights under his belt, including wins over Rumina Sato, Din Thomas, and Dennis Hallman.
Unfortunately, the fight was scrapped for reasons that only the promoters know and Penn was left without an opponent, nor another fight lined up in place of the scheduled bout. Most signs of Uno's departure point to his signing with the UFC, as later in February Uno debuted against Jens Pulver in a title fight. As fate would have it, Penn also found himself signed with the UFC one event later. The transition from SEG to Zuffa was beginning to fall into place, and the new owners of the company remembered Penn from rolling in a BJJ class. Those gentlemen were the Fertittas and Dana White.
Penn's first fight was against Joey Gilbert, a preliminary fight at UFC 31 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Penn was paid $1,500 to fight, and another $1,500 to win, which he did with a first-round TKO. The experience was a surreal one for BJ, who was not used to the lights and excitement of such an event, but one that got him hooked on fighting in the octagon. After his impressive first win, Penn earned a second fight against Din Thomas at UFC 32, which he also won in the first round.
Thanks to his back-to-back wins, the promotion signed Penn to a three-fight contract, and the first of those bouts would be against the man that eluded him months earlier, Caol Uno. BJ knew a win against Uno, who was now 1-1 in the UFC with a win against Fabiano Iha (also at UFC 32), would mean a shot at Jens Pulver's gold, and Penn was hungry to wear that strap. Penn amped up his training at AKA and injured his leg in the process from neglecting to warm up before a rough workout.
In BJ Penn's autobiography, Why I Fight: The Belt Is Just an Accessory, BJ gives his play-by-play of what happened when it came to fight night:
"Once we were both in the cage, the referee, Larry Landless, called us out to fight, and without hesitation, Uno came running across the cage and attempted a flying kick aimed at my head, which missed. So much for coming out slowly like other Japanese fighters. After he passed by me, I circled back to my left and attempted to take over the center of the Octagon.
Uno tried moving toward the center as well, but I wasted no time at all as he moved toward me. I backed him up by throwing a right cross and a left hook, neither of which landed, but they did force him to cover up and move back toward the fence. Once he did that, I threw a big right uppercut which landed square on his face and knocked him onto his back and into the cage. I jumped right over him and started throwing punches with my right hand into his face."
After the highlight reel knockout of his opponent, an overly-excited Penn ran out of the cage, back up the entrance ramp, and into the locker rooms. He was brought back out eventually while Uno slowly began to wake up and come back to his senses.
Penn earned his first crack at the UFC lightweight title at UFC 35, but after going the distance with the champ, Jens Pulver retained his belt. Penn had been handed his first defeat in the octagon and his MMA career, and he would have to work harder than ever to get back into title contention.
Due to a contract dispute, Pulver departed the UFC in March 2002 and left the gold behind him. With a vacant championship needing to be filled, the UFC set up a lightweight tournament to take place over the course of several events to determine the next king of UFC lightweights. The four men participating in this single-elimination tournament were Matt Serra, Din Thomas, BJ Penn, and Caol Uno. Penn was initially hesitant about fighting in this tournament, since he was uninterested in having a rematch. Luckily, Penn drew Serra at UFC 39, and won a closely contested three-round fight. Uno met Thomas, and also used all three rounds to earn a unanimous decision victory to advance. It seemed that once more, Penn and Uno would meet in the octagon, but this time for a title.
Before this match-up, Penn left his training camp at AKA after a dispute with Bob Cook about bringing in Sean Sherk, who was intent on becoming a lightweight. BJ soon met Rudy Valentino, who would prepare him for his showdown at UFC 41 in New Jersey. Despite having fought Uno before, Penn was not sure what to expect in terms of a strategy since their first meeting was so short, and had to adapt as the fight went on:
"Uno felt strong from the get-go and was using his power to maintain good positions, even when I had him in trouble. He was constantly circling to avoid letting me set up anything. His plan was to slow me down by kicking my front leg. Every time I got set, he was already moving to a new position. Throw a kick and then move, throw a kick, move."
Uno and Penn battled for a full five rounds in an extremely close match that leaves many fans today still wondering who had the advantage. Indeed, the judges at UFC 41 were left scratching their heads, too, as they ruled the championship bout a draw. With no clear winner, there was no new champion, and the UFC lightweight title remained vacant. Due to this unfortunate turn of events, the UFC opted to move on and disbanded the division for quite some time.
Penn and Uno would never meet again in the octagon, and went their own ways. Uno fought again for the promotion at UFC 44, and then left until 2009, competing in K-1 Heroes and DREAM. After taking a fight in Hawaii's "Rumble on the Rock" promotion and winning their lightweight title, Penn returned to the UFC to defeat Matt Hughes and win the UFC welterweight title and four years later would finally win the lightweight title at UFC 80 against Joe Stevenson. Will Penn and Uno ever have a chance to fight against each other again? It's not likely, since Dana White was hoping Penn would retire after his last fight against Rory MacDonald at UFC on Fox 5 last December (meaning Dana wants Penn to retire). Ultimately, the decision is between BJ and Caol, and maybe we can have one more chance at seeing these two warriors face-to-face in the cage before they both hang up the gloves for good.