Commentary

Stevenson's mind is on Penn, heart is with kids

Joe Stevenson has his heart set on beating B.J. Penn to become lightweight champion at UFC 80 -- and on being the best father he can possibly be.

Originally Published: January 15, 2008
By Michael Woods | Special to ESPN.com

One might presume that B.J. Penn is the primary focus for Joe Stevenson heading into UFC 80 in Newcastle, England.

Waking up in the morning, shaving, using the restroom, doing roadwork, laying his head down on the pillow at night, Stevenson does think about Penn, the ground game artist formerly known as "the Prodigy," and plots a game plan to leave the Octagon in England with the UFC lightweight interim championship.

But there are moments when the 25-year-old Stevenson (24-7) has to refocus himself, and keep himself from drifting away to a counterproductive place.

The California man, whose nickname is "Daddy," sometimes finds himself thinking about his three children, and the fourth that resides in his wife Maia's belly, and his gut aches.

He'll be out and about, and see a little boy, and he'll think of Joey, Tyler and Frankie, 7, 4 and 2, respectively, and he'll feel a tiny bit sorry for himself in that he has to sacrifice precious time with his offspring to secure his professional future.

Lest Penn get the inkling that Stevenson, who has been dogged by a rep for undertraining in the past, is ripe for the picking, that his mind isn't fully on the headline bout on Saturday, he should probably consider that Stevenson's heartache might make him that much more formidable when it comes time to tussle.

Stevenson explained how the time spent away from his children affects his mind-set coming into the fight.

"I only get my kids during the winter for like two weeks, and then I get them during the summer," said the fighter, who split from his first wife and has a custody arrangement with her. "And I sacrificed a week without them on top of the two weeks. I mean, I'm putting my heart and soul into this. B.J. is awesome. If I didn't give him everything I had, I wouldn't be able to walk with my head high."

Penn, 29, comes into the bout with a 12-4-1 record, an unspectacular winning percentage, but with an impeccable résumé and rep as a jiujitsu master.

The Hawaiian has had two cracks at the UFC lightweight belt. He lost to Jens Pulver in 2004, and drew with Caol Uno a year later. Penn then beat Matt Hughes in 2004 for the UFC welterweight belt, bolted to K-1, and came back, chastened, to UFC in 2006.

He flirted with making a run at heavyweight for a spell, and was talked off the ledge by Dana White.

"I kept telling him, 'Are you out of your mind?'" White said. "'You can't go to heavyweight. You can't carry that kind of weight, your frame isn't big enough. Those guys are huge.'"

In shape, at a weight class conducive to his 5-foot-9 frame, Penn is a threat to choke you out with one hand tied behind his back while holding a hot dog in his free hand. In his return to UFC, he lost to Georges St. Pierre on a decision and to Hughes on strikes. In his last fight he choked out Pulver in June.

Heading into UFC 80, he seems to have gotten himself into a previously unseen level of physical and mental conditioning.

Though he hasn't faced off with such a who's who of marquee names, Stevenson is no joke on the ground. He's been tutored for the past four years by ground game guru Marc Laimon, and just two of his losses have come via submissions.

MMA fight fans got to know Stevenson in Season 2 of "The Ultimate Fighter," and saw "Daddy" win the welterweight bracket when he decisioned Luke Cummo. After the reality show bonanza, he lost his first bout, a decision to Josh Neer, and like Penn, he has rededicated himself to fitness and fighting.

Stevenson considers Penn a friend, but the two have decided to toss amiability out the window, a welcome newsflash for those considering buying the pay-per-view show (3 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET).

"I've known B.J. for a while and respected him, and I definitely consider him a friend," Stevenson said. "This shows the professional level of this; it's not a bar fight. He's going to try to knock me out and I'm going to try to knock him out and afterwards we're going to be able to be friends. It's kind of crazy. You would think that it would be a level of like, 'These guys have to be nuts to be able to do that.' Actually, I look at it as like a level of professionalism."

Penn also promises that this bout won't be a gentlemanly grappling seminar, or a strike-free sparring match.

"I'm going up against a great opponent," Penn said. "Nobody wants to see me win a five-round decision. I'm going out there to win the fight and finish it. People aren't paying money to watch me and Joe Stevenson fight five rounds and jab each other to death. No one wants to see that. This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. [They] want to see somebody go down, and that's what this is going to be on Jan. 19."

The smart money says this scrap will be spent mostly on the mat, and will feature stunning transitions, submission attempts and rebuffs.

UFC head honcho Dana White sees a different sort of affair unfolding.

"Both guys are really good on the ground," he said. "You talk to the guys who fight, these two both are the most hyped-up fighters on the ground. I think B.J.'s very hard to take down. You see these guys who have been wrestling for 100 years that can't take B.J. down. I think this fight's going to end up on the feet."

Stevenson is ready for a floor show, or if need be, a standup war.

"I'm just pretty God-gifted on the ground," he said. "I've been my whole life. And normally for my fights I don't train any ground at all. This time I've taken the time to actually make half of my day ground because I respect B.J.'s ground so much."

What has been harder to train for, and combat, is the tug on his heart as he headlines this pay-per-view and finds himself away from his kids, doing interview after interview.

"It is very difficult," he said. "My family is everything to me. It's all anyone really has when they have nothing. And as far as my legacy goes, it's about my kids. I don't want them to say that their dad is this great fighter or my dad can beat your dad up. I want them to say my dad's a good dad."

Michael Woods, the managing editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.

Michael Woods, a member of the board of the Boxing Writers Association of America, has been covering boxing since 1991. He writes about boxing for ESPN The Magazine and is the news editor for TheSweetScience.com.