If the man sought a place with no past, he did well. He stands inside a trucking warehouse at the end of a potholed drive near the port of Hilo. The Hawaiian sun reflects off the windows of a gigantic cruise ship docked a few hundred yards away.
A section of the dank, windowless building has been transformed into a training center for UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn, whose local celebrity mandates a secret compound. Here, in this sport, in this
warehouse, untethered by judgment and unencumbered by history, Marv Marinovich does the one thing he has always believed is his destiny: He strives to create athletic perfection.
There are Marv Marinovich stories and then there is the Marv story, which is really the Marv and Todd story, with all its ominous details -- Baby Todd teething on frozen kidney beans, hamstrings stretched in the crib, pull-ups by age 3 -- that forebode disaster, the son's promising career inexorably derailed by drug addiction and arrests.
But consider some other chapters of Marv's story. He was one of the NFL's first strength and conditioning coaches, the godfather of the NFL combine format, a forerunner of the movement to pair strength with
flexibility. His unconventional methods are only now gaining traction as he enters his eighth decade. He is not much of an MMA fan -- "I don't like that you can elbow a guy in the head," he says -- but he and his brother Gary have tunneled deep inside the sport to redirect the 31-year-old Penn's career and, in the fighter's words, "turn me back into a 22-year-old."
The convergence of Penn and Marinovich is fortuitous. Mixed martial arts is young and non-traditional, free of institutional training ideas, maybe the last outpost of sledgehammer swinging, tire throwing and car pushing. It is also nearly context free, open to people and ways that have trouble finding credence elsewhere. Here, Marinovich is not the tyrant who turned his son Todd's childhood into a laboratory experiment, or the ultimate cautionary tale of sports parenting. Here, not many know that when young Todd was a month old, Marv introduced him to push-ups, or that on Todd's fourth birthday, Marv took him on a four-mile jog (Todd ran it in 32 minutes). Nobody mentions that Todd -- anointed the first test-tube athlete in 1988, the first All-Pac-10 freshman quarterback in 1989 and an NFL first-rounder in 1991 -- ended up with as many arrests as pro games played with the Raiders (eight).
Here, he is simply Marv, a soft-spoken senior with a savant's knowledge of the body and its possibilities.
He works, too. Oh, how he works. It's all he and Gary do. They're obsessed with working harder, smarter and better, searching for some kinetic secret that will make a body as explosive as -- yes -- a laboratory creation. "Marv's a mad scientist and an artist," Penn says. "When you're around him, you feel you're in the presence of greatness. There's an aura about him."
Marv and Gary arrive at the warehouse before 9 a.m. each day to put Penn and some other fighters through a grueling two-hour regimen: cone drills, box jumps and less conventional exercises such as walking around on footlong sections of four-inch PVC pipe. The Marinoviches are big proponents of light weights, intense stretching and a crushing pace: Much of Penn's workout revolves around rapid repetitions on a leg-and-torso machine called The Bear. "You can't train slow and expect to compete fast," Marv says. His workouts, all Spartan equipment and
furious pace, look like some sort of advanced medievalism.
The brothers return in the evening for a 90-minute session of speed and strength work, including sets of sprints that last 25 solid minutes, the length of a five-round UFC bout. "There are times when I'm completely exhausted and he'll tell me to do something, and I'll think, You're not really going to ask me to do that now, are you?" Penn says. "If it was someone else asking, I might not."
The brothers are quite a pair. Marv is shy, self-conscious, understandably wary of media attention. He doesn't say much, unless the topic is training, physiology or training and physiology, in which case he will talk all day. He is a grizzly of a man, thick chested and especially sturdy for 70. Gary is 16 months younger but could pass for a prematurely silver 50. He is in infomercial shape, preposterously fit. This cannot be overstated. Gary Marinovich's body is yoked. He is also more talkative and animated than his brother. With a face unlined beneath a bright curtain of hair, he seems less scarred by life.
Between sets, Marv and Gary often step aside to huddle, like a pitcher and a catcher on the mound, to discuss the progress or direction of a session. They stand upright, noses inches apart, emerging only when a consensus is reached. "They never let us hear what they're saying,"Penn says. "Sometimes they'll talk for a while and Marv will say, 'Okay, one more set.' And you're thinking, That's what they were talking about all this time?"
The Marinoviches' working relationship appears seamless. Marv is the big-picture guy, Gary sweats the details. He is also his brother's unofficial translator, turning Marv's esoterica into concepts Penn can understand. Penn's wrestling coach, Kenny Johnson, an eclectic sort who once wrote a 90-page poem, says, "Those guys could talk for five hours on the position of a kneecap. It's awesome how obsessed they are."
Maybe it was inevitable that Marv would find his way to mixed martial arts. Its multidiscipline format is a daily Mardi Gras for a guy whose preferred language is bundled in terms like "elastic movement," "force production" and "speed of muscular contraction." To him, Penn's body is a science project. The first task: Determine its weaknesses and resolve them through what Marv calls "nervous-system training." On this day, eight weeks before Penn's April 10 title fight against No. 1 contender Frankie Edgar, the trainer sounds distressed when he says there is a hip-flexion issue that remains unresolved.
Penn and the Marinovich brothers met after the fighter's Jan. 31, 2009, loss to Georges St-Pierre, just as the whispers about Penn's conditioning began to be spoken in an outside voice. The UFC legend was on the verge of being forever known as a supremely gifted athlete -- hence the nickname The Prodigy -- who taunted his potential with a haphazard work ethic and the particularly Hawaiian notion that training and partying aren't mutually exclusive.
So J.D. Penn, B.J.'s older brother and business manager, set up auditions for trainers who might rectify B.J.'s fitness issues. When the Penns flew to San Diego to meet one candidate, they were greeted by two quirky old brothers ready to go to work. On equipment they brought in for the occasion, the Marinoviches put Penn through a quick workout before taking him to a pool, where he endured Marv's specialty: a relfex-based program that includes a lot of hand-tapping and standing on one foot. Penn thought it was silly, mostly because he felt off balance much of the session.
The Penns flew back to Hawaii. Two days later B.J. was grappling when he realized he'd just made two moves he hadn't attempted in years. He quickly made the connection with the water workout and told J.D., "Get those guys out here."
He hasn't lost since, and his reputation as an MMA immortal is assured. (Not for nothing, Penn's legend has been enhanced by a freakish YouTube clip of him jumping clear out of the three-foot end of a filled pool and landing on his feet on the pool deck; it's about to pass four million views.) He used to take chances early in fights because he was afraid of gassing out, or conserve energy to have something left for the later rounds - no more. In his most recent fight, a five-round beatdown of No. 1 contender Diego Sanchez, Penn declined when his cornermen offered him a stool between rounds. " When I look at the difference, it's got to be Marv and Gary," Penn says. "Same boxing coach, same wrestling coach. They're the only thing I changed."
-By Frank W. Ockenfels of ESPN The Magazine available on News Stands March 5th 2010.