The UFC's Lightweight division will once again be in the spotlight on Saturday night at UFC 107 as the current UFC Lightweight champion B.J. Penn (14-5-1, 10-4-1 UFC) will aim to defend his title for the third time as he'll take on The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 champion and welterweight transplant Diego Sanchez (21-2, 10-2 UFC). Penn is coming off a fourth round submission victory over past challenger Kenny Florian at UFC 101 while he was previously defeated by Georges St. Pierre in an attempt to win the UFC Welterweight title at UFC 94. Sanchez is coming off two straight wins following his move to the lightweight division. He defeated both Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson via decision.
As with every B.J. Penn fight, the focus really comes down to whether Penn will show up in shape for this fight. He looked to be well-conditioned against Kenny Florian and used his great takedown defense to stifle nearly every attempt that Florian made to take him down. A lot of fans felt he looked a bit hefty in the face during his interview on Saturday night, so we'll truly see whether he shows up in shape or he'll try to rely on his talent to win him this fight.
Stylistically, B.J. Penn always has the edge. Not only is he a top talent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu when it comes to molding it to MMA, but he's also considered to be one of the top strikers in the sport. His quick jab and blazing fast combinations easily catch opponents without our knowledge most of the time... until we actually see blood begin to drip from his opponent's face. His takedown defense is legendary, and its base comes from his impressive flexibility.
Diego's main focus has been to become a complete fighter. After leaving Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he made a home at The Arena gym in San Diego, California with Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Saulo Ribeiro and 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist wrestler Stephen Abas. He's currently a brown belt under Ribeiro, and he trains his striking with Tony Palafox, a highly-respected trainer who trained Frankie Sanchez, Joey Gilbert, and Zach Cutler in boxing.
There are some problems for Diego in this fight. First and foremost, he isn't much of a finisher, and he really never has been. While he has the skills to compete with some of the best in the world, he's rarely been able to put away opponents. Seven of his twelve bouts in the UFC have went to decision, but his opportunity in this fight could come in the latter rounds if Penn happens to gas out.
Secondly, Sanchez's striking isn't on par with Penn's abilities in the stand-up game. This is probably the biggest disparity in terms of talent between the two. Most fans would point out the Sanchez vs. Stevenson fight as a prime example of that, and I think Penn will absolutely dominate Sanchez in the striking department if he intends to stand with him.
How does Sanchez win this fight? His wrestling and conditioning should be the primary force of his attack. We know Penn has great takedown defense, but Sanchez will need to use his wrestling skills to topple the great B.J. Penn to his back, avoid submission attempts and sweeps, and punish Penn for most of this fight from top control in order to wear out Penn. If Penn trained any less for this fight than his previous battles, Sanchez could possibly pull the upset off in a battle of attrition.
There are some x-factors in this fight. As Anton Tabuena pointed out in this post, Penn has brought in Efrain Escudero and Ben Henderson to push his pace in anticipation for the tenacity that Sanchez will bring to this fight while Sanchez has hired a strength & conditioning coach Steve Maxwell leading up to this fight to improve his overall strength. Sanchez states he's significantly stronger, and he'll be able to punish Penn. Penn has worked to counter that problem. The chess match has already begun.
In the end, I can't pick against Penn in this fight. Sanchez's striking has never impressed me, and B.J. finds ways to punish opponents with it. The huge question is whether or not Sanchez can continually put B.J. on his back and punish him. I think there is a possibility he can do it, but Sanchez's tenacious pace has left him open to counters in the past. Penn will completely destroy Sanchez in epic fashion if he throws wild bombs while progressing forward, and we saw some of that against Stevenson. I'll go with Penn via decision.