After last weekend's UFC 107 event, and BJ Penn's utter domination of the perceived dangerous challenger Diego Sanchez, it's made me think of these 2 great LW's of the decade, how their paths crossed, the ups and downs of their careers, and their future.
Prior to their '03 Rumble on the Rock bout (a highly competitive fight that will go down in MMA history books), these 2 fighters were extremely highly regarded young guns seeking career jump starts after experiencing their first taste of defeat. Gomi, coming off a decision loss to Joachim Hansen in which he was relieved of his Shooto welterweight (154 lb) title, and BJ was coming off a loss to the vastly more experienced and better conditioned Jens Pulver, and a draw with Caol Uno (whom BJ had dusted earlier). Prior to the Hansen loss, Gomi had compiled a 14-0 record, with wins over Rumina Sato, Leonardo Santos, and Mishima. BJ had burst onto the scene with (T)KO wins over Din Thomas and Caol Uno, as well as a UD win over Matt Serra (which was a much more competitive fight than the record indicates) after dropping a decision to Jens Pulver after winning the first 2 rounds, but then losing his wind and getting outworked by the seasoned Pulver.
That's where RotR comes into play- pitting the 2 top LW young guns against each other in the main event of a card that featured Dennis Hallman, Paul Buentello, Gilbert Melendez, and Antonio Banuelos.
The fight itself was very competitive/ back & forth, with BJ storming out of the gate and scoring an early takedown, passing Gomi's guard, and taking the back; Gomi worked out of the choke though. As soon as they got up, Penn took 'The Fireball Kid' down right away again, and repeated his previous strategy of taking the back, throwing strikes and working for the choke until the bell. At the beginning of the 2'nd round, Gomi started getting the better of the exchanges standing for the first minute or so, until Penn found his range and hurt Gomi with a left hook. Following Gomi to the mat, BJ got swept and spent a good amount of time on his back, but defended well and tried for submissions while Gomi postured up and tried for GnP. After getting stood up, BJ is getting the better of the standup, throwing good clinch knees and dirty boxing, although both men started to tire in what was a true war of attrition, and ended the round with a takedown before the bell. At the beginning of the 3'rd round, the 2 visibly tired fighters had a few brief standup exchanges, BJ took Gomi down w/ a single leg, passed his guard, took Gomi's back, and after a few minutes of riding Takanori's back, and finished the choke. In the post fight interview, BJ (in true BJ fashion) said "This proves what i've been saying- Hawaiians are the best fighters in the world. FUCK! We grew up fighting, that's all we do."
After the epic showdown, their careers took interesting twists and turns.
Immediately after, Gomi went to PRIDE, and began his legendary run; racking up quality wins in the BUSHIDO series over the likes of Ralph Gracie, Krazy Horse, Jens Pulver, Luiz Azeredo (2x), and Kawajiri (which, after BJ's departure from LW, was the fight which determined who the #1 LW in the world was; after an intense firefight which saw Gomi best 'The Crusher', he sealed the deal with a RNC), and then won the PRIDE LW GP with an emphatic KO win over elite lightweight 'Mach' Sakurai.
After that, Gomi has been up and down, taking emphatic KO wins over Ishida, Bang Ludwig, and Shooto LW champ Nakakura, as well as decision wins over game (if unheralded) opponents in Sweung Hwang Bang (DEEP LW champ), and Tony Hervey (KOTC LW champ), but suffering submission losses at the hands of Aurelio in a non- title bout (which he avenged with a split decision), Nick Diaz via gogoplata (which was overturned by the NSAC after Diaz tested positive for Marijuana), and feast- or- famine submission wizard Satoru Kitaoka via 1'st round leglock.
BJ, on the other hand, experienced quite a different path since then. He's experienced some of the highest highs, and some relatively low lows, but even in losing he's acquitted himself quite well (with the exception of the 2'nd GSP fight, where I believe he would've lost regardless, but that the grease did make the fight more lopsided in Georges' favor). Riding the high of the win over Gomi, BJ carried a considerable amount of momentum into the WW title fight w/ Matt Hughes; Hughes, a p4p stalwart and dominant champ at the time was expected to run through the undersized Hawaiian, with the logic being that BJ couldn't win the title @ LW, so how would he ever win it at Welterweight?
BJ responded by decimating Hughes, winning the brief standup exchanges at the start of the 1'st round, stuffing a Hughes TD and ending on top, using GnP and eventually catching Hughes with a heavy shot while standing in Hughes' guard, passing the guard, capturing the back, and cinching the choke. After that, he fought abroad in RotR in Hawaii, and K-1 in Japan, going 3-1, submitting Bang Ludwig (who was 10-2 at the time, with big wins over Krazy Horse, Genki Sudo, & Jens Pulver), beating Rodrigo and Renzo Gracie by decision, and dropping a close UD loss to Lyoto Machida in a very competitive fight where Penn (who gave up 30 lbs) landed some solid shots on Machida by cornering him and throwing crisp combos.
Returning to the UFC, BJ was matched up w/ GSP for a #1 contender match for the next shot at Hughes (who had since regained his WW strap, and was on his 2'nd title run). BJ marked GSP up in the 1'st round with his crisp boxing, and stuffed the majority of St. Pierre's takedowns. His poor conditioning came back to bite him though, as Georges took BJ down repeatedly and controlled him on the mat (although in the 2'nd round BJ came close to submittions St. Pierre with an omoplata, and was active defensively with his high guard/ rubber guard). After dropping the split decision to GSP, the French-Canadian injured himself in training, and BJ stepped in to fight Hughes for the title. BJ once again dominated the standup and stuffed Hughes' takedowns in the first/ second rounds, but broke his ribs during a scramble, and gassed himself out trying to finish Matt with a triangle. Hughes took BJ down, passed to side, got the crucifix, and pounded out a resilient Penn for the TKO stoppage. Then fast forward, BJ is named as a coach for TUF 5 opposite former rival Jens Pulver; in a match that Penn dominated from the opening bell, Baby Jay finished Jens with his specialty RNC, decisively avenging his only loss @ 155.
Since then, BJ has been unstoppable @ LW. Winning the crown by battering and dominating a game, and surging fighter in Joe Stevenson, BJ returned to his natural weight class and began his current reign of terror. Sean Sherk, who was the previous LW champ (but who had been suspended for ****6 MONTHS!!!1!!ONE!!1!**** because of a positive steroid test) got the first crack at Penn's newly minted title. In a fight dominated by BJ's concise boxing and impeccable takedown defense, BJ stopped Sherk on 3'rd round strikes.
After getting soundly trounced by GSP in a rematch embroiled with greasing controversy, he returned to the LW division with a vengeance, rededicating himself to fighting, and hiring a new S&C coach (Marv Marinovich) who has improved BJ's already abundant natural ability and athleticism with some serious training. He break the will of clear cut #1 contender Kenny Florian, battering him with fast combos, never surrendering the takedown Florian so desperately worked for, and eventually taking him down, beating him up with GnP, and finishing with the choke. Then, against Diego Sanchez- a man many believed stood a good chance of beating BJ through his indomitable will and world class conditioning, BJ put on a vicious display of superior striking & takedown defense, battering & nearly finishing Diego in the 1'st round, and continuing to land the greater amount of clean strikes throughout the fight en route to a cut stoppage in the 5'th round (which was caused by an unexpected high kick).
It'll be interesting to see how these 2 phenomenal fighters continue to perform, and if their paths will ever cross. Interestingly enough, Gomi is the only man in the last 6 years (not named GSP) to take BJ down. With 'The Fireball Kid' intending to come stateside, and training at major American camps like Xtreme Couture and AKA, maybe we'll see a rematch of the barnburner that happened years ago.
Thank you for reading =)