After a string of injuries and disappointing main events, the UFC is looking to turn things around this Saturday at UFC 107, which features BJ Penn vs. Diego Sanchez in a headlining lightweight championship match.
Let's break down one of the most anticipated matches of the year.
While he has a mixed record at higher weight classes, Penn is the most dominant 155-pound fighter in the history of the sport. At lightweight, BJ sports a record of 10-1-1 with notable wins over Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson, Takanori Gomi, and Kenny Florian.
BJ's history at lightweight is even more impressive when you consider the following:
1) BJ debuted in the UFC and so he has only fought top competition. BJ has never been given an easy opponent, though his second fight with Pulver was clearly a mismatch.
2) His only loss at LW (Jens Pulver) came very early in his career and was later avenged in brutal fashion.
3) In his 10 wins at lightweight, Penn finished 9 of his opponents.
BJ's strengths are well known to most MMA fans. He is an amazing grappler with a brutally-efficient top game and a very slippery guard. He is also an excellent boxer with serious punching power. BJ also possesses some unique physical characteristics - namely his flexibility and balance, which contribute to his uncanny takedown defense. God even blessed BJ with a strong chin and tough skin, all the better for absorbing strikes.
BJ's fatal flaw has historically been a lack of motivation and focus. While he has looked good in recent fights, he has clearly come into some past fights without the proper preparation.
Diego Sanchez sports an overall MMA record of 23 and 2. After going 6 and 2 in the UFC's welterweight division, Diego dropped to 155 to pursue his goal of becoming a UFC champion. Diego's losses to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch were a clear indication that he just wasn't big enough to compete with the 170 pound division's stable of powerful wrestlers.
At lightweight, Diego has had two fights, earning decision victories over Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida. His notable wins at welterweight were decision victories over Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan, and a knockout of Joe Riggs.
The Nightmare is best known for his cardio, aggressiveness, and fighting spirit than technical acument. He is, however, a fairly strong wrestler and grappler, having been awarded his BJJ brown belt by Saulo Ribeiro. Most importantly, his desire to win can't be questioned. Even if Diego falls behind early against BJ, there is little chance that he'll break mentally as some of BJ's past victims have.
But is Diego's heart and desire enough to take down The Prodigy?
The answer is no. Here's why.
Diego will come into this fight in fairly good shape and should have a cardio advantage over BJ.
However, look at Diego's two recent performances against Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson.
Diego didn't look bad in either fight, but ask yourself this question - if he's really good enough to take out BJ Penn, shouldn't he have been able to finish, or at least dominate fighters like Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida? Both are quality fighters, but not nearly as technically sound or dangerous as BJ. I'd also argue that Diego's gas tank is just a bit smaller at lightweight.
Technically, BJ is just far more dangerous in every position, standing or on the ground. If Diego comes out swinging the way he did against Guida, he's going to get hurt very quickly. He just doesn't have the punching power to stand and trade with the iron-chinned Penn.
And if Diego manages to overcome BJ's patented one-legged, hopping takedown defense, he won't be able to deliver much damage on the ground. BJ is very good at defending from his back and getting up to his feet. And If BJ takes the top position, Diego is going to take some punishment. BJ ate Kenny Florian and Joe Stevenson for breakfast on the ground. Diego may be trained by Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, two of the best grapplers and BJJ practitioners in history, but BJ's MMA grappling skills are far more advanced.
Diego may come into this fight in better shape, but I'll take the guy who is :
1) Better at everything from a technique perspective except offensive wrestling
2) Has fought, beaten, and finished better competition.
My Prediction: Penn by submission, round 3.