Why is the UFC 137 main event between B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz such a timeless and monumental match up? For me, it's because fighters like Penn and Diaz are why I'll always be more of a fan than a journalist.
Trumpeted as the first non-Brazilian to win a BJJ world championship in the black belt category, the scrawny Hawaiian kid that meekly made his way into the cage looked commonplace and far from menacing. He seemed like just another fighter in just another fight.
This was during an era where most submission specialists were flailing punches like school girls or butt flopping uncontrollably like a dog with the runs dragging himself across the carpet. Instead, Penn erupted into a violent storm of strikes and left his first three opponents broken and asleep on the canvas before screaming something about Hilo and rappelling up into the arena rafters, exiting with a "WTF just happened?"sort of panache like Batman.
The same went for Diaz. The intro was "blah, blah, Cesar Gracie black belt" but it was "bam, bam, god damn!" and Robbie Lawler, who was actually being likened to Roy Jones Jr. at the time, was knocked the f**k out. Not immediately christened a god like Penn was, Diaz's path was more circuitous after three consecutive losses in a division dominated by wrestlers, but he still foreshadowed his individuality with the urban legend of handling round four with Joe Riggs at the hospital after the fight.
The mystique continued to grow and, though not a staple in the UFC, Diaz refused to go away. The hype heightened even further with a gogoplata finish of Pride champ Takanori Gomi in a mesmerizing war. The clamor crescendoed when the career-defining win was overturned for his habit of toking grass, etching his exultation so thoroughly that even legions of bong-toting stoners with a five-minute memory billed the fight as unforgettable.
Love 'em or hate 'em, win or lose, Penn and Diaz have chiseled their legacies into the annals of MMA. The defiant Nick Diaz will greet Frank Shamrock's handshake with his signature middle finger at the press conference, but help him up and raise his hand in respect after beating the braces off of him. The polarizing B.J. Penn will credit Edgar and his team after losing his lightweight belt, move up in weight to renew his prestige, crush Matt Hughes and head to Subway on the back of his Harley, then take down the number-two welterweight wrestler in a rousing fight dampened by a draw.
And what I love the most about these two is that they have an unparalleled natural talent and martial arts diversity, yet tear into their opponents like brawling but technical street fighters, unafraid to take risks and leave it all in the cage.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
There is simply not enough available internet bandwidth to share my complete thoughts on this dynamic match up, so let me start with some bullet points of the popular strengths, weaknesses and perceived advantages for both fighters.
Penn -- Strengths
- Punching power
- Crisp, tight, and straight-thrown boxing
- Under-rated wrestling abilities
- Unreal takedown defense
- Insane flexibility
- Elite grappling, excellent scrambling, though more power- and position-based
- Bulletproof chin and difficult to finish
Diaz -- Strengths
- Pissed off
- Unorthodox boxing
- Long reach, odd angles and off-beat timing
- Under-rated clinch and Judo skills
- Sick scrambling and sweeps; virtually impossible to hold down
- Elite level, liquid-like guard game
- Bulletproof chin and difficult to finish
- Cardio for days
Penn -- Weaknesses
- Cardio and heart, especially in later rounds
- Dedication and motivation
- Dealing with unyielding pressure
- Defending high caliber boxing in the pocket
Diaz -- Weaknesses
- Wrestling and takedown defense
- Footwork and head movement
- Easy to hit
- Willing to fight anywhere, often scored as a lack of cage control
A pivotal aspect is whether one of them will change up their typical routines.
In both Edgar fights, Penn was stuck in the same gear and content to shuffle forward, throwing almost nothing but the jab, cross and left hook; consistently stringing those same three punches together in heated exchanges.
To the right, Penn's follow up to the one-two is a quick level drop, getting deep and clasping his hands around the waist while Fitch goes for the Thai plum.
Considering Diaz's static stance and stationary footwork, it makes sense that this has become a popular suggestion for Penn.
We can't forget, however, that Fitch turned the sequence to his advantage and that Diaz has busier hips and is better with sweeps than Fitch.
With two gifted and high level grapplers like this, I have no clue what will happen when the fight hits the ground. History is our only evidence and Diaz has never been contained on his back and Penn has never enforced the strategy against a slippery guard player like Diaz.
Since Diaz does things like dropping both hands down to his waist when cornered by one of the most devastating strikers in MMA, the next logical guess is that Penn's heavy and knifing punches will follow suit.
Of course, the kicker is that Diaz quickly recovered, used more head movement on all fours in the turtle position than he normally does standing, got back to his feet and went on to disarm Semtex with a classic pitter-patter TKO.
With Fort Knox level chins, I have a tough time believing either one will fall to anything other than a gradual accumulation of earth-leveling strikes (if at all).
That's where Diaz's relentlessly pressuring, preying mantis tactic of volume punching comes into play, along with the varied arsenal of strikes he throws in undetectable rhythms.
Blasting the bread basket is now a staple in his onslaught and he's at his best when he can find his groove with opponents who stand in front of him.
Penn is pretty straightforward in the stand up as well, generally moving in one direction at one speed and welcoming an in-your-face range to trade strikes.
When pressed, he hasn't demonstrated the knack to cut angles or circle out into open space, which is how most of the welterweight wrestlers (GSP, Hughes, Fitch) ushered him to the fence to complete takedowns.
Diaz will do the same but while seeking to shut the door to escape routes and brawl at close quarters.
Penn also struggled with the variety of angles of Edgar's distinct boxing behavior, and I think Diaz will present the same problems, but do so with upper-body movement, indecipherable rhythm and crazy punching trajectories rather than speed and in-and-out footwork.
Diaz has not typically been shellacked with the straight punches that Penn tends to throw. For those, he takes the risky approach of ducking and countering, palm blocking or retracting his head to move back from the blow.
Wide hooks were how Zaromskis and Daley caught him, while Gomi's Hadouken Punch was a sloppy hail mary of an overhand.
Penn is excellent in cracking a hard left hook through after his standard one-two -- which I think is the strike most likely to rock Diaz -- but that also means Penn is the ideal spot for a counter, and his defense isn't impenetrable either.
While I agree Penn is the better wrestler and there's a better chance of him taking Diaz down, I wouldn't rule out Diaz landing a takedown.
Penn isn't a better wrestler than Fitch, yet his quickness, timing and intelligence made it possible. Diaz could do the same and is just as crafty and domineering from the top (maybe more?) than Penn is.
Penn, though unquestionably an exorbitant grappler, has not demonstrated his guard playing acumen as well as Diaz and could be subject to the same perils of fending off a world class tactician from his back.
Though I believe that Penn's MMA performances haven't elevated his guard prowess as much as Diaz ... c'mon, it's still B.J. Penn.
Here from the Octopus Guard versus Hughes, Penn has exquisite scrambling and grappling transitions, it's just that most of his submissions were basic and facilitated by his thunderous striking.
Still, you can never fault Penn for blasting people on the feet and then pounding them into a vulnerable position to snare a choke. He definitely has intricate skill everywhere on the ground and it's a toss up with what will happen against Diaz.
So, you're wondering who I'm picking to win by now, and my answer is this: how the hell would I know? How could anyone?
In addition to being a drooling fanboy of both fighters and not wanting to see either lose, a logical case can be made for either to end up with their hands raised. I would wager that we'd see a wide range of different outcomes if these two fought twenty times, meaning I don't think whatever happens tonight will decide who is better and three rounds won't be satisfying enough.
This should be a frenetically paced barn-burner between two predatory and opportunistic killers that's decided by inches. One split-second decision could turn the tide or end the fight. On paper, there may be a viable list of pros and cons, but I envision the match up like mixing two volatile and unknown elements in a test tube and estimating the explosive reaction when you shake it up.
Penn is the narrow favorite on the betting lines which his superior level of overall competition justifies alone. My intent is to analyze rather than predict, so with a gun to my head I would hesitantly guess that Diaz might take a decision. His length, chin and awkward stand up matched with his nonpareil gameness has me leaning his way, especially in a stand up fight.
Penn's under-rated wrestling could over-ride everything if Diaz doesn't move his feet, but the way the Stockton scrapper has conducted himself from his back along with his chin, cardio and relentless tenacity gets him my vote.
My Prediction: Nick Diaz by decision
Suggested Reading Material
Penn x Hughes gif via Grappo
Diaz x Zaromskis gifs via Sherdog Forums
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com