B.J. Penn is perhaps one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time and certainly one of the few men to this day who has proven to be truly dangerous and elite in almost all areas of the fight. Lately though, if it weren't for the constant references to it in the UFC commentary, you would be forgiven for not knowing that Penn is a brilliant grappler and indeed a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion. Penn's love for boxing seems to overshadow his incredible grappling prowess and even if he is losing a fight in the stand up he seems to do nothing to take the fight to the ground.
WIth a huge fight and return from retirement against Rory MacDonald on the horizon at UFC on Fox 5, it is time that we looked at some of the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of the great B.J. Penn's game.
B.J. Penn is someone whom I have personally admired for a long time and any time that a book comes out with even the mention of Penn demonstrating a technique in it, I snap it up immediately. More than just his leg dexterity and natural attributes - Penn's brutally effective but often unorthodox Jiu Jitsu passes and guard attacks, and his wonderfully simple but effective boxing and takedown defense are all very much worth attempting to emulate. To this end this article is something like my Killing the King series, in that I'm attempting to explain the losses and weaknesses of a man who is often touted as having none except a "lack of motivation". Hopefully at the end of the piece people will be far less willing to attribute Penn's losses to his conditioning or motivation and actually give his opponents the props that they deserve for having out thought him.
Penn's boxing has been praised almost constantly since his early UFC days. There has been one major change to Penn's striking game through his career and it is in his stance. In his early days, Penn's money punch was the left hook so he stood far more square on and attempted to tag his opponent with it every time they came in. It made Penn's offense pretty predictable and proved pretty inaccurate. His wild swings at Lyoto Machida are probably the last appearance of this sort of style in Penn's bouts.
On his return to the UFC Penn began to focus more on his jab - and more importantly his counter jab after recognizing it as his main successful weapon against Georges St. Pierre. To make this technique more effective Penn turned his stance more side on, so that his right hand had a greater distance to travel but so that he was a narrower target and always entered behind his lead shoulder. Notice the difference in stance length and hip rotation in these two fights.
On the left Penn fights Matt Hughes for the first time: his stance is short, and he is hunched with his gloves are in front of him and his hips square on - looking to throw the left hook. On the right Penn faces Frankie Edgar in their first bout: his stance is longer, his right hand is high to parry Edgar's jab and his left hand is low, ready to jab. Penn's weight is also more central than previously, where it had been concentrated on his left leg as is the case with many left hookers.
The secret to Penn's noted accuracy with the jab is that the majority of the time he waits for his opponent to step in with a punch, then he simultaneously slips or parries with his right hand and jabs back. If his opponent comes in upright, as most MMA fighters are wont to do, and Penn moves his head and punches back, he could very well close his eyes and still be almost guaranteed to get the better of the exchange. While Nick Diaz is a southpaw, so different dynamics were at play, this well known gif illustrates exactly the kind of opening that is available even on MMA's best offensive boxers when they come in with their head upright.
Penn's change of style almost directly reflects the comparison of stances given by carnival boxer and legendary braggart J. C. Thomas in his How to Become an Ass-Whipping Boxer. This excellent little book, filled with nonsense stories about Thomas' feats as a carnival boxer, is packed with invaluable information to anyone hoping to develop a safe, jab led boxing style.
Penn went from a square on style guard as illustrated on the right, to a more side on, right hand parrying, jabbing style. Thomas declares that the posture in Illustration 3 is good for poses in newspapers but terrible for actual fighting because there is so much target displayed by the square on stance. In Illustration 2 the left hand is held low for power, to put the opponent off jabbing the midsection and to encourage the opponent to jab for the head.
Every time Penn's opponent comes at him (normally with the jab seeing as that is what is taught by most coaches) Penn simply slips to the side, or parries with the right hand, and lands his own jab. This book was written by a carnival boxer who was active in the 50s and 60s, yet the techniques in it are still used by Penn to confound many of his opponents on the feet - in many ways this really shows how far the standard of boxing in MMA has yet to come.
Penn's style is almost identical to that detailed in Thomas' work so I highly recommend you pick it up. It is this style, rather than any athletic ability, which allowed Penn to bamboozle his opponents on the feet in his second UFC stint, because most fighters still don't know how to deal with effective counter jabbing.
Of course there are other quirks to Penn's striking style that make him even more effective, many of which I will cover in other articles I am sure. A personal favourite is Penn's use of arm control to land punches. Penn will not only hand fight with opponents but also control their arm at the tricep (as Georges Carpentier and Joe Calzaghe both loved to do) in order to land strikes and limit his opponent's ability to turn to face him.
Here Penn chases Kenny Florian out of a clinch and maintains control of Florian's right arm at the tricep, this allows Penn to step his feet outside of the southpaw Florian's lead foot and connect a hard right uppercut from a dominant angle as Florian is unable to face him.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
There's a reason B.J. Penn is called 'The Prodigy', and that is because of the rapid progress that he made in his Brazilian Jiu JItsu in his younger years. Watch any of B.J.'s most dominant performances and you'll be treated to some wonderfully technical Jiu Jitsu. While Penn became known in BJJ circles as a man with an extremely dangerous and versatile guard, his guard has not often shown that much venom in his MMA career - it is Penn's top game which truly impresses. When Penn has dropped an opponent or taken them to the mat he will do one of two things - look to smash their hooks and achieve a leg mount (occasionally called B.J. Penn mount in some circles, reflecting it's prevalence in his game), or dive straight into his opponent's half guard so that he can drive his way to mount.
My personal Brazilian Jiu Jitsu game is not brilliant (in fact survival is pretty much my goal at all times!) but even a novice like me can appreciate the brilliance of Penn's passing. Penn and Hatsu Hioki are often credited as the best guard passers in the sport, and it's hard to argue with their results.
Notice in the first couple of passes how Penn manages to mount Jens Pulver and Takanori Gomi's legs and even cross his opponents' legs over themselves by jamming his knee in between. This style of smash passing is still commonly used in various forms by the great Roger Gracie, Xande Ribeiro, Pablo Popovitch and Shinya Aoki among others. Here is Xande Ribeiro demonstrating one variation that he uses.
The rest of the passes in the Penn video are from variations of half guard. Penn seems to like moving to half guard and then straight to mount rather than passing to side control and then mounting, and it's certainly worked incredibly well for him. In the passing video he is facing Jens Pulver, Takanori Gomi and Caol Uno - no slouches - but also passes the guard of the excellent grappler Kenny Florian with little trouble.
It is not my place to attempt to pick holes in Penn's grappling, I simply don't have the skill to. If there are weaknesses to be seen it would seem that the most obvious one is that Penn flat out refuses to use his grappling until he has decided he wants to. After taking down Nick Diaz with ease, Diaz was able to get back to his feet and Penn simply left it at that. The last person who routinely tried to take Diaz down was Sean Sherk - and while Diaz was able to stuff many takedowns, Sean Sherk was able to outbox Diaz in the process despite an enormous reach disadvantage. The threat of elite grappling makes a huge difference to how the stand up portion of a bout is fought. When Penn goes into boxing mode he becomes predictable and limited.
The weaknesses of Penn's style
Penn's longer stance gives him massive advantages in jabbing - particularly at lightweight where he often owns a reach advantage - by allowing him to turn more side on and extend his reach. It also exposes him to the same flaws that plague the game of his one time opponent, Nick Diaz. Because his lead foot is often turned in, he struggles to check kicks to the outside of his lead leg, and they often buckle his leg inward with even light connections - preventing him from moving momentarily. This was one method used by Frankie Edgar in his first bout with Penn, which clearly irritated Penn because in the second bout he committed to checking Edgar's kicks.
Another downside of a longer, narrower stance is that turning to face an opponent can be a cumbersome task. Where Penn can easily get the better of most of his opponents if they come at him head on, he had real trouble when Edgar began moving around him. Pivoting in a narrow stance is awkward and slow, so Penn eventually abandoned it and began stepping out of his stance to catch up with Edgar. Every time Penn stepped out of his stance to catch up with Edgar's circling, he exposed himself far more than when he is comfortably fighting in his stance. While Edgar was understandably tentative about capitalizing on this, through the rounds that he and Penn fought in both fights, Edgar became more and more confident in hitting Penn as he was chasing.
Aside from low kicks and movement, B.J. Penn has also seemingly had issues with opponents who attack his body. Often when Penn fades rapidly it is written off with an excuse along the lines of "he wasn't motivated", but in truth most of Penn's notable poor performances in the cardio department have been influenced by his opponent doing body work. In Penn's second bout with Matt Hughes, Hughes committed to attacking Penn's body with elbows when in guard and landed a couple of strikes and a kick to the midsection on the feet before Penn gassed. Similarly when Georges St. Pierre was in Penn's guard he committed to body strikes before Penn faded. A final example of Penn's vulnerability to body strikes can be seen in his bout with Nick Diaz, one of the best body punchers in MMA, who was going fairly even with Penn in punch counts in the early going of the fight, but made a far higher percentage of his connections on the body, whereas Penn is largely a head hunter. Penn faded fast under Diaz's body assault, further highlighting a potential weakness.
To what degree Rory MacDonald can take advantages of Penn's holes on the feet, or whether he'll walk straight at Penn and get beaten up is hard to predict. Furthermore a great deal of this match comes down to wrestling - Penn's weakness in the past has been his fairly nonthreatening guard against top level wrestlers, where he is a monster from his back in a gi. This could be a coming out party for Rory MacDonald or a triumphant return for Penn, but it's certainly not a fight to miss.
B.J. Penn's most successful strategies and the techniques which Frankie Edgar used to beat him are featured among over 60 others in the ebook, Advanced Striking.