This is what the sport of MMA is all about.
As onlookers, we're privy to a human being's highest of highs and lowliest of lows. When you think of B.J. Penn (16-8-2), you might envision a skinny, over-rated Hawaiian kid crumpled underneath some muscled behemoth who's clobbering him silly with unanswered ground-and-pound. Or, your mind could offer up the barbaric recollection of "The Prodigy" licking the blood of his fallen opponent off his gloves with an animalistic sneer twisting his countenance.
While Penn's rollercoaster ride of ups and downs have shaped his legacy, perhaps the single snapshot of Rory MacDonald's (13-1) indelible battle with former interim champion Carlos Condit best embodies his experience on MMA's merry-go-round. In what became the defining performance of his career, the young MacDonald -- now 23, then just 21-years-old -- authenticated the gushing praise by methodically dismantling Condit; probably more effectively and convincingly than we've seen anyone handle Condit on the feet before. That was, of course, until the 3rd round, which began with Condit's trainer, Greg Jackson, summoning evil spirits and casting some sort of "+10 Berserker Rage" spell and ended with MacDonald flat on his back and Condit's hand raised in victory.
For Penn and MacDonald, their next career-defining step awaits them in the Octagon this Saturday night, as the talent-laden phenoms square off on the main card of UFC on Fox 5 as part of the trio that will lead in to the lightweight championship bout between Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz.
The first thing that jumps out at me for this pairing is that MacDonald has to be one of the worst possible match ups for Penn. A natural 155er, Penn has fought competitively against good to elite competition that tipped the scales as high as 185-pounds. Included on that list are former UFC light-heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida (decision loss), former welterweight champion Matt Hughes (a 1st-round knockout, a 1st-round submission and a 3rd-round TKO loss), longtime #2 welterweight juggernaut Jon Fitch (draw) and current pound-for-pound and welterweight deity Georges St. Pierre (competitive split-decision loss, 4th-round TKO loss).
If there was a common thread in those defeats, it's that they were dealt by larger, physically imposing wrestlers with a domineering top game ... which is MacDonald's M.O. to a tee. But MacDonald's breadth of skill goes way beyond that: not only is he a massive welterweight, but he's exceptionally agile and athletic for his size, he'll enjoy a 2-inch advantage in height and 6.5" inches in reach, he's a remarkably intelligent fighter and specializes in exploiting his opponent's weakness.
Penn earned his nickname for becoming the first non-Brazilian to win the World Jiu-jitsu championships in the black belt division. Over the years, his boxing technique has been honed into sharper form, inspiring respected boxing personality Freddy Roach to deem Penn as "one of the best strikers I've ever worked with." But in spite of the Hawaiian's unparalleled fighting fundamentals, both on the floor and on the feet, his propensity to conjure up devastating violence by way of crude, street-fighting-esque brawling deserves top billing as his cardinal asset.
Think about it: all of Penn's marquee wins consisted of an explosive eruption of primal warfare. Every elite lightweight he sniped off during his epic title run (Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez) was flattened amidst a hail of whirring leather or finished with a submission immediately after. Conversely, each of Penn's notorious losses occurred in scenarios where he assumed the role of the tactician and tried to match his opponent's technical wizardry -- in their exact area of excellence -- rather than giving in to his fiery blood-lust (St. Pierre, Frankie Edgar, Nick Diaz).
That's why Penn has somewhat become two different fighters: the rage-fueled madman and the calculating strategist, each with clear but starkly contrasting results. It's pretty easy and convenient for me to make that correlation and simply recommend that Penn go for broke and pull out another amazing, highlight-reel stoppage ... but how does he realistically go about orchestrating performances that are considered some of the most incredible in the sport's history?
That's the daunting challenge that I assume is eating away at Penn. While winning the way he has is something every fighter strives to achieve, it's much harder to replicate, especially with any semblance of consistency, than having a straight-forward game-plan like imposing takedowns or staying afoot to duel with strikes. This means that Penn will have to find that happy balance in methodology between going back to his brawling roots while not foolishly exposing himself defensively; of applying his core competence of technical street-fighting at just the right time and in just the right dosage.
Yes, I'm kind of wandering aimlessly here, because I have no idea how this encounter will play out. Penn could stomp on the gas and attack MacDonald with blazing boxing combinations, burst out of his corner with a flying knee or a takedown attempt, risk the slow-paced methodical game (isn't it odd that a "risk" for Penn is playing it safe?) or settle into a mature interplay while awaiting the ideal time and place to unload whatever weapon in his arsenal is best attuned to end the fight.
MacDonald, however, should be much more predictable. He'll stay outside and use his considerable range on the feet to plunge straight, mile-long punches from a distance that Penn is unable to counter from. If the stand-up exchanges are not to his liking, MacDonald is afforded the luxury of relying on his stellar takedown acumen. I mentioned his meeting with Condit as career-defining because I thought it entailed all the elements that could make him a future champion. His boxing was tight, precise and well-timed; his takedowns were set up beautifully, fundamentally sound and wholly effective; he was vigilant in maintaining an upright posture after a takedown so as not to immerse himself in Condit's dynamic guard with the ability to eject and reset at any given moment.
MacDonald should be fixated on keeping the fight at either of his preferred ranges, which are the far-end of the striking bubble or deep in the pocket where he can get his hands on Penn and steer him around with his size and strength. Penn must have access to the gap in between, where the power of his explosive boxing combinations, surprise high kicks or flying knees have a commanding presence to alter the course of the fight.To do so, Penn has a find a way to get inside -- but not too far inside, where Rory will just tie him up and/or take him down -- and mount his own offense while avoiding the clutches of MacDonald's counter-punching or wrestling.
The likelihood of Penn achieving that, especially considering how few others have done so in the past, doesn't seem as good as MacDonald doing what he does best, and has done consistently against taller, larger and stronger fighters than Penn. That's why the betting odds are slanted so heavily in MacDonald's favor at an average of -300, which puts him as the biggest favorite on the card. That's also why logic would strongly indicate that MacDonald is the safer pick for all you bettors.
From a personal standpoint, and as an avid fan of the most unpredictable and emotion-inspiring sport on the planet, I think being 100% logical is stupid and boring.
My Prediction: B.J. Penn by I-Don't-Know-Hopefully-Something-Amazing.