BJ Penn makes his return from retirement against one of the most exciting featherweights this January 15, 2017 at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
One sentence summary
Phil: Heartbreakingly Brutal BJ Attempt At A Career Revival, Take 4, in 3...2...1...
David: The ghost of Tanooki BJ tries to ignore the advice of Detective Murtaugh.
Record: Yair Rodriguez 8-1 B.J. Penn 16-10-2
Odds: Yair Rodriguez -440 B.J. Penn +350
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Of all the fighters to dramatically outperform expectations after TUF Latin America 1, Rodriguez has been the frontrunner. Which makes sense, I guess, because he won it. It wasn't until he got a step up in competition against the reasonably well-regarded Charles Rosa that Rodriguez really had his coming-out party. "He's like a combination of Anthony Pettis and Jon Jones!" exclaimed Rogan. Uh... kind of, Joe. Kind of.
David: Is that really what Rogan said? Good lord. That’s aggressive hyperbole even for him. Or maybe not and that’s why I’m flabbergasted anyway. Back to Rodriguez, I think looking at him grow on TUF, we saw a more grim faced version of Alex Caceres. And like Caceres, his improvement was quicker, and more dramatic than we could have envisioned. Not only that but I think my reason for underestimating Yair more than anything is that his game is too much of a high wire act. He tries to fight beyond archetypes rather than within them. The ensuing chaos is sometimes not fit for mortal bloggers.
Phil: Baby Jay Penn is a strange, contradictory figure. Beloved of MMA fans for fighting at whatever weight he felt like, while simultaneously reviled for his lack of discipline. He's the "fighter's fighter", the epitome of Just Scrap, but also one of the sports biggest frontrunners and incapable of battling his way back into fights once he started losing them. He's a two-weight champ who can justifiably be accused of squandering his talent. We feel guilty during the many brutal beatings he got handed in his late career, but he was a child of privilege and only really fought to prove things to himself anyway. He's a weird dude.
David: Penn is the cabbage faced embodiment of the AC Grayling truism that a victory against unexpected odds is better than a victory confidently anticipated. He’s taken this philosophy beyond the octagon even when fighting in the octagon was the most attractive endeavor, and all the way to the East, in the land of overweight men and a human sized cartons of Ramen noodles. I don’t consider Penn “weird”, though his trademark fidgety assertiveness definitely qualifies. Rather, he’s an introverted version of Nick Diaz; he’s a fighter first, and an athlete second. To the extent that he squandered his talent, his talents served to bring him to this dilemma in the first place. It’s the famous circular logic of “if only” that fans like to qualify for fighters they believe are capable of more. If Penn were not a unique creature of hippy free fisted pugilism, he would have never made a mark to begin with. I’ve always appreciated that about him, even if it failed to serve his legacy the way he wanted.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Rodriguez is the UFC's latest attempt to break into their own personal combat sports Promised Land, namely Mexico. Roger Huerta couldn't do it with his Sports Illustrated cover. Cain Velasquez, "The First Mexican Heavyweight Champ", looked like he might have had a shot before people realized that he was too busy smashing himself into a loosely Cain-shaped pile of bone shards and ripped tendons to be a consistent presence. Erik Perez... no.
BJ winning would be nice, too? He's one of the few stars left in the McGregor hiatus period. A brief Penn resurgence might be just what the doctor ordered.
David: I’d say something about Penn’s legacy, but I did that already in 2014 when I thought we had seen the last of him. He’s not making a run at this point. That much is certain. Rodriguez has a more interested crystal ball though. If he wins, Dana can start making dumb stone faced comparisons to Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, or Alexis Arguello. And no, Dana would not care that Alexis wasn’t Mexican. Also, is that shade toward Erik Perez I smell from that last paragraph?
Where do they want it?
Phil: Rogan's hyperbole aside (Editor’s note: never set Rogan hyperbole aside Phil), Rodriguez does actually resemble Anthony Pettis in a way, albeit one who's decided that he's done with all this cautious, technical crap and one who's tired of constantly drilling his boxing technique and regular footwork. Rodriguez is, to put not too fine a point on it, like a version of Pettis who hasn't tried to clean up on any of his flaws so much as he's just totally ignored that they exist. Instead, he's just loaded more and more wacky strikes into the arsenal. Yair has gotten away with it thus far because he is an athletic marvel, loaded with blazing speed, excellent balance and ridiculous cardio.
The governing rule behind his fights is "flow." Everything comes off something. Primarily, most attacks come when he lifts his right foot. Bring it down, spearing jab. Or an oblique kick. Or a switch kick. Or a charge into a blitz. You get the general idea. Those charging blitzes form the basis of his offense if an opponent chooses to sit back- Yair can leap into kicks from either foot or throw sweeping punches. He turns himself with those attacks, and again tends to flow with that movement, peeling off as he charges into spins- backfists, wheel kicks, tornado kicks, and even a tornado punch(!) at one point. There are, it doesn't need to be said, a lot of counter opportunities available here. His spins also have a tendency to give up his back, where he'll then immediately "flow" into diving for leglocks. That could get him into serious trouble against Penn, one of the best back-takers we've seen.
David: Yair is a deconstruction of archetypes rather than a pillar of it. I’ll even go so far as to argue that I believe Yair’s offense is a commentary on offense in general. Kind of like how Torque’s Y2K bike scene was a commentary on unrealistic chase scenes, so they made a chase scene so stupid and unrealistic you can’t help but watch (well, I couldn’t) and then read the youtube comments in response. He wants to do things that fundamentals keep restrained, and his Ip Man theatrics are the end result.
This is what makes him effective to the extent that he is. There’s nothing predictable about his attack, and so fighters predisposed to being patient, or anticipating offense will automatically have trouble. However, pulling something like this off requires an intimate understanding of fundamentals, and I don’t believe Yair really has this. Watch his movement patterns, for example. Because of his reach, I think he’s so used to managing range naturally that he gets lazy in places where movement would best serve him (think of tall hockey players who reach out with their sticks instead of playing gap control as if skating is secondary). His lateral movement is as erratic as his out fighter movement. Yes, it’s to serve to attacks he initiates, but lacking defensive schemes undercuts his dynamic qualities.
I do believe that he’s “on to something”. As in, I’m surprised more fighters don’t take advantage of windmill opportunities ala Nate Marquardt’s helicopter assault on Wilson Gouveia. A roundhouse kick into a spinning backfist has always seemed like a ripe combo with only takedown threats to stand in its strategic way. Whether or not he can channel that into greater success is another matter entirely.
Phil: The question here is what version of Penn we're talking about. There's that old Prodigimon picture asking which version you might get. The Half-Korean Zombie seemed to be the one we got last time out, albeit one trying to imitate and summon the Velociprodigy by standing on his tippy-toes like a kid pretending to be a scary dinosaur.
When he's not being ridiculously weird, Penn may not still be considered one of the best boxers in MMA, but he has some of the best boxing attributes: namely an ability to slip punches effectively and counter with a ramrod jab and left hook. That his footwork can occasionally leave him unable to get into range to land those techniques wasn't exposed until a lot later in his career, but it's still a fairly rare skillset (think Junior Dos Santos- mediocre footwork but excellent hands in isolation).
BJ's other quality attributes are his once-uncrackable chin, and his brilliant leg dexterity. His guard isn't quite the threat it was, and it was debatably never all it was cracked up to be, but in scrambles he was one of the best at slipping his legs round and over the hips and then teleporting to the opponent's back. He could wrestle when he wanted to, most notably when he took Jon Fitch down against the cage multiple times, but more aggressive grappling tended to take a toll on his limited gas tank. Also, despite his chin, BJ has historically not liked being hit to the body at all.
David: Was it about dinosaurs that brings out the comedian in you? Penn is the reason why us "writers trying to sound smarter than we think" use words like 'metastrikers' or 'metagrapplers'. It's not a vanity decision. Rather, what good does calling a fighter like Penn a striker rather than a grappler serve? Old school terms defining a fighter's overarching demeanor doesn't describe anything except the residue of old school analysis. BJ was always more of a metastriker than anything; his grappling a lethal secondary node of offense, dictating the pace with strong boxing fundamentals against a grappling heavy field of welterweights. His boxing is still an asset in terms of raw fundamentals. Has jab has a heavy, steady presence, and he's good at countering in spots (rewatching the first round of his fight with Nick Diaz, I'm always impressed with how surgical Penn is).
Like you pointed out, Penn's grappling always had a specific connotation; his top control efficiency. His back control is legendary (that back take in his rematch with Matt Hughes was a true thing of beauty), but he was never uniquely adept off his back. Though limber, and uniquely agile, BJ wasn't explosive from his back, and so a number of his losses occurred because he could be flattened.
Insight from past fights
Phil: I rewatched Penn-Edgar II with Zane and Connor recently. One of the things which stuck out was how utterly plodding BJ was. I mean, he certainly deserved to win that fight, don't get me wrong, but he simply stood in the center of the cage, rotated, and tried to counter Edgar's blitzes. If he's still "BJ Penn" in any way he's going to be an infinitely more dangerous counterpuncher to charge against than Caceres, Rosa or Fili, but similarly I don't believe he has any answers if Rodriguez just decides to tap at him from outside punching range.
David: There is nothing similar about Penn's game in contrast to Alex Caceres. But Caceres played a pretty composed game against Yair. Sure their offenses are diametrically opposed, but it went a long way in establishing how critical composure can be in the face of Yair's attack. Conversely, I don't believe Yair has the composure to simply attack Penn at range.
Phil: Jackson-Wink? I have my doubts that they can bring BJ back to anything like his prime, but they've generally been excellent at polishing up the rough edges of vets, and squeezing their best possible performances out. They also trained Yair before, which adds another interesting wrinkle.
David: To me, all roads lead to Yair's development. This is a crucial bout in that it will tell us a lot about where he is within his own game. On the surface, a loss will be an indictment on his style, and its longevity. Regardless of how he wins, it'll be seen as a young prospect beating a veteran past his prime. However unfair these characterizations, Yair will have to fight hard to rid himself of such stigmas.
Phil: I don't really love Yair's game. A lot of people have ragged on Anthony Pettis, but he was always far more *effectively* dynamic and more of a finishing threat, while also being a lot more structured as a fighter. I suspect Yair is in for a painful awakening at some point. It could feasibly be here if he gets clipped by a Penn left hook during a flailing, spinning punch combination. But no. I can't in good faith pick Penn to beat an elite young athlete over the course of 25 minutes, particularly one who'll prioritize staying on the outside. Yair Rodriguez by unanimous decision.
David: This is so much trickier to analyze than it looks on the surface. The reason is twofold. One, Yair is rougher around the edges than he looks. Two, Penn is more polished around the edges than his retirement would suggest. He looked bad against Edgar, using a twinkle toes pressure to effectively pressure. But Edgar's as technically proficient as they came, with a much more streamlined boxing attack. Still, it's hard to just ignore the raw talent, and unique blend of offense Yair provides. I'm going against the grain here, though. Penn's return to action may seem spontaneous, but there's nothing spontaneous about his strategy. The fact that Yair is an eccentric paragon of spontaniety implies what I predict will be some tough lessons advised by one of the sport's elite. BJ Penn by Decision.