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UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Penn staff picks and predictions

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Check out the Bloody Elbow staff’s picks and predictions for the Sunday, January 15th UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Penn card in Phoenix, Arizona.

MMA: UFC 192-Rodriguez vs Hooker Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The BE staff has made its predictions for UFC Phoenix, and we do indeed have at least a couple of people picking BJ Penn. Eddie Mercado, Lewis McKeever, and Tim Burke have “The Prodigy” turning back the clock and beating Yair Rodriguez in tomorrow’s main event. Everyone is picking Joe Lauzon over Marcin Held in the co-main. Tim Burke is being a bad person and picking Ben Saunders to lose to Court McGee.

Note: Predictions are entered throughout the week and collected the day before the event. Explanations behind each pick are not required and some writers opt not to do so for their own reasons. For example, if Phil Mackenzie entered all of his predictions on Wednesday without adding in any explanations, he has no idea if he's going to be the only one siding with one fighter for any given fight.

B.J. Penn vs. Yair Rodriguez

Anton Tabuena: I love B.J. Penn, but let’s be honest here, it’s 2017. I wish they matched him up against fellow vets like Guida, Gomi, or Kawajiri. He’s not facing Lamas anymore, but he’s still fighting a dangerous striker who is also bigger, younger, and faster. The cancelled bouts and extended stay at Jacksonwink may help more than his original plan of just spending a few weeks, but I’m not sure anyone can revive a career of a 38-year-old who is coming off the longest layoff of his career and hasn’t won in almost 7 years. Yair Rodriguez by TKO.

Mookie Alexander: Fighters in lighter weight classes tend to age poorly. BJ Penn is 38 years old. He’s taken some serious beatings in his last three fights. He’s not fought since 2014 and hasn’t genuinely looked good in a fight since blowing out Matt Hughes in 2010. Penn is a legend, but are we to seriously believe that after the run he’s had, he’s just going to get a win against a much younger, more athletic and dynamic fighter and instantly become a top 10 featherweight? I suppose Penn can pull off the upset. Rodriguez is still very raw and his game is a little too wild, and I think his love of spinning attacks will cost him dearly at some point. He also shouldn’t try grappling with BJ, as much as he says he’s confident he can submit Penn. Apart from that, I think we’re in for a sad night. Yair Rodriguez by unanimous decision.

Victor Rodriguez: First, we need to clarify that Rodriguez is training in Chicago with his own individual camp while Penn is back at Jackson/Winklejohn’s for this fight. While we often joke about the mythical “motivated Penn” being something out there in the wilderness and that may come back any day now, there’s no real reason we ought to think he can return to form after that hideous performance against Edgar. But nobody finds a way to rekindle interest like Penn, and the fact that he has a new glow with a new team and a set regimen may be the biggest X factor here. Penn’s boxing has always been sharp, his BJJ unquestionable and his tenacity guaranteed. Rodriguez brings great range striking, unorthodox attacks and dynamic athleticism, working odd angles and being hard to box in. As insane as it sounds, I see a better shot for Penn winning with his striking and timing as he uses his veteran savvy to avoid the tide-turning big kicks and spin attacks. Still, smart money says Rodriguez finds a way to flummox Penn and nail him with body kicks, takedowns and working to nullify his submission game from top position. Yair Rodriguez by decision.

Ram Gilboa: BJ Penn is an all-time great fighter taking on the traditional quest of tarnishing his legacy. Last instance Penn was a current great was seven years ago; MMA might seem very similar to what it looked like then, but it not really the exact same game. The only established pro in 2010 MMA who had similar kicking virtuosity to young Rodriguez now was Anderson Silva. Even Machida, to whom Penn lost in a previous novel endeavour, doesn’t use his legs like hands, quite like Rodriguez. And the thing is Rodriguez isn’t even that special in the UFC of today, as he would have been in Penn’s heyday. Aldo, Barboza, Pettis and Thompson all made feather, light and welterweights take into account dealing with kicking. When he started BJ Penn did it because he liked to fight – and he was one of the best athletes who liked fighting. Better money and exposure that guys like Penn helped get, drove in better athletes, and time brought in added refinement and knowledge. When Penn grew up he didn’t have “BJ Penn’s MMA: The book of knowledge” to refer to. The Rodriguezes of today did.

All other things equal, I’d normally pick the kick-informed puncher over the punch-informed kicker. Especially if the puncher has a better ground game like Penn does – that should make a kicker hesitant firing. But all other things are not equal here: Looks to me Penn is battling an early mid-life crisis and Yair Rodriguez. With all due respect, At 38, two and a half years removed from a one-off comeback fight – a TKO loss – it isn’t rust, it’s going on fossilization. Even at his prime, while Penn always defended kicks well, but he has never faced someone who can kick like Rodriguez, and would have found himself a challenge in Rodriguez even at his prime. How does Penn close the distance? If he uses his great jabs, he’s susceptible to kicks, if he doesn’t, well, he still is. A short hook isn’t getting a smart and dynamic Rodriguez.

One thing you simply cannot discount is a Penn submission. If he gets it to the mat early, the fight could easily go his way fast. You have to be a GSP, or Fitch sort of a big wrestler-grappler to shut Penn down; a lanky former Taekwondoer with long arms to trap should be prey to a wizard like Penn. While I don’t see Penn getting a traditional takedown here, he could turn one or two of Rodriguez crazy kicks into a scramble leading to a submission win. Only I don’t think he would. Rodriguez by KO/TKO round 2.

Fraser Coffeen: I have a 6 year old son, which makes me feel kind of old. I still think of him as being really little, but he’s not - he’s 6. I can have full conversations about all kinds of things with him, he has opinions on life - he’s his own human being. And the last time B.J. Penn won a fight, he was not yet born. Yair Rodriguez, KO, round 3

Dayne Fox: I don’t want to watch BJ Penn step into a cage anymore. He has nothing left to prove in addition to looking horrible in his last few appearances. I suppose it is plausible he has been taking his training serious and could surprise, but he relied so heavily on his physical gifts when he was tearing up the MMA world that I can’t see him doing so now that he has entered the later stages of his 30’s. Hopefully this isn’t too brutal. Rodriguez via TKO of RD4

Eddie Mercado: Yair Rodriguez is untested in his young 9-1 career, as he has yet to face the upper echelon of MMA competition. It’s hard for me to pick such a young talent against someone who has only faced the very best for so many years, so I won’t. B.J. Penn by good ol’ fashioned sonning.

Tim Burke: Ride or die. Old school for life. B.J. Penn by submission, round 1

Staff picking Penn: Eddie, Lewis, Tim
Staff picking Rodriguez: Ram, Bissell, Nick, Stephie, Phil, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Dayne, Victor

Marcin Held vs. Joe Lauzon

Anton Tabuena: There’s a decent chance Lauzon might not be the same guy he once was, but this match up is not only fun, it also favors him stylistically. Joe Lauzon by TKO.

Mookie Alexander: I like Marcin Held but I’m also extremely skeptical of fighters who are heavily reliant on low-percentage submissions, and whether or not they can contend in the UFC. In theory, he absolutely can submit Lauzon with a heel hook, but beyond that, Lauzon is better everywhere, including his newfound cardio that doesn’t leave him spent by round 2. Joe Lauzon by unanimous decision.

Ram Gilboa: Held strikes me as a less technical, less fluid and accurate, but more Polish version of Lauzon. He does have a nice right hand, kicks to consider, and on the mat he can definitely snap something you need - but really nothing Lauzon hasn’t handled before. At this point Lauzon is really a master of all in there; you can find better athletes and harder punchers than Lauzon aplenty, but not a lot of more well versed fighters. I think Lauzon has actually been in one war too many lately, but it shouldn’t show here. Lauzon is susceptible to counters while advancing on a retreating opponent, but Held is not on the level to capitalize on that. He’s also not getting Lauzon’s leg in a bundle. Lauzon by decision.

Dayne Fox: Held lost fair and square to Diego Sanchez circa 2016. Enough said. Lauzon via TKO of RD1

Phil Mackenzie: The weird thing about Joe Lauzon is that I have an idea of him as being a deteriorated fighter, but looking back on his career I can't really... see where he was actually better than he is now...? Like, was "prime" Joe Lauzon the one who was getting tapped out by George Sotiropoulos? The current version can strike in the clinch far better, is a more consistent wrestler, and can go for three rounds. However, he has taken a ton of damage over the years and is likely to fall off soon if he hasn't already. Held is an interesting proposition- he looked awful last time out, but I'm willing to put at least some of it down to octagon jitters. If he can fix those gas tank issues, he could potentially exploit Lauzon's, but without seeing it, it doesn't give me a huge amount of confidence that he really has anywhere that he holds a significant advantage in this fight apart from physical durability. The way to beat Lauzon is traditionally to exchange enough to force him into that shell guard, then wallop him and keep him shelled up for as long as possible. Doesn't really seem like a Held thing to do. Joe Lauzon by unanimous decision.

Fraser Coffeen: I really like this fight, as a longtime Held fan, I am pleased that they are just tossing him into entertaining and interesting match-ups. Sadly though, they are not match-ups that favor him. Held struggles the most with guys who don’t fall victim to his leglock wizardry, and Lauzon is way too smart and slick with his own grappling game for that. I expect a lot of Held going for locks, failing, and Lauzon beating him up in the meantime. Lauzon, decision

Staff picking Held:
Staff picking Lauzon: Bissell, Ram, Nick, Stephie, Phil, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Eddie, Dayne, Tim

Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders

Anton Tabuena: LETS!! Ben Saunders by flying gogoplata.

Mookie Alexander: McGee is the better boxer and he’s just incredibly rugged, tough, and durable. The problem with McGee is he’s not fast and he’s not powerful. On the ground, Saunders can win rounds off of his back if not submit you outright. Also, Ben Saunders is the greatest, and I’m done being impartial. LETS!!!!! Ben Saunders by TKO (The Killa B’s Knees).

Ram Gilboa: This is a fight between two solid fighters with limited horizons. At 32, Court McGee is a tough hurdle for anyone - McGee brawls and punches with authority, and has worrisome takedowns and tons of experience. But he’s also 4 and 4 in his last 8 against less than stellar UFC competition, and hasn’t finished an opponent since before that, via arm-triangle on Ryan Jensen in late 2010. Ben Saunders recent record is a little better looking, but at 33 and not far removed from a TKO loss to Patrick Cote, it’s hard to see him reaching more than perhaps gatekeeper status in his respected fighting career.

Both Saunders and McGee aren’t used to fighting guys with longer reach than theirs. The only guy in McGee’s record that had a longer reach than him is light-heavyweight and heavyweight journeyman Nick Rossborough, back in McGee’s second fight 10 years ago; and Jensen shared a similar 76 inches span. Here McGee’s fighting for virtually the first time in a long career, a world class fighter with longer reach than his – Saunders reach is listed at 78.5 inches – which is a challenge both physically and mentally. And the ground doesn’t seem like a safe escape route for McGee against Saunders. Saunders by submission, round 2. P.S. I understand this cannot be made official unless LETS

Phil Mackenzie: Big power edge to Killa B, boxing and volume edge to Crusher. Saunders is a wide, swinging kicker and upright puncher from a distance. This makes him sort of vulnerable against those who can slip inside and lace him with strikes. McGee can definitely do that, but he's also someone who immediately dives into the clinch and goes for takedowns. However, Saunders is infinitely more dangerous in the clinch, and is one of the rare fighters in the UFC who can actually win rounds off his back, primarily by wrapping opponents up into mission control and elbowing them. Really hard pick, should be close, but give me Killa B for more offensive capabilities and, well, LETS Ben Saunders by unanimous decision

Eddie Mercado: This matchup has Fight of the Night written all over it! In the end, I see Ben “Killa B” Saunders having too much sting with his standup while also having the ability to neutralize McGee on the ground. Before they war, check out my interview with Ben Saunders! Ben Saunders by LET’S MARTHA FOCKERS!

Staff picking McGee: Tim (sorry Ben!)
Staff picking Saunders: Bissell, Ram, Nick, Stephie, Phil, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Eddie, Dayne

John Moraga vs. Sergio Pettis

Mookie Alexander: Moraga looked terrible against Nicolau and maybe that weighs too heavily as far as me picking Pettis to win, but even from a larger scope, Pettis has been steadily improving, even if it’s not particularly exciting to watch. I just don’t think Moraga does enough on a consistent basis to win rounds, and that won’t bode well for him tomorrow night. Sergio Pettis by unanimous decision.

Ram Gilboa: Moraga doesn’t try to take people down half as much as he probably should in his latter fights. He also doesn’t fight nearly as often as he wants to and is coming off an injury. In a perfect world where all children are healthy, warm and fed and all cage-fighters achieve their full potential, Moraga TKOs Pettis in front of a supportive home crowd. In our world Pettis outworks Moraga while some people get their beer, securing a close but uncontroversial decision win. Pettis by decision.

Phil Mackenzie: Moraga looked kind of awful in his last fight, a listless decision loss to Matheus Nicolau Pereira. Functioning as flyweight's Lamas, he's always been an underrated opportunist when it comes to either strikes or submission finishes, and manages to make almost every fight awkward and tough. Pettis on the other hand has had significant problems with leaving opportunities out there for opponents to capitalize on. However, the trajectories of the two couldn't be clearer- Pettis has been looking better and better, and Moraga has been looking worse. In particular, Pettis' sound inside footwork and combination kickboxing has been blending nicely into his wrestling game. Thus, more effective volume on the feet and a more effective and integrated wrestling game mean that Pettis should be able to dictate the pace somewhat, and having lost a couple of fights to carelessness in the past should leave him wary of Moraga's tendency to snatch up on errors. Sergio Pettis by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Moraga: Eddie
Staff picking Pettis: Bissell, Ram, Nick, Stephie, Phil, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Dayne, Tim

Augusto Mendes vs. Frankie Saenz

Phil Mackenzie: Mendes remains a huge unknown. He got melted by Cody Garbrandt on short notice and... that's not really very damning now, is it? Means almost precisely nothing. Anyway, Saenz has serious problems outside of clinch range but that's likely where Mendes wants it anyway. Saenz is a very strong defensive wrestler and can fill the clinch with interstitial strikes- as far as the style matchup goes he seems like the correct pick, but honestly you should just stay well away from this fight. Mendes is a phenomenal grappler and competitor and there is a significant chance he blows Saenz out of the water. Frankie Saenz by unanimous decision

Staff picking Mendes: Dayne, Tim
Staff picking Saenz: Bissell, Nick, Stephie, Phil, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Eddie

Oleksiy Oliynyk vs. Viktor Pesta

Victor Rodriguez: Ooooooof. This is going to be rough. Oliynyk should probably take this just by overpowering Pesta and suffocating him with top pressure. Pesta will make this a fight with some sharp punches down the middle, but Oliynyk will end up smothering him against the cage and then do the same on the ground. Oleksiy Oliynyk by turrible decision.

Phil Mackenzie: I have a weird love for Viktor Pesta, the Taedow Mashee. Not getting KOed by Konstantin Erokhin and then outworking him is an achievement which wanes by the day, so why do I still pick Pesta to win stuff? He just seems tough and hardworking and young and is with a good camp and is likable. Is that it? Maybe it is. Oliynyk is getting super old and looks like he only has one round of gas in him. He's far, far more dangerous for that round, but Pesta has proven to be hard to put away, so I'll pick him to outwork the vet, without much confidence Viktor Pesta by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Oliynyk: Victor, Bissell, Nick, Stephie, Fraser, Anton, Mookie, Tim
Staff picking Pesta: Phil, Eddie, Dayne

Tony Martin vs. Alex White

Phil Mackenzie: For me this generic-name battle is the most interesting fight on the card (yes, that is how bad this card is). Tony Martin is genuinely physically impressive, a humongous lightweight grappler who has been able to toss around luminaries like Rashid Magomedov and Beneil Dariush... for a round. Sheer physical power is great, but Martins' depth in almost every area and round-to-round consistency have been sorely lacking. White on the other hand has been a bolt-upright brawler who was outworked by Clay Collard, then came back with a surprisingly technical and movement-heavy game to dominate Artem Lobov. How much of that was due to the several meters of reach advantage he had on Lobov is up for debate. While I like White's improvements much more, and his own large frame should insulate him somewhat, I haven't seen him show the defensive wrestling or bjj chops to convince me he can survive with a massive power grappler up a weight class on short notice. Tony Martin by submission, round 1

Staff picking Martin: Nick, Phil, Fraser, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Eddie, Dayne
Staff picking White: Bissell, Tim

Drakkar Klose vs. Devin Powell

Ram Gilboa: This is the first time I will pick Drakkar in almost 20 years. Powell’s reach advantage will prove a factor on the feet early each round - Drakkar Klose kicks heavy, but his hands are rudimental and porous. Still, at this point of their respective careers, I think a driven submission savvy solid wrestler like Drakkar should accomplish cutting that distance, and then comfortably avoids Powell’s chokes, smelling like leather and wood on his way to a decision victory. Klose by decision.

Phil Mackenzie: The most important fact here is that Drakkar Klose sounds like the crime boss from a pulp Sci Fi novel:"The red sun fell through the glass of the Martian dome, turning the tears on her cheeks to gleaming pink jewels. 'Tell me who's been sending those goons after you,' I said.

She looked away, whispered '...Drakkar Klose,' and a fear cold as the vacuum of space closed tight in my gut."

Anyhoo. Powell is a sort of bargain-basement Condit, throwing clunky but aggressive Muai Thai and then falling over and scrambling. Klose seems much the more physically impressive fighter with notably quick hands, but there are a couple of caveats: Powell's style means he's much more used to fighting back from bad situations and he's much more experienced, thus is far less likely to gas if he gets pushback. Still have to go for Drakkar Klose via using a shapeshifter to assassinate the lunar ambassador, compromising the reputation of CydoniaCorp and allowing Klose's shell corporation to move in and claim the Martian land just outside the city which, unbeknownst to most, contains a giant and valuable underground lake.

Staff picking Klose: Ram, Nick, Phil, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Dayne, Tim
Staff picking Powell: Bissell, Fraser

Nina Ansaroff vs. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger

Victor Rodriguez: My biggest problem with this fight is that Ansaroff hasn’t fought that consistently lately, taking one fight per year since her last win - a win that took place in her lone Invicta outing in 2013. Lybarger has a heavier style, though. She can land some decent shots and can slow the pace down to keep the fight at a speed she’s comfortable with. Ansaroff has speed on her side, but it’s hard to gauge where she’ll be considering the time off. Gotta go with Lybarger on this one. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger by decision.

Phil Mackenzie: Ansaroff looked improved out of sight in her last fight, when she got absolutely ripped off against Justine Kish. Far more volume, far less panicking in the pocket. Not much head movement, but effectively angling out and countering. Jones-Lybarger is a fighter I really enjoy- I think that in terms of movement and approach she's a far better technical striker than people might think. The problem is that she is, thus far, almost *completely* without power, and so ends up in James Krause situations where she lands tons and tons of strikes then gets socked once which erases it all. She's unfortunately just not made for 3 round MMA. Her ability to fight behind jabs should make her less ripe for counters than Kish, who just stormed in behind hooks like there was no way Ansaroff could hurt her, but Ansaroff's ability to win the big moments and her new volume focus should mean Nina Ansaroff by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Ansaroff: Bissell, Phil, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Eddie, Tim
Staff picking Jones-Lybarger: Victor, Nick, Fraser, Dayne

Walt Harris vs. Chase Sherman

Victor Rodriguez: Walt Harris is a scary dude, but he can be cracked. He got brutalized by Soa Palelei and Nikita Krylov (DA GAWD), so it’s possible that Sherman can put him down. The other problem is that Sherman himself has a lot of defensive liabilities as evidenced in his UFC debut against Justin Ledet. If either one of these guys is going to get slept, my money’s on Harris. Chase Sherman by TKO.

Phil Mackenzie: Hm. Sherman's defensive liabilities in boxing range got exposed last time out, and I sort of feel like they might get exposed at kicking range this time as well? Harris has, over the course of a somewhat underwhelming UFC career, learned how to keep distance and not get mangled up close, and he is a decently athletic HW, and as much of a poor human being as Cody East seems to be, is he an inferior striker and mixed martial artist to Chase Sherman? I keep seeing Herman getting kicked upside the head here, so Walt Harris by KO, round 1

Staff picking Harris: Phil, Fraser, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Eddie, Dayne, Tim
Staff picking Sherman: Victor, Bissell, Nick

Joachim Christensen vs. Bojan Mihajlovic

Mookie Alexander: Francis Ngannou is a beast, but Mihajlovic genuinely looked like he had zero business being in the UFC. So on that note … Joachim Christensen by TKO, round 1.

Phil Mackenzie: Mihajlovic is mostly a mediocre kick-grappler who has crushed cans thus far in his career before getting Ngannoued. I like Christensen's style a lot more, as he's a pretty clean and effective kickboxer and grappler, but I think if you're a thoughtful, technically sound fighter then a super-aggressive wildman like Frank Waisten can be a tough first fight. Mihajlovic will give him space and is just... not very good at all at much apart from top position striking? Joachim Christensen via TKO, round 2

Staff picking Christensen: Bissell, Nick, Ram, Phil, Fraser, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Dayne, Tim
Staff picking Mihajlovic:

Cyril Asker vs. Dmitry Smolyakov

Mookie Alexander: This preliminary card is extremely bad. Dmitry Smolyakov by unanimous decision.

Phil Mackenzie: This is an absolute bottom-tier UFC HW fight, so approach with the proper caution. Smolyakov is a bigger hitter, a better wrestler, is bigger, and isn't a heavyweight fighting out of South Africa whose biggest win is Ruan Potts. I'm figuring that if Asker loses and gets cut, then whoever beats him next gets to come to the UFC, and so on and so forth, providing a stream of low-level South African heavies in perpetuity. Dmitry Smolyakov by TKO, round 2

Staff picking Asker: Dayne
Staff picking Smolyakov: Bissell, Nick, Phil, Fraser, Stephie, Anton, Mookie, Tim