There are seemingly two versions of BJ ‘The Prodigy’ Penn – the beatable one and the unbeatable one. The former weighs anything upwards of 160-pounds and the latter displays a semblance of a six-pack at just below 155-pounds. The difference can be as little as 15-pounds, yet the disparity in results is tremendous.
Compact Penn has yet to suffer a lightweight defeat since dropping a majority decision to Jens Pulver in 2002, while the more relaxed and loose Penn has conceded defeat four times. Campaigning as a 191-pound light heavyweight, Penn incredibly dropped a 2005 decision to current UFC champion Lyoto Machida. He also lost welterweight wars with Georges St-Pierre (twice) and Matt Hughes. Alas, though welterweight-and-above Penn never cuts the same fearsome figure as his lightweight counterpart, ‘The Prodigy’ is only ever bested by the premier fighters.
Chances are Penn could competitively hang in the upper echelons of the welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight divisions on raw talent alone. The Hawaiian favourite wouldn’t have to train a day. History tells us he’d probably meet a physically superior athlete along the way, but Penn, a former welterweight champion, is gifted and knowledgeable enough to hang with anybody.
For many fighters, the assurance of remaining competitive with anybody in the world would be greeted with a handshake and a smile. Too tough to be wiped out and too talented to be overmatched and overwhelmed. For current UFC lightweight champion Penn, those assurances weren’t enough. He didn’t like what he’d become. Despite once holding the UFC welterweight strap, Penn was always just a temporary resident of the stacked 170-pound division. A walk-on cameo. He stopped by from time to time, simply because the division boasted numerous marquee attractions and the weight class’ 15-pound bonus ticket allowed Penn to loosen his belt buckle a couple of notches.
For a natural talent like Penn, hard graft and disciplined training was never a necessity. Like many born-to-do-it practitioners of any sport, Penn has 90% of the competition beat on talent alone.
It took ‘The Prodigy’ some 30 years to realise that the only way to conquer that elusive final 10% was through the hard work he’d often neglected in the past. In order to become great, Penn had to confront the one thing that had never come easy to him – training. He had the simple choice of being remembered as a very good welterweight – perhaps just shy of great – or finding his niche as a 155-pounder and becoming known as the greatest lightweight champion to ever live.
With a doctor’s waiting room of beaten contenders in his wake, Penn is now rapidly working towards achieving the latter. The 31-year-old is now a lightweight champion and, crucially, a lightweight with no aspirations of moving up, taking his foot off the gas or getting itchy feet and taking challenges out of his weight range. Whisper it quietly to the rest of the 155-pound division – BJ Penn is here to stay.
Normally, this kind of security and legacy is great for a division. It gives each of the foremost contenders a definitive champion they can work their way towards and then strategise to beat. It gives the other lightweights a target to reach and a bar to meet. Unfortunately for the chasing pack, since reclaiming the UFC lightweight title in early-2008, Penn has looked better, trimmer and more dominant than ever. He’s now fighting opponents of a similar size and is swiftly slicing through their sizeable reputations.
Last Saturday night in Memphis, Penn engaged in his toughest test yet as lightweight king. He faced welterweight-moving-down Diego ‘Nightmare’ Sanchez, considered by many to be the best UFC lightweight not named Baby Jay. Like Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk and Joe Stevenson before him, Sanchez quickly discovered that preparing to face the old welterweight Penn is entirely different from this new lightweight version.
Rocked and badly hurt in the opening minute, Sanchez could have found himself embarrassingly blitzed out by an on-song ‘Prodigy’. It was only Diego’s heart and mental toughness that saw him through until the fifth round, by which time his face threatened to open up on itself and engulf his battered body.
Winning via cuts stoppage in the final round, Penn had once again banished his nearest rival and thus reshuffled the lightweight pack. With the old guard of Sanchez, Florian, Stevenson and Sherk all tamed within the last two years, Penn (15-5-1) now awaits the new breed to step up and threaten his vice-like stranglehold on the UFC’s lightweight division.
As history has reminded us before, it may be unrealistic to expect any human competitor to defeat this lightweight edition of Penn. It might prove to be, just as before, a combination of misguided ambition or sheer idleness that delivers Penn’s next loss.
*** Here are five fresh and hungry lightweights with every intention of proving that the seemingly unbeatable lightweight champion is most definitely beatable ***
Form: New Jersey lightweight Frankie Edgar has improved immensely over the last 18 months and now stands as one of the leading candidates for a UFC title shot. ‘The Answer’ has tightened up his striking and has scored three big wins on the spin, most notable of which was a landslide decision over former champion Sean Sherk. Edgar also boasts previous UFC wins over lightweight contenders Tyson Griffin and Spencer Fisher. The only knock on his resume to date is a unanimous decision loss to Gray Maynard in April 2008.
Threats: Edgar brings unshakeable confidence and self-belief into any impending battle with Penn. He has scored three back-to-back wins in the UFC and has dominated ex-champ Sherk. The key to victory over Sherk was Edgar’s much-improved boxing skills and ability to offset the ‘Muscle Shark’ with lateral movement, angles and counter-punching. An intelligent thinking-fighter with excellent wrestling, Edgar is the type to excel wherever the fight goes. He possesses some of the best hands in the division.
Schedule: Edgar’s dazzling win over Sherk may put him in the title firing line immediately. He certainly seems to be entering his prime right now and may be best advised to capitalise when the time is right. Edgar gets better from fight to fight and appears to be adding tools to his toolbox with each appearance.
Form: Unbeaten Gray Maynard has been near perfect in his UFC run so far, claiming decision wins over Roger Huerta, Jim Miller, Rich Clementi, Frankie Edgar and Dennis Siver. Most of his victories are one-sided and most are achieved thanks to Maynard’s considerable ability to control the fight standing or by utilising his impressive wrestling. ‘The Bully’ shuts opponents down quickly and never lets them into the fight.
Threats: Maynard is a top-class wrestler with effective boxing. Unlike many other wrestlers, Maynard is not afraid to stand and trade punches. Conversely, Maynard often elects to stand and counter-punch with opponents, aware that his superior technique and hand speed will see him land first. When he needs to wrestle, he wrestles. Maynard is blessed with options and can either stand and bang or take down and control.
Schedule: Nate Diaz is next for Maynard in January. Diaz will present Maynard with a test, both in terms of his striking ability and his precision on the ground. Diaz is a wild, unorthodox striker with decent ‘pop’ in both hands and is infinitely dangerous with submissions on the ground. Maynard will have to choose his spots carefully and quickly formulate the best strategy to counteract Diaz’ strengths. Should ‘The Bully’ steal Diaz’ lunch money in January, a title shot could be just around the corner.
Form: A tremendous athlete with natural strength and wrestling, Griffin is buoyed by back-to-back wins over Hermes Franca and Rafael Dos Anjos in 2009. His knockout win over Franca – fought at a catchweight of 159-pounds – was particularly impressive. Decision losses to Sean Sherk and Frankie Edgar have stunted Griffin’s title aspirations but, with five ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses to his name, Tyson remains very watchable and dangerous at 155-pounds.
Threats: Seven of Griffin’s last eight UFC bouts have gone to a decision. Depending on your viewpoint, you can either draw negatives or positives from that stat. As far as Griffin is concerned, his knack of going the distance points to tremendous fitness, determination and an ability to grind out results. Super strong, explosive and blessed with the ability to fight at a rapid pace, Griffin ensures he’s never an easy-touch for anyone. He can bang on his feet and also use his wrestling background and core strength to dominate on the ground.
Schedule: Having recently knocked out Franca at UFC 103, Griffin will now look to prosper in 2010. A rematch with either Sherk or Edgar could be right up his street, as would any prospective battle with a leading lightweight contender. Griffin is probably a big win or two away from staking his claim - but at merely 25 years of age is blessed with the time and potential to get there.
Form: The 24-year-old Diaz’ impressive submission of Melvin Guillard in September saw the talented Californian get back on track following a recent lull. Extremely talented, especially on the ground, Diaz’ competitive decision losses to Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida were mostly down to inferior experience and physical strength. Crucially, Diaz was able to stay in touch and threaten both, despite ending up on the wrong end of the cards. Previous submission wins over Josh Neer, Kurt Pellegrino, Alvin Robinson and Manny Gamburyan show Diaz’ pedigree.
Threats: At only 24 years of age - and with a wealth of experience already behind him – Nate’s threats and dangers will be most apparent in the future. For now, Diaz is a significant problem for any lightweight, standing or on the floor. His striking is effectively messy and erratic, and his slick submission game is supported by a string of tapped-out UFC foes. Diaz always looks for a finish, whether standing or slapping on submissions.
Schedule: Diaz’ next assignment comes in the form of Gray Maynard, a top calibre wrestler with solid striking. Once again, Maynard will test Diaz’ physical strength and his ability to get up from a grounded position. Given the talent at his disposal, Diaz is only ever one wild punch or one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it submission away from beating Maynard. Should he stand up to ‘The Bully’ in January, Diaz will be right in the mix.
Form: The least proven of the lightweights mentioned, Sotiropoulos only claims two victories as a 155-pounder. He defeated both George Roop and Jason Dent with eye-catching submissions in 2009, having formerly competed in the welterweight division. Now settled as a lightweight, this Australian’s potential is there for all to see. Although solid and dangerous in the stand-up game, it’s when the fight hits the deck that Sotiropoulos really comes alive.
Threats: Traditionally, Sotiropoulos chooses to stand and bang with his opponent for about a minute or two, before eventually securing a takedown and then displaying his vast submission-wrestling arsenal. While his striking skills are noteworthy and vastly improving, it’s Sotiropoulos’ ground skills that truly catch the eye. Armed with tremendous control and strength, Sotiropoulos tosses opponents around and sets them up for an array of submissions. A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, George’s submissions are quick, powerful and clinical.
Schedule: Fairly unproven to date, Sotiropoulos gets his litmus test in February at UFC 110. Backed by home support in Australia, Sotiropoulos faces UFC veteran and former Ultimate Fighter winner Joe ‘Daddy’ Stevenson. Should Sotiropoulos continue his hot streak against Stevenson, we could be looking at one of the most exciting talents in the lightweight division. It’s a big step up in class for Sotiropoulos, but one he needs at 32, and one he appears more than ready for.