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The Prodigy's Keys to Victory

Michael DiSanto, UFC - “All I want is to be known as the best ever; is that too much to ask?”

When B.J. Penn offered up that rhetorical question in a pre-fight interview just days before his third attempt at winning the UFC Lightweight Championship, it likely rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Penn certainly has the potential to enter into those discussions some day, but athletes in all sports typically shy away from such massively bold comments because of the media hysteria and criticism that is sure to follow.
By Michael DiSanto

“All I want is to be known as the best ever; is that too much to ask?”

When B.J. Penn offered up that rhetorical question in a pre-fight interview just days before his third attempt at winning the UFC Lightweight Championship, it likely rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Penn certainly has the potential to enter into those discussions some day, but athletes in all sports typically shy away from such massively bold comments because of the media hysteria and criticism that is sure to follow.

But for those who are more familiar with the enigmatic champion from Hilo, Hawaii, the comment was much more of a positive. It was a sign of Penn’s new-found commitment to the sport than a moment of unbridled hubris. For years, Penn was the poster boy for pound-for-pound greatness, competing around the world against fighters from lightweight to heavyweight, losing only once outside the Octagon to an extremely large Brazilian named Lyoto Machida (yes, the same undefeated fighter facing Tito Ortiz at UFC 84).

Penn competed in those days much more on his amazing natural talent and athleticism than hard work and preparation. And then he returned to the UFC lightweight division to settle an old score with nemesis Jens Pulver.

After years of fighting at with a bodyweight of 170 and 185 lbs, Penn was finally forced to train and eat like a truly committed professional fighter in order to shed the extra pounds, and a light finally went off in his head. He finally realized that he had done himself a terrible disservice over the first six years of his career by shunning a champion’s work ethic and lifestyle in favor of fun, relaxation and his God-given abilities.

The end result was two of the most dominant performances in his career, as he completely undressed Pulver and then walked through a very tough, skilled Joe Stevenson to win become only the second man in UFC history to win titles in two separate weight divisions (lightweight and welterweight).

Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop right there.

Penn certainly won the title at UFC 80 after submitting Stevenson, but can he really call himself the UFC Lightweight Champion?

Not in Sean Sherk’s eyes.

You see, there is a bit of unfinished championship business to resolve before Penn can rightfully consider himself the 155-lb kingpin. Former champion Sherk never lost his title inside the Octagon. Penn did not beat him. In fact, Sherk has never lost a bout at lightweight, period. The only way Dana White could pry the title from his kung fu grip was to strip him in an administrative move after Sherk tested positive for steroids after defending his title against Hermes Franca at UFC 73 (Sherk vigorously challenged the result of that test as erroneous).

Ten months later, Sherk is back and ready to resume is reign of terror over the division. And he is annoyed that some guy is walking around proclaiming to be the champion when his career lightweight record still shows a big, fat “0” in the loss column.

So Sherk believes that in order for Penn to truly be considered the UFC Lightweight Champion, he must first beat him at UFC 84 and remove any question about the validity of his 155-lb title reign. If he fails to do so, then there will forever be the argument that but for Sherk’s suspension, Penn would not be a two division champion. Such lingering doubt would all but kill, at least for the time being, any talk of Penn deserving a place among the best ever.

“The Prodigy” needs to do three things to beat Sherk on Saturday night: defend the takedown, make Sherk pay on the feet and, above all else, show up with tremendous cardiovascular conditioning.

Penn’s first key to victory, defending the takedown, is probably a bit of a surprise to some people because of his top-of-the-food-chain jiu-jitsu skills. There is little doubt that Penn has no peers in the UFC lightweight division in terms of ground game. He is ultra dominant from the top position, seamlessly mixing in ground-and-pound attacks with submission attempts. His guard, both defensively and offensively, borders on insane due to his inhuman flexibility, particularly in his legs, which allows Penn to use the rubber guard to basically neutralize guys from the top position and sink submissions from seemingly innocuous positions. And if he takes a fighter’s back, it’s game over – period.

Suffice to say, Penn never fears going to the ground against any opponent. Yet, he would be best served defending the takedown, rather than embracing it, in this fight.

It’s not that Penn is in any real danger when fighting from his guard. But if we have learned anything in the storied history of the UFC, it is that guys who spend most of a fight on their back, absent a submission victory, lose on the judges’ cards more often than not. Penn need look no farther than his bout against current UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre for a vivid reminder of that truism.

In that bout, GSP scored takedown after takedown, many times without much resistance, in an effort to avoid taking any more punishment during standup exchanges that left his face bloodied and swollen. GSP, much like Sherk, has amazing submission defense from the top position. Even though Penn showed that he could work to his feet at any moment, he chose to rest and recuperate for long periods in his guard, and the judges penalized him for it.

GSP won the fight on the judges’ cards via a highly contested split decision win, even though the Canadian did almost no damage while the fight was on the ground. Penn needs to avoid a similar fate against Sherk, and he can do that by relying on the best takedown defense south of Chuck Liddell.

The key to shunning Sherk’s shots is for Penn to stay relaxed and remain focused on keeping the fight on the feet. It really is that simple. As he showed in his two bouts against Hughes, the reigning champion has tremendous balance. He uses that balance in combination with his flexibility to stay on his feet, even when an opponent has one of his legs secured in a single-leg or high-crotch attempt and his body is badly contorted. If he remains focused and relies on his elite takedown defense, Sherk will struggle to get the fight to the ground.

On the feet, Penn knows that Sherk, like Stevenson, will come out swinging for the fences. Sherk’s short arms make the jab a nonfactor in his fights. But he is extremely explosive and will not hesitate to load up on lead left hooks and right hands down the middle. Penn should remain cautious of getting caught with such a haymaker by pumping an active jab and mixing in good, hard one-two combinations. He doesn’t want to stand and get into too many prolonged exchanges because that will leave him open to the takedown, so Penn should fire his combinations and then circle out, constantly forcing Sherk to readjust his feet, which lessens the effectiveness of Sherk’s haymakers and his explosive double-leg attempts.

Defending takedowns, working the jab and firing one-two combinations are all fine and good, but none of that will matter on May 24 if Penn does not show up in tremendous physical shape. It is incontrovertible that Penn’s biggest enemy in the fight world is his own God-given fighting skill. Because he is so naturally talented, he has not had to work as hard in the gym as other fighters in order to reach the pinnacle of the sport. As a result, he has shown up on more than one occasion with less than a full gas tank.

As dominant as Penn appeared in his last bout against Stevenson, he looked like he was on the verge of passing out during post-fight interviews. Was that a sign of Penn returning to his lackadaisical approach to fight preparation or was it merely a physical response to the amazing adrenalin surge that certainly occurred after he finally won the title that he has coveted for so long?

Penn will tell you it was the latter. Other unnamed UFC fighters claim it was the former. Who is right? Who knows?

Sherk, who could double for the Energizer Bunny any day, certainly hopes Penn shows up in less than stellar shape, because his game plan will be to take down Penn early, start taxing Penn’s cardio with a conservative ground and pound attack and wait for the tank to read “EMPTY.” That is a good game plan in a three-round fight. It is an exceptionally effective game plan in a five-round fight, unless Penn shows up in tremendous cardiovascular shape.

If the Prodigy shows up ready for a five-round war, he’s got a very good shot of winning. If not, well, let’s just say that there won’t be much talk, at least in the near term, of Penn being considered among the best ever.

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