On Saturday night, BJ Penn enters the Octagon for the fourth time as the reigning UFC Lightweight Champion.
Actually it’s his fifth trip, but one of those was in a welterweight bout. Who is really keeping count anyway? I digress.
Penn, who holds the record for most successful consecutive 155-lb title defenses at three, will look to extend that by one more when he faces top challenger Frankie Edgar in the UFC’s inaugural event in Abu Dhabi.
Edgar, by contrast, is eager to prove that his is not just another notch on Penn’s star-studded belt. He wants to be the first man to since Jens Pulver in 2002 to defeat Penn in a lightweight bout.
That is, of course, easier said than done. Penn is the most dominant lightweight fighter in the brief history of the division. To highlight the point, no lightweight has lasted the distance with Penn since Caol Uno in 2003.
Penn’s greatness starts with his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The guy was the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu Jitsu Championships, and he did it after only three years of training. That is part hard work and part God-given talent because it takes most practitioners a decade or more to earn a black belt.
What makes his BJJ game so unique is his inhuman flexibility in his knees and hips. That allows him to lock up submission holds from positions that are unimaginable to the rest of the grappling world. It also allows him to escape positions that would be compromising to the average human.
Edgar is training with high-level black belts at Ricardo Almeida’s gym. Notwithstanding, nobody, and I write that with conviction, can fully prepare him to deal with Penn’s flexibility and style of BJJ.
I’m not sure that necessarily matters much because Penn isn’t likely going to look to take down Edgar. He prefers to stand and strike with opponents, particularly at lightweight, where he has knockout power in his punches and knees. So, it is more likely than not that the champion will come out looking to throw hands and take it from there.
Similarly, I don’t think Edgar – a former Division I wrestler - will find much success trying to take down his Hawaiian foe. Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre were able to take down Penn in welterweight bouts, but no lightweight has ever accomplished that feat.
It seems substantially certain, therefore, that the fight will be decided on the feet. That doesn’t bode well for the challenger.
Edgar is a serviceable striker. He has good foot movement, throws punches in bunches and can make himself somewhat difficult to hit. But he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a one-strike bomber.
As mentioned, Penn brings the noise with his strikes. He completely undressed Diego Sanchez on the feet in his last fight. He did it principally with jabs, one-two combinations, lead right hands followed by clean-up left hooks, and uppercuts on the inside. In other words, he strikes with a wide variety of salvos.
He also strikes with alarming accuracy. Against Sanchez, Penn landed more than two out of every three jabs that he threw. He also landed more than one out of three power shots thrown from a traditional striking distance. On the inside, he landed more than two out of every three strikes of all varieties.
Edgar doesn’t generally land with the same frequency as Penn. That means that he will have to rely on his sturdy whiskers if he wants to survive a standup affair with the champion.
After a dozen professional fights, Edgar has never been knocked out. Thus, he enters Saturday’s bout with a good bit of confidence in his ability to stand and trade with Penn. I’m not sure that is the best game plan, but it may very well be the only one available to him.
Edgar will try to use a lot of lateral movement to open throwing lanes for his right hand. He will try to keep moving his head to hopefully present a difficult target. And he will throw punches in bunches in an attempt to increase the odds of landing something on the button.
But, alas, Penn is the better striker, and he should therefore win. Can Edgar score an upset? Absolutely. Will he? We’ll see.
• 31 years old
• 5’9, 155 lbs
• 70-inch reach
• 15-5-1 overall (11-4-1 UFC)
• 12 of 16 fights have ended inside the distance (10-2 in those fights)
• Has never lost in the UFC by unanimous judges’ decision
• 10-1-1 in the UFC 155-lb division
• 5 wins in last 5 as a lightweight
• 4-1 overall in his last 5
• 5-3-1 in 9 UFC title fights; 4-1-1 in 155-lb title fights
• Second fighter in history to win championships in two UFC weight classes (current 155-lb champion and former 170-lb championship)
• Current layoff is 119 days (TKO5 over Diego Sanchez on December 12, 2009)
• Longest layoff of UFC career is 273 days (TKO3 by Matt Hughes on September 23, 2006, until SUB2 over Jens Pulver on June 23, 2007), excluding the 3-year period when Penn was absent from the UFC and competing actively elsewhere
• Has competed in 4 weight classes (155 lbs, 170 lbs, 185 lbs and HW)
• The only reigning champion or top contender who made his professional debut in the UFC
• First non-Brazilian to win gold in the black belt division of the Mundial World Championship (BJJ)
• Submission of the Night (SUB4 over Kenny Florian by rear naked choke on August 8, 2009)
• 28 years old
• 5’8, 155 lbs
• 72-inch reach
• 12-1 overall (6-1 UFC)
• 5 of 7 UFC bouts have lasted the distance (4-1 in those fights)
• 1 submission win and 1 TKO win
• All UFC bouts at 155 lbs
• 4-1 in last 5
• Successful in his only fight against a former UFC champion (UD3 over Sean Sherk on May 23, 2009)
• First UFC title fight
• Current layoff is 126 days (SUB2 over Matt Veach on December 5, 2009)
• Longest layoff of UFC career is 308 days (UD3 over Hermes Franca on July 19, 2008, until UD3 over Sean Sherk May 23, 2009)
• Fight of the Night in 3 of 7 UFC fights (UD3 over Tyson Griffin on February 3, 2007; UD3 over Hermes Franca on July 19, 2008; and SUB2 over Matt Veach on December 5, 2009)