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B.J. Penn looks to write history again at UFC 137

October 24, 2011 | 11:00 pm

FabforumThroughout his storied MMA career, B.J. Penn has frequently found himself at the center of controversy. From his departure from the UFC while still holding the UFC welterweight title to his heated words with Jens Pulver and Sean Sherk to the controversy surrounding his second bout with Georges St. Pierre, Penn has not shied away from the public limelight. Heading into UFC 137, Penn again finds himself in the middle of controversy. But this time it has absolutely nothing to do with him.

UFC 137 was originally scheduled to be headlined by a UFC welterweight title bout between Georges St. Pierre and Nick Diaz. But after Diaz no-showed a pair of press conferences promoting the bout, UFC president Dana White called off the bout. Penn was scheduled to fight Carlos Condit in the semi-main event of the show, but Condit was moved up to face St. Pierre for the title. White then decided to give Diaz another chance by putting him in the semi-main event with Penn. Penn had a new fight against a man he had trained with in the past and had now become a lightning rod for controversy.

As if that wasn’t enough, Georges St. Pierre then had to pull out of his main event contest due to injury. Diaz would end up headlining UFC 137 this Saturday night after all, only against Penn rather than St. Pierre. Penn takes the events in stride and doesn’t seem to know what to make of the situation.

“I don’t let it bother me,” Penn said. “Such is life. I’m definitely feeling positive about being in the main event. Some things happen for a reason. What Nick does in a press conference doesn’t affect my life. I get a kick out of watching what Diaz does. But I do understand that Dana doesn’t want other fighters thinking they can do that and needs to set a precedent.”

Diaz vs. Penn has all the makings of an action packed fight between two fighters that have followed similar career trajectories. Both men started in MMA with jiu jitsu training and developed reputations for excellent submissions before slowly gravitating towards striking. Now their submissions almost serve as a backup plan to their lethal striking ability. Diaz’s heavy volume punching and reach is extremely difficult to deal with, while the smaller Penn’s striking has been labeled the best in MMA by no less an authority than Freddie Roach.

There is a balance for many fighters as they develop greater skills to not fall in love too much with their secondary abilities. Elite wrestlers find themselves knocked out because they wanted to train with high level strikers. However, relying too much on one’s strengths leads to predictability and can make a fighter less dangerous. Penn feels both the psychological pull of striking and the desire to develop more well-rounded skills leads some mixed martial artists to gravitate towards striking.

“Jiu jitsu is a great art for self-defense,” Penn noted. “But jiu jitsu alone won’t get you to a world championship in the UFC or even a winning record sometimes. Because with jiu jitsu you could fight forever and in MMA you can’t. You can wait on the ground for a submission and the other guy just stays away and the time runs out. So you’ve got to have more than just that. And on the other side, there are people who really enjoy the art and science of boxing. Some people just want to punch other people in the face and so they gravitate towards that.”

That fighter’s mentality is something that has always been associated with Diaz and Penn, who prioritize trying to win decisively and finish over winning points with judges. Penn and Diaz are collectively 34-4 in fights that end via knockout or submission and only 7-10-2 in fights that end via decision.

That common philosophy between Penn and Diaz is part of why they like and respect each other, and why they have trained together in the past. Penn has gone out of his way to emphasize his affinity for Diaz and Diaz has labeled Penn his favorite fighter.

“I view [fighters who look to finish] much different as far as the respect I hold for them,” Penn said. “I’ve always thought that being in the UFC is what the name suggests: Ultimate Fighting Championship. As time went on, people started learning to use the rules that suit them. Some guys are athletes and some guys are fighters. But, whether I look down on that or not, they’re just out there trying to do the best job they can to put food on the table, so I can’t be too hard on them.”

In order to defeat Diaz, Penn has to figure out a way to get through Diaz’s unique boxing style. Penn’s chin has never been in question and he has dealt with tall and long opponents, but he can be worn down over time and Diaz tends to break down his opponents with a steady barrage of punches.

Penn knows that getting through Diaz’s striking will be imperative to win and he has heavily concentrated on addressing that challenge.

“It’s easy for Nick to use high volume because his arms are so long and he’s so tall,” Penn said. “It’s like an older kid playing with a little kid because he’s slapping you and you can’t hit him because he’s four feet away. You can easily exhaust yourself just trying to reach him and Nick’s in great shape. He can step in the pocket before you’re in range and he finds his range easier because he’s so tall and long.”

Cardiovascular conditioning has always been a strength for Nick Diaz, who likes to compete in triathlons when he’s not fighting. Penn’s conditioning, on the other hand, has often been called into question, albeit less in recent years. Diaz’s trainer Cesar Gracie thus challenged Penn to make the fight a five round contest.

The proud Hawaiian Penn says he is willing to agree to five rounds at any point, even the day of weigh-ins. However, he wants his pay for the fight to be raised commensurate with the additional two rounds. Moreover, he turns around Gracie’s ploy and points it back at Diaz.

“No, [Gracie’s challenge] doesn’t bother me,” Penn replied. “It gives me confidence to know they’re not comfortable with a three round fight.”

The UFC welterweight title picture is up in the air and Penn knows there are no guarantees of a title shot even with a win against Diaz. Diaz is likely to get the winner of St. Pierre vs. Condit if he wins. Penn has a better shot of getting the next title shot if Condit beats St. Pierre, but Jon Fitch still lingers as a challenger as well. Penn and Diaz can just focus on this fight and hope for the best going forward.

As a former UFC lightweight champion and UFC welterweight champion, Penn’s legacy is secure. But at UFC 137, there’s another show to headline and another opportunity to shine.

“Legacy is good, but I want to keep going,” Penn said. “What motivates me is that I think I’m better than ever and I feel like I still have some time left in the sport. Forget what I did. Let’s see what history I can write as of now.”

--Todd Martin

Photo: B.J. Penn.