Breaking It Down
One of the benefi ts of FIGHT! going monthly is that this great magazine is now delivered frequently enough that I have the occasional opportunity to examine upcoming fi ghts and betting lines. This month, I’d like to take some time away from my usual “how to” columns and do exactly that.
The headliner at UFC 84 will be one of the greatest lightweight matches in UFC history: new champion BJ Penn will be defending his title against the recently dethroned Sean Sherk.
BJ Penn is 29 years old, and holds a 12-4-1 MMA record, 8-3-1 in the UFC. He is considered one of the most talented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in the world, earning his black belt under world-renowned master Andre Pederneiras. Penn’s phenomenal skills in BJJ earned him the nickname he bears today, “The Prodigy.” Penn is easily the most decorated American Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and was fi rst non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the Mundials (BJJ World Championships).
If there were ever an MMA fi ghter who deserved asterisks next to his record, it’s Penn. Penn’s fi rst UFC loss was a controversial majority decision loss to Jens Pulver at UFC 35. Many people felt Pulver did not do enough to win that decision. Personally, I had the fi ght scored as a draw.
Penn’s second defeat was a unanimous decision loss to Lyoto Machida in K-1 Hero’s. Penn, who competes mostly at lightweight (155 pounds) and welterweight (170 pounds), was facing a light heavyweight (205 pounds), and fared very well in the match. Under the traditional Japanese judging criteria, in which a fi ght’s results are balanced for a weight difference between the fi ghters, the much lighter Penn could easily have been awarded the decision over Machida.
Penn’s third loss came against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 58 in March 2006. Penn dominated St. Pierre in the fi rst round. However, he gassed and the fi ghters spent the next two rounds mostly hanging on to each other. I scored the fi ght as 29-28 Penn, as did one of the judges ringside. The other two judges saw it differently, and St. Pierre was awarded a split decision. Regardless of who won the match on the cards, Penn defi nitely won the fi ght. BJ put it best, reportedly saying, “I went to a club after the fi ght and he went to the hospital.”
In Penn’s most recent loss, he dominated theninvincible Matt Hughes for two solid rounds before separating a rib in the closing seconds of the second round. This is the only time in Penn’s career he had been stopped in a fi ght. Penn looked to be in great shape, but unfortunately, due to the injury, we’ll never know if he would have gassed in the third round or could have emerged victorious over the thenchampion.
In his last fi ght, against Joe “Daddy” Stevenson at UFC 80, the brilliance of Penn’s early career returned full-force. Penn dominated the fi ght from start to fi nish, rocking Stevenson early, cutting him badly, and ultimately fi nishing his opponent with a rear naked choke late in the second round. With this victory, Penn took possession of the UFC Lightweight Championship (vacated by Sherk’s suspension for testing positive for steroids at UFC 73). Penn became the second fi ghter in UFC history (Randy Couture was the fi rst) to win titles in two different weight classes.
Many people – myself included – believe Penn has the skills and talent to be one of the best fi ghters of all time. However, he has disappointed several times in his career. But Penn has appeared in solid shape in his last two fi ghts, and claims to have found a “newborn fi re inside.” He has stated, “I’m gonna do everything in my power to get everything that I’ve always wanted to achieve.”
Sean Sherk is 34 years old and holds a 31-2-1 MMA record, 6-2 in the UFC. His impressive record is highlighted by two wins over a very young Karo Parisyan (in 2000 and 2001), and unanimous decision wins in his last three UFC fi ghts, against Nick Diaz, Kenny Florian, and Hermes Franca. Sherk’s two losses are both to elite fi ghters: a TKO loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 56, and a close unanimous decision loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 42.
Sherk has fought in numerous organizations besides the UFC, including Pancrase, Extreme Combat, Reality Submission Fighting, and PRIDE. Sherk has won fi fteen of his past sixteen fi ghts, starting the streak after the loss to Hughes in 2003.
Sherk is an explosive wrestler with tremendous takedowns. However, he lacks the ground and pound to back up those abilities. In his last fi ght, Sherk had numerous opportunities where Franca was “turtled” – exposing his back and just trying to cover his head. Sherk was unable to capitalize on this dominant position, and just slid around his downed opponent in wrestling positions, peppering him with occasional and ineffective strikes.
BREAKING DOWN THE FIGHT
Standing, Penn possesses a signifi cant advantage. His stand up skills are excellent, highlighted with accurate yet damaging punches and stellar head movement. Sherk’s standup has proven mediocre at best.
In submissions, the advantage is all BJ Penn. While Sherk does have a number of submission wins on his record, they’re almost exclusively wrestling-driven: key locks, neck cranks, and the occasional rear naked choke. His submissions might work well against an unskilled opponent, but they’re rarely successful against a midlevel practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, let alone someone at BJ Penn’s level. On the other hand, Penn has choked out elite fi ghters including Takanori Gomi and Matt Hughes.
Sherk has the edge in this fi ght in wrestling ability and raw strength. However, BJ Penn possesses phenomenal takedown defense. Will it be enough to keep the fi ght standing? Not likely, not for long. However, it should keep the fi ght standing long enough for Penn to punish Sherk on each takedown attempt, which will surely take its toll over the course of the fi ve-round fi ght.
In cardio, Sherk has a serious advantage. Even if Penn’s notoriously suspect cardio has been improved signifi cantly, he’s still at a disadvantage to the supremely athletic “Muscle Shark.” Penn is at a further disadvantage as a championship fi ght goes for fi ve rounds, not three.
I expect Sherk will try to win this fi ght with cardio. He hasn’t demonstrated the offensive ability to fi nish a fi ghter of Penn’s caliber, so outside of Penn gassing horribly in the late rounds, suffering another injury, or an early stoppage due to a cut, Sherk’s game plan is likely to weather the early storm of strikes and submission attempts from Penn, regularly take this fi ght to the ground, and try to ride out a decision victory. Sherk couldn’t fi nish Hermes Franca or Kenny Florian in fi ve rounds, and Penn presents a much greater threat than either previous opponent.
Penn is much harder to predict, for the same reason he’s more dangerous: he’s well-rounded. He has the tools and technique to punish Sherk standing, and the fl exibility and takedown defense to keep himself in a position to unleash that offense. While I don’t expect Penn to keep the fi ght standing forever, I do expect we’ll see something much different from Sherk’s last fi ght, where he was able to put Franca on the canvas at will. Penn also is one of the most skilled and dangerous BJJ practitioners. If anyone in the world can submit Sean Sherk, it’s going to be Penn.
Ultimately, I predict that Sherk’s lack of offensive fi repower is going to be his downfall. Assuming we see Penn return to the Octagon in shape and motivated, I think he’s much too dangerous for Sherk to contend with. We’ll see Sherk handed his fi rst loss at 155 pounds, and Penn successful in his fi rst title defense.
The betting line for this fi ght of Penn -210, Sherk +170 gives BJ approximately a two-thirds chance of winning this fi ght. I put the fi ght at 70/30 Penn myself. I think Sherk is severely handicapped by his lack of offensive weapons, and Penn should be able to fi nish Sherk about seven times out of ten, while Sherk could drag this to decision the rest of the time.
My bet is on BJ Penn.