BJ Penn (16-8-2) is a sure fire UFC Hall of Famer when he eventually hangs up his gloves. One of only two fighters to date (along with Randy Couture) who have held UFC gold in two weight classes (in his case Welterweight and Lightweight) he is broadly regarded as one of the greatest natural talents in MMA history – giving him his nickname of ‘the Prodigy’ – but also one of the most mercurial, frustrating characters in the sport.
Entering the UFC as the first non Brazilian to win the World jiujitsu championship, Penn won his first three fights by TKO to show he was more than just a submission artist and that earned him his first shot at gold. Indeed, he has more wins via strikes (7) than by submissions (6) to this very day.
Why doesn’t this titan hold some kind of record for most title defences? Well, the answer to that is well debated, but it comes down to BJ’s mental state and occasional apparent unwillingness to work on his conditioning.
Every one of his losses has come by decision (6) or a TKO in the later rounds of a fight against a larger opponent (twice, in his second fights with St-Pierre and Hughes) while six of his wins have come in the first round and the last time he won via decision was in 2005.
All of this has earned BJ a reputation as one of the greatest first round fighters ever, only held back by his own mentality, be that a periodic unwillingness to cut weight that has led him to compete at Welterweight and above and take beatings (although his record at Welterweight and above is 5-5-1 so it’s not been all one way traffic) from larger, better conditioned opponents or an inability to adapt to defeat an opponent who seems to have your measure (as his multiple defeats to GSP and Frankie Edgar seem to show, with act man beating BJ more decisively the second time around.)
When BJ is on, he is one of the most dangerous boxers in the game and has an impressive array of kicks and elbows in his arsenal (just ask Diego Sanchez or Joe Stevenson), his takedown defence is second to none (only GSP and Edgar have ever had success against him here) and his jiujitsu is among the best in the world.
However, since he last put a pair of wins together in 2009, BJ has logged a 1-3-1 record with the sole success coming against Matt Hughes (although winning two rounds and getting a draw with the significantly larger Jon Fitch is not to be sniffed at) and retirement has been seriously talked about on a few occasions.
The question has to be, after a year to reflect and perhaps even train… which BJ is going to turn up in Seattle?
Across the cage will be the young Canadian, Rory MacDonald (13-1) who comes into this match just needing that one big victory to place himself in title contention.
MacDonald is often seen as a young version of the fighter who can be considered BJ’s nemesis, Georges St-Pierre as he has a similar style and look to GSP, as well as being Canadian and training out of Tristar.
MacDonald’s record belies his age – he has accumulated 14 fights in seven years, but is still only 23 years old, having first competed as a sixteen year old and he exudes the confidence that comes with youth.
In fairness, he has little to be unconfident about, seeing as he has run through just about everyone placed in front of him, with his only loss coming to the man who was until a few weeks ago, the Interim Welterweight champion, Carlos Condit.
Indeed, in his match against Condit, MacDonald was on the way to a unanimous decision victory when Condit managed a quite spectacular come from behind victory via TKO with only seven seconds remaining.
That experience – which led MacDonald to join the more prestigious Tristar gym – is one which is unlikely to be repeated as MacDonald’s performances have grown in confidence and incisiveness since then.
His wins over Nate Diaz (now challenging for the Lightweight title), Mike Pyle and Che Mills – all of whom are insanely good and well rounded fighters – were almost unbelievably one sided and most people talk of when, not if MacDonald gets his hands on UFC gold.
A lot of the pre-match discussion has been around whether Rory will try to ‘lay and pray’ Penn to a decision victory, and Rory has quite rightly responded with ‘when have you ever seen me do that?’
Sure, Rory has excellent wrestling and has achieved an evident physical dominance over most of his opponents, but he has only once won a match by decision and has finished his last two matches with strikes.
This is a contest between two supremely well rounded competitors and while I’d give the edge in sheer technical brilliance and experience to BJ, I have to say that Rory is the favourite on account of being bigger in height, reach and weight as well as having more momentum on his side.
This fight can go one of two ways. BJ shows up with his head in the wrong place and frankly Rory wins by however he so pleases or what I’d far rather see is BJ turning up at the peak of his powers, determined to show he’s still got it and we get a fight for the ages.
If BJ comes out with the fire in his eyes and looking to taste his opponent’s blood again then it will be the greatest test of Rory MacDonald’s career. If we get prime BJ, I really couldn’t pick a winner, because I’ll never bet against BJ when he’s on form, but Rory has all the tools to win the fight.
I just want to see BJ come out with all guns blazing and either secure a landmark win that reminds us all of how great he IS (not was) or go out on his shield in such a way that makes Rory’s victory all the more important.
There are two fights on Saturday which pit veteran fighters from the last generation of MMA stars against younger fighters looking to make a name off them on their way to future gold. This is the first one, and I can’t wait.