How Will the BJ Penn of Today Fare Against the UFC's Top 10 Lightweights?
Roughly three years ago, and shortly before the first of back-to-back fights with Frankie Edgar, few would dare to argue that any lightweight on the planet could trump the skills of B.J. Penn.
Sporting an 11-1-1 career record in the division, with six wins coming via KO and four by submission, "The Prodigy" hadn't suffered a loss at 155 pounds since getting nipped by Jens Pulver at UFC 35.
But it took just two straight upset losses to Edgar at UFC 112 and UFC 118 for Penn to foolishly decide to bump back up to 170 pounds.
Following a win over Matt Hughes at UFC 123 and a draw with Jon Fitch at UFC 127, the undersized Penn got mauled in succession against Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald at UFC 137 and UFC on Fox 5, respectively.
The consecutive losses left Penn, one of two fighters in UFC history to wear belts in two divisions (Randy Couture being the other), contemplating retirement. It also forced the 34-year-old Hawaiian to do some significant soul-searching, especially in regard to his proper fighting weight.
In the time since, speculation has arisen that The Prodigy will soon make his return to the UFC's lightweight division—claims that have yet to be substantiated.
However, if he does decide to come back at 155, here's a look at how he'd fare against today's top 10 UFC lightweights.
10. Rafael Dos Anjos
While Rafael dos Anjos certainly deserves to break into the UFC's top 10 lightweight rankings, the 28-year-old Brazilian may still have a tough time countering Penn's venomous hands.
After his first two fights in the promotion, dos Anjos has won eight of 10 bouts in the UFC, including his last five.
A longtime black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, dos Anjos possesses a strong submission game and a better-than-average chin.
However, Jeremy Stephens used a ferocious uppercut at UFC 91 to prove that dos Anjos doesn't have the division's strongest jaw.
Less than two years later, Clay Guida showed that toughness could be an issue for dos Anjos, injuring the Evolve MMA product's jaw and then forcing him to tap by using head and arm control at UFC 117.
The Prodigy would outshine dos Anjos in most categories en route to a unanimous decision win.
9. Pat Healy
Regardless of what fans may believe, Pat Healy's performance against Jim Miller at UFC 159 didn't get enhanced by the marijuana he smoked weeks prior to the event.
His resume may not show it, but Healy has grown into one of the lightweight division's most dangerous fighters.
Although his spectacular submission win over Miller got overturned, that doesn't diminish the fact that Healy reeled off six straight wins in Strikeforce prior to that. In fact, before the company folded, Healy was deservedly in line for a title shot with longtime lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez.
With a solid grappling repertoire and a never-ending gas tank, Healy could feasibly recover from his failed drug test and get back into title contention in the UFC.
Healy has definitely evolved greatly since getting tapped by Anthony Torres in his promotional debut back at UFC Fight Night 6. But, facing such a lethal submission and knockout artist like Penn could prove a mistake.
A tremendous finishing artist, Penn would find a way to either hand Healy his seventh career submission loss or his fifth career defeat by knockout.
8. Jim Miller
Undoubtedly a staple in the lightweight division for nearly five years, Miller would have tasted defeat for the second time in three fights in his last bout, barring a failed post-fight drug test by Healy.
Nevertheless, Miller remains one of the division's most talented and exciting fighters, a theory he proved by capturing "Fight of the Night" bonuses in his last two outings.
Granted, Miller could potentially garner a "Fight of the Night" bonus in a bout with Penn.
But akin to his fights with Nate Diaz and Healy, Miller's submission defense would eventually fail him, and The Prodigy would be there to capitalize.
7. Nate Diaz
Although Penn already absorbed a thorough beating at the hands of his older brother, Nick, that's not to say a fight with 28-year-old Nate Diaz would unfold similarly.
Almost identical in size to Nick, Nate Diaz experienced issues with strength and explosiveness when he bumped up to 170. Diaz's deficiencies led to lopsided decision losses to Kim Dong-Hyun and Rory MacDonald at UFC 125 and UFC 129, respectively.
With the storyline already in place, Diaz and Penn would certainly put on an enthralling back-and-forth fight if they ever met.
But with a six-inch reach advantage and a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Diaz has the variables to score a narrow, split-decision win over the Hawaiian.
6. Donald Cerrone
Only the lightweight division's top dogs have forced Donald Cerrone to taste defeat since the 30-year-old Jackson's MMA product started working for Zuffa LLC in 2007.
Cerrone has utilized lethal striking and submission games to dismantle every non-ranked fighter he's faced in either the WEC or the UFC.
But chinks in the armor of Cerrone were revealed in recent losses to Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis at UFC 141 and UFC on Fox 6, respectively.
Albeit, Cerrone excels in every category, with the exception of wrestling, "The Cowboy" would probably get trumped by Penn in the striking and Brazilian jiu-jitsu departments.
Penn would drop Cerrone at the end of a frantic first round and then slap on a choke to become just the second man to hand The Cowboy a submission defeat.
5. Gray Maynard
Because MMA fans tend to have a short memory, Gray Maynard's devastating loss to underdog T.J. Grant at UFC 160 severely tarnished "The Bully's" reputation.
On the verge of his third straight UFC lightweight title shot, Maynard got overwhelmed by Grant and TKO'd just 2:07 into the fight.
Losing two of his last three fights by knockout (the other coming against Frankie Edgar at UFC 136) will surely make Maynard the most desperate fighter in the top 10.
His extreme urgency, coupled with the obvious stylistic issues Maynard poses Penn, would result in a highly competitive fight that would likely turn out in The Bully's favor.
Maynard has the heavier hands and the better wrestling chops—skills that make him a favorite to decision Penn in a definite candidate for "Fight of the Year."
4. Josh Thomson
He’s experienced his share of highs and lows in his 12-year career, but there’s no denying that Josh Thomson’s resembled a legitimate lightweight contender in his last three outings.
After getting edged by Gilbert Melendez in the last-ever Strikeforce lightweight title fight at Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier, Thomson shocked Nate Diaz in the first fight of his second stint with the UFC.
Thomson dropped Diaz with a head kick in the second round of their bout at UFC on Fox 7. “The Punk” then finished Diaz with a relentless barrage of punches, becoming the first man to finish the Cesar Gracie disciple via strikes and pocketing his first “Knockout of the Night” bonus.
While Penn and Thomson are each 34 years old, and they both began their careers in 2001, they’ve surprisingly never crossed paths.
If they do meet at some point in the near future, Thomson will use his speed and wrestling prowess to grind out a split-decision win over The Prodigy.
3. T.J. Grant
In hindsight, it seems obvious that T.J. Grant should have debuted in the UFC at 155 pounds.
Finishing 3-3 at 170 in the UFC fortunately swayed Grant to cut down to 155—a choice that has yielded the Canadian five straight wins and a crack at lightweight champ Benson Henderson at UFC 164.
The heavy-handed Grant holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and like Penn, he’s got heavy hands.
In his last five fights, Grant has used his potent offensive tools to near perfection. He not only scored unanimous decision wins over Carlo Prater and Evan Dunham, he also finished Shane Roller (armbar), Matt Wiman (KO) and Gray Maynard (TKO).
Like he was in his losses to Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald, Penn would represent the older, shorter and less rangy fighter against Grant—facts that would contribute to his unanimous-decision loss.
2. Anthony Pettis
A winner of his last three bouts, Anthony Pettis announced an injury Friday that will prevent him from challenging featherweight champ Jose Aldo at UFC 163.
With the chance to fight Aldo temporarily off the table, many questions linger regarding Pettis’ future. “Showtime” fans desperately want to know if he’ll continue tearing through the lightweight division, or if he’ll stay put and fight the winner of Aldo vs. “The Korean Zombie” (Chan Sung-Jung).
Pettis may now sport the label lightweight/featherweight, and Penn once competed at 191 pounds, but “Showtime” would still hold slight advantages in size and strength in a bout against The Prodigy.
Pettis would hold a two-inch reach on Penn, and the Roufusport product would also have significant edges in the speed and conditioning categories.
Pettis would capitalize on his advantages and pick Penn apart en route to a second-round TKO.
1. Gilbert Melendez
In December 2009, Gilbert Melendez and Penn had plenty in common.
Melendez won his third straight fight and avenged a loss to Josh Thomson, unifying the Strikeforce lightweight belt on Dec. 19, 2009 at Strikeforce: Evolution. A week earlier, Penn crushed Diego Sanchez to defend his lightweight strap in a dominant performance at UFC 107.
But the landscape of the lightweight division, like every other weight class in MMA, has changed radically since 2009.
"El Nino" narrowly lost a split decision to lightweight champ Benson Henderson in his last bout at UFC on Fox 7. Penn, conversely, got mauled in his second straight outing—an outcome that prompted the former two-division champ to again contemplate retirement.
The different directions Melendez and Penn are each heading in should serve as a good indicator of how a potential fight between them would unfold.
An edge in physical and mental resiliency would prove the difference for Melendez. El Nino would employ a non-stop, pressure-heavy game plan to wear Penn out—one similar to that of Nick Diaz on The Prodigy at UFC 137.
Champion: Benson Henderson
For every Benson Henderson critic, there's a "Smooth" fan waiting to defend the exploits of the UFC lightweight kingpin.
Since joining the UFC in 2011, Henderson's refined the high-risk style that helped him prevail in five of six fights in the WEC.
Henderson now enacts a more Georges St-Pierre-like approach—one that includes less risks and more rewards at day's end.
The slight stylistic tweak has paid major dividends for "Bendo." The MMA Lab product just ran his record to 7-0 in the UFC, with four of those wins coming in title fights.
A constant grinder with excellent footwork, a tremendous gas tank and top-flight kickboxing abilities, Henderson would chop Penn down from the legs up with his unorthodox brand of striking.
In terms of ground fighting, Bendo's takedown and submission defense would nullify Penn's vast arsenal of Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques and render the Hawaiian essentially one-dimensional.