For Penn and Florian, UFC 101 is More Than a Title Fight
When it comes to B.J. Penn, you either love him or hate him. There seems to be no in between with the fans in regards to the UFC Lightweight Champion.
To a lesser degree, the same can be said about Kenny Florian. Those who support him speak of his affable personality, his all-around skills and his evolution as a fighter.
Meanwhile, his detractors mock his famous "Who wants to see fights finished at 155?" question to the fans and Joe Rogan's constant reminders of his "razor-sharp elbows."
Saturday night, the two best lightweights in the UFC will stand on opposite sides of the Octagon, waging war not only for the UFC Lightweight title, but to silence their critics and take the next step in cementing their legacies.
Entering this fight, the champion has far more at stake than the challenger, and it goes well beyond his title belt.
Should Florian defeat Penn and become the new UFC Lightweight champion, he will be accomplishing something that hasn't been done in over seven years: beating B.J. Penn in the lightweight division.
While those who dislike Penn will be quick to point out his 3-3 record over his last six fights, each of those losses came competing against two of the best the UFC Welterweight division has ever seen, Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes.
In between the loss to Hughes and his second loss to GSP, Penn submitted former UFC champion and fellow TUF 5 coach Jens Pulver, turned Joe Stevenson into a bloody mess during their UFC 80 encounter and left Sean Sherk crumpled against the fence in defeat at UFC 84.
Despite his run of dominance at the 155 pound weight class, many have questioned Penn's commitment to fulfilling what he believes is his destiny as the best fighter to ever set foot in the Octagon.
Though he has constantly challenged himself against the best in the world, regardless of weight class, Penn cannot shake his reputation as a "crybaby" and someone who relies more on natural talents rather than training and conditioning.
The same cannot be said of Florian.
Anyone who remembers him from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter will agree that the personable Massachusetts native has committed himself to improving every aspect of his game since losing to Diego Sanchez in the middleweight finale and redoubling those efforts following his loss to Sean Sherk in October 2006.
For Florian, a loss to Penn is nothing to be ashamed of and does little outside of dropping him a couple rungs down the ladder in the UFC Lightweight division.
Matt Hughes lost to Penn at the height of his dominance and rebounded with six consecutive victories and a second run as Welterweight champion. Surely, Florian would have ample time to regroup and make another run at the Lightweight title should he come out on the wrong side of the results Saturday night.
But for Penn, a loss does far more than remove the Lightweight strap from around his waist.
Any chance for a third fight with Georges St-Pierre would be all but dead and those who question Penn's talents would have all the ammunition they need to continue their attacks on the polarizing Hawaiian.
A win, however, should quiet the doubters (at least for some time) and further entrench Penn as the best lightweight in UFC history.
Some will argue that how this fight plays out depends on which B.J. Penn enters the cage on Saturday night, but I am not one of them.
There is no doubt in my mind that Penn will enter this fight in great shape, ready to go the distance if necessary.
Even if that is the case, this fight will be far from easy for the champion.
Florian has a diverse striking game and strong Muay Thai, as well as a slight reach advantage over Penn, both of which should be the focus of his game plan come Saturday night in Philadelphia.
While Penn primarily relies on boxing while standing, Florian has the ability to mix up his attacks and pick his spots, waiting for Penn to present an opening and trying to capitalize from there.
Though both are accomplished Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players, Penn garnered his nickname "The Prodigy" by earning his black belt in just three years and being the first non-Brazilian to win the World BJJ Championships, or Mundials, in 2000 and is the superior fighter if the fight goes to the ground.
Florian has everything it takes to dethrone Penn as champion; he has trained exceptionally hard both with Team Sityodtong and on two trips to work with Georges St-Pierre and Firas Zahabi at Tri Star Gym in Montreal, and has shown the ability to win fights in every way possible over his time with the UFC.
He is an intelligent fighter who comes to the cage with good gameplans and usually executes them to perfection. Having had the opportunity to interview Florian recently, it's hard not to cheer for him, as he really is as nice a guy as there is in the business.
That being said, there is a reason why B.J. Penn hasn't lost in over seven years when competing in the lightweight division.
He is the most well-rounded and complete fighter in the division and is a much more aggressive and tenacious fighter at 155. Controlling Penn the way Georges St-Pierre did at UFC 94 is a near impossible task for another lightweight, as his strength and flexibility are second-to-none in the division.
Saturday night in Philadelphia, the main event is about more than the UFC Lightweight title; it's about respect and the legacies of two outstanding fighters.
Kenny Florian has a chance to establish himself as the top lightweight in the UFC and knock off one of the all-time greats.
B.J. Penn will be looking to remind everyone that he has been all along and add another name to his list of opponents left beaten and battered at 155.
Regardless of whether you're on Team Florian or Team Penn, the wait is almost over.
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