This year should be an interesting year in Mixed Martial Arts. The return of Brock Lesnar, the rematch of Machida vs Shogun, and Strikeforce making it's run at trying to compete with the UFC.
The UFC is currently blessed with three champions that virtually every MMA expert out there considers unbeatable kings of their divisions: BJ Penn, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva.
But saying that a fighter is unbeatable is one thing. It must be put to the test fight after fight in order to remain true. Some voices out there clamor for the dominant champions to retire so their divisions can be interesting again.
I couldn't disagree more!! There is absolutely nothing in this world that does more to promote your sport like a dominant champion.
How much did Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson hurt boxing by their domination of the sport? Well, actually they didn't! All they did was make themselves household names and massively increase the popularity of boxing in the process.
The Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots all took turns dominating football, and the sport has risen to greater popularity than anyone would have imagined.
There's nothing like living legends to put your sport on the map. New fans have something constant for a point of reference. "Oh so this Georges St Pierre guy is unbeatable at Welterweight, got it." Long-time fans can spend countless hours speculating about "who's gonna beat the champ and how are they gonna to do it?"
Almost across the board, the title picture for each and every weight class gives us plenty to talk about.
Let's begin at Lightweight.
Champion: BJ Penn [MMA record: 15 Wins, 5 Losses, 1 Draw] [* 12 Wins, 1 Loss and 1 Draw as a Lightweight]
Next Title fight: BJ Penn vs Frankie Edgar
Contenders who may be in line for a title shot in the near future:
Frankie Edgar - Good technical striker with adequate ground game. Not the world's greatest in either area of course, but good enough to hold his own against almost anyone. Frankie probably won't be looking to take the fight to the ground, so he'll have to beat Penn at the striking game, a very tall order indeed. My prediction: BJ Penn by third round TKO/KO.
Gray Maynard - Gray reminds me so much of Jon Fitch, and he seems to fit that role at Lightweight. Powerful and strong wrestler with decent striking. Most importantly, he always fights a way to squeeze out a win. And like Fitch, you could add "Unanimous Decision Victory" as a nickname. Maynard has some power in his strikes, but he's not a very good technical striker.
BJ has more power and better technique at striking. The key to this match up is takedown defense. If Diego Sanchez couldn't get BJ to the ground, I don't think Gray will do much better. Even GSP had a hard time taking down BJ Penn.
Even if Gray can get BJ to the ground, he's outclassed there as well. My prediction: BJ Penn by fourth Round KO/TKO.
Takanori Gomi - Any potential fight between "the Fireball Kid" and "the Prodigy" is contingent on one thing. Gomi has to beat Kenny Florian. I don't think he can, but if he does then he deserves an immediate title shot. Gomi is still technically the Pride FC champion since no unification bout ever occurred yet .
He's a very well rounded and very experienced fighter. His greatest strength is in his striking. He has a pretty good ground game but it's the weakest part of his arsenal. If he can get past Florian, I predict Gomi will lose the same way he lost in their last fight: Submission in the Third Round.
George Sotiropoulos - Here is your dark horse in the running. George just got past the gatekeeper Joe Stevenson. Now we'll see how he does against the big dogs at Lightweight. The more I look at George Sotiropoulos the more it strikes me that this guy is a lot better than anyone realizes. I'll feel a lot more convinced of that if he can win a fight against a top 10 Lightweight.
The only way he gets a title-fight is by winning his next two fights, and they're guaranteed to be against top notch fighters. This will tell us a lot more about how good George really is. If he wins through, my prediction is BJ Penn by Unanimous Decision.
The Lightweight Division is one of the few instances where most of the compelling match ups would be with non-UFC fighters. Truthfully, the most interesting potential matchups remaining for BJ Penn right now are with fighters that are not in the UFC:
Shinya Aoki - Probably the only Lightweight in the world who is probably better than Penn on the ground, Aoki is a brilliant ground fighter. He's so good at it that his abysmal striking game is seldom ever exposed. Shinya Aoki is the consensus No. 2 Lightweight in the world right now.
The challenge before him is that BJ Penn is almost impossible to get to the ground. If the UFC can make this fight happen, be prepared for Aoki to pull guard all night, but fail to get it to the ground. My prediction: BJ Penn by fourth round KO/TKO
Eddie Alvarez - Eddie Alvarez is the best challenge in the world for BJ Penn right now. He's is superb on the ground or standing. He's just an incredibly tough dude. Eddie is probably an even match for BJ standing and trading strikes. He's not BJ equal on the ground, but has the wrestling and grappling credentials to keep the fight standing. My prediction: BJ by Split Decision.
Mizuto Hirota – Hirota is very similar to Eddie Alvarez. Tough as nails and good in every aspect of MMA. In his 17 fights, he has never been knocked out and had never been submitted until Shinya Aoki just recently did the honors on Dec. 31, 2009. Hirota refused to tap and had his arm broken, proving that he's very tough but probably a bit foolish. My prediction: BJ by third round submission.
To be perfectly honest, I think BJ Penn defeated the two biggest threats to his title on the planet in his last two fights: Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian. Florian in particular has absolutely dominated at Lightweight. He never loses to anyone outside of a title fight.
The fighters outside the UFC are no better than the UFC's list of contenders, but they are better than what's left in the UFC. I think Diego and Florian can beat all three of these non-UFC fighters. Trouble is, they already lost to the champion in convincing fashion, so a rematch will be a long time coming for either of them.
BJ Penn seems unbeatable at Lightweight right now, but for that to remain true, he has to continue to prove it against the best fighters in the world.