This Saturday's UFC 127 main event between BJ Penn and Jon Fitch will answer a major question in fight fans minds.
Is the old BJ here to stay?
With his quick knockout over Matt Hughes, fans want to know whether Penn is the same fighter that once challenged Georges St. Pierre at UFC 58, or the fighter that got his you-know-what handed to him at UFC 94 to St. Pierre. And though Penn has been written off as a contender outside of the lightweight and welterweight divisions, there are still some that believe that Penn continues to show a glimmer of his youth when Penn would've been able to easily compete with foes such as St. Pierre.
His fight with Fitch will be a good indicator of that, but it will not solely provide dispute of to whether or not Penn is still amongst the elite in the world outside of the welterweight division. Only a fight with middleweight great Anderson Silva would prove worthy of that distinction, and yet it is likely a fight never to happen because of the two fighter's differential in weight.
But think back to the time where Royce Gracie fought men twice his size, and arguably twice his match in strength. If that were still prudent today, would Penn have a chance against Silva? Would he be just the man to take out the consensus P4P greatest fighter in the world today?
Maybe not, but here's five reasons why he's better equipped to do it than St. Pierre.
In a fight against Anderson Silva, the truth is, it would not be wise for either, BJ Penn or Georges St. Pierre, to strike with the best striker in the middleweight division, and possibly all of MMA. If it did come down to striking, Penn would be the fighter better suited for a slugfest with Silva.
His boxing has only gotten better with the help of boxing coach Floyd Mayweather Sr., and he should be well-prepared to show that in his bout with Fitch at UFC 127. Here's a nice quote from Mayweather Sr. with FightHype.com (via Bloody Elbow) about Penn and his improvement in his boxing for the upcoming fight with Fitch:
"In his words, man, he told me, 'I ain't never seen some of this stuff you're showing me man.' And that's only after three days. BJ is learning fast man. He's a good guy...If BJ throws his shots the way I got him throwing his shots, he will win."
Penn has also worked in the past with Freddy Roach, who also has worked with MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski. Unlike Arlovski, Penn has done well to keep himself entrenched in the mainstream sport, though Penn is actually the older fighter.
Also unlike Arlovski, Penn knows how to take a punch. He has two losses via TKO, and five via decision, and has an iron jaw when it comes to getting lit up. Ask a fan the last time they saw BJ Penn get knocked out because of a punch. The answer is never...at least in professional MMA.
The same can't be said of St. Pierre, where one of his minuscule two losses have come via the punch heard 'round the world when Matt Serra shocked the world by TKO'ing St. Pierre. Granted, it was a TKO, but anyone that saw the fight watched Serra knock St. Pierre clean down with a single punch. That's all I'm saying.
Now before you have a coronary and think I'm crazy, let me explain what I mean by Penn being the more opportunistic fighter compared to St. Pierre.
St. Pierre is a gameplan fighter. This means that whatever gameplan he and his coaches come up with, St. Pierre follows it to the letter, generally executing it masterfully.
Penn is a fighter that is spontaneous and adapts his fighting style to the type of fight his opponent is willing to fight.
Case and point, when Penn fought both Sean Sherk and Jens Pulver (for the second time), Penn imposed his will in both fights, beating Sherk in the striking game, whereas he decided to deal Pulver a submission defeat.
Penn is opportunistic in his ability to seek and destroy, and when he sees an exposed opponent, he jumps at the opening. St. Pierre is a little more cautious of a fighter, and would rather keep himself from harms way than making a mistake that could be detrimental.
When fighting Silva, time and time again he has shown no mercy to those unwilling to engage him (Maia, Leites, Franklin), whereas fighters like Chael Sonnen, Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt (for almost one round) brought the fight to Silva, which proved to be a little stunning to the middleweight champ.
Not saying that St. Pierre wouldn't bring the fight, but he may be a little more weary to do so than Penn.
There's no secret that Penn is a great submission fighter. He's shown it time and time again with stellar submission wins over tough guys Takanori Gomi, Kenny Florian and Matt Hughes. Penn has, in recent memory, shied away from this aspect of his arsenal, and possibly has suffered because of it.
Against Silva, Penn wouldn't be able to shy away from using any skill available to him, and likely wouldn't. As I mentioned before, Penn is opportunistic, and if he sees a limb hanging out there from Silva, chances are he would, and should, grab on for dear life and attempt to submit the champ.
Silva has only four losses to his name, and half of them have come via submission. In a battle of submission defense versus submission offense, Penn would have the clear edge over St. Pierre.
Little known fun fact: BJ Penn has fought against six current/former UFC title holders (Sherk, Edgar, St. Pierre, Machida, Hughes, Pulver); St. Pierre has only fought against four (Sherk, Hughes, Penn, Serra).
Truth be told, Penn has floated amongst many divisions in his 10-year professional MMA career, and St. Pierre has not. Perhaps this is the reason why Penn is so well-loved by fans worldwide, and it has also allowed men like UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and Dana White to pair Penn up against the best in any weight class.
Penn has fought the likes of Lyoto Machida, Frankie Edgar (twice), Matt Hughes (twice) and St. Pierre twice himself. Every fight Penn has fought for the UFC has been arguably main-eventers, and many have come with a title on the line. Journeying from lightweight to potential light heavyweight was no easy task, and not one that many MMA legends can claim to have done. But Penn has, and he's done it with relative success, going 2-0 in his two career fights in the middleweight division (wins over Rodrigo and Renzo Gracie).
St. Pierre has thoroughly dominated the welterweight division since taking over the reigns from Matt Hughes at UFC 65 in 2006, with the one exception being his loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69. He has not ventured out of that division however, which leaves him in unfamiliar territory if he defeats Jake Shields at UFC 129, setting up an expected "Super Fight" between him and Silva.
BJ Penn is a psychologically debilitating fighter for any opponent, just because of the way Penn acts. He breaks down his opponents mentally, and makes them question whether they can impose their will more than Penn will. He also brings his experience into big fights, not showing any means of anxiety or pressure that virtually every MMA fighter exhibits at one point or another in their career. Frankly, Penn is a man that brings everything, including the unexpected, to the table.
St. Pierre is a huge muscle mass with agility, speed and pure athleticism, none of which are things that Silva has yet to see. The smallest fighter Silva has seen in recent memory was Patrick Cote over two years ago, at 5'11".
Penn, at 5'9", is only an inch shorter than St. Pierre, but is a ball of skill that unravels itself like a flower, only at the right conditions. Penn has bloomed many times, showing this skill set that is overwhelming to young fighters, and confusing to older fighters.
Silva likes to generally feel out his opponent for a few minutes before finding his rhythm and taking the fight to his foe. Penn would be the man that doesn't give Silva these precious minutes to acclimate himself to the distance and speed of his enemy. Sonnen too, did not give Silva much time to adapt, and it was because of that uniqueness that he was able to give Silva fits where others did not.