PHILADELPHIA -- From the moment he stepped in the octagon for the first time, BJ Penn was a known commodity, so talented he earned a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in three years, so gifted that he'd won the equivalent of the jiu-jitsu world championship just weeks after his black belt ceremony despite competing against lifelong devotees. His reputation was such in the BJJ world that mixed martial arts fans had debated, analyzed and speculated about this wunderkind before he'd ever had a single MMA match. And when he finally debuted, it was not on a regional show like most, but in the UFC.
Contrast that with his UFC 101 opponent Kenny Florian. He entered the world of MMA with no fanfare, was thought to be a major underdog on his season of The Ultimate Fighter, and even after making it to the finals, he was never expected to amount to much. Fighting at 185 pounds, the former collegiate soccer player seemed outsized, outclassed and out of his element.
Yet somehow, their paths are converging Saturday night at the Wachovia Center. Such is the beauty of sports. Such is the beauty of MMA.
Despite Florian's constant record of success in beating the odds, from talking to a horde of MMA reporters here covering the event, it's safe to say some things haven't changed: Florian is still a big underdog (in Las Vegas, Penn is around a -240 favorite).
The conventional wisdom is that Penn is better in every aspect of the game than Florian; the better boxer, grappler, better in scrambles, etc. So then, the thinking goes, how can Florian possibly win?
In discussing this with FIGHT! Magazine editor-in-chief Donovan Craig earlier this week, he mentioned UFC 76. And why is that relevant? UFC 76 was probably the last time the top two matches on a UFC pay-per-view were thought to be so one-sided. Yet, what happened that night? Both underdogs won (Keith Jardine beat Chuck Liddell, and Forrest Griffin beat Shogun Rua).
In MMA, underdogs win. Not all the time, but they win. Rua was the last underdog to win in a main event or co-main event of a UFC pay-per-view when he knocked out Liddell at UFC 97.
But if any fighter has a chance of scoring an upset, it's Florian. How can you discount a guy who was never expected to be a factor in the UFC but has earned a second shot at the belt? Sure, he hasn't faced the overall caliber of opponent that Penn has, but you can't ignore his impressive six-fight winning streak, nor the fact that he finished five of those opponents. You also shouldn't underestimate his secret weapon: his brain.
Florian is one of the most strategic fighters in MMA. For all the attention we give to someone's ground skills (Demian Maia, for example) or their head kicks (Mirko Cro Cop) or their crushing right hand (Dan Henderson), we constantly fail to take into account a fighter's intelligence. Few study the game and their opponents like Florian. You can bet he will come into the cage with a complete understanding of Penn's tendencies and abilities. That's not to say he can stop what's coming, only that he probably has a better idea of what's coming than most. And this being GI Joe opening weekend, we need not remind you that "knowing is half the battle."
The other half will be fascinating. For all his accomplishments, Penn is just 4-4 in his last eight fights. Those losses are to elite-level fighters Lyoto Machida, Georges St. Pierre (twice) and Matt Hughes. We're about to find out if Florian is an elite-level fighter. Maybe he'll get blown out, but maybe not. He came into the UFC as an afterthought. He could leave the cage Saturday night as a champion.