MEMPHIS -- When Diego Sanchez steps into the octagon at UFC 107 in hopes of capturing the UFC lightweight championship, he'll not only be fighting the legendary B.J. Penn; he'll be fighting history. Because for all of Penn's flirtations with different weight classes during the course of his career, the record shows that the Hawaiian's performance at 155 is nothing short of sterling.
Overall, Penn is 14-5-1 in his storied fight history, but only one of those losses has come as a lightweight, and that was a close decision loss to Jens Pulver way back in 2002. His divisional dominance has been ably illustrated in his recent UFC bouts, all four of which he finished. He avenged his last lightweight loss by choking out Pulver, also choked out Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian, and TKO'd Sean Sherk.
In Sanchez, Penn will not necessarily be experiencing anything he hasn't faced before with one exception, and it is a major one: Sanchez fights with a frenetic pace, one he's historically been able to actually increase as a fight goes on (in his February fight with Joe Stevenson, for example, he threw 82 punches in Round 1, and 111 in Round 3). This factor, however, comes with a caveat. Sanchez has not faced a striker of Penn's caliber in his recent past, and it's quite possible, maybe even likely, that he pulls back from his aggressive nature in favor of a slightly more controlled style.
Although a heavy underdog in the fight, Sanchez (21-2) is a very gifted fighter, whose only losses were back-to-back decisions in 2007 to American Kickboxing Academy teammates Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, two of the top welterweights in the world. (In addition, he fought the bout against Koscheck with a then-undiagnosed staph infection).
Sanchez, who will turn 28 on New Year's Eve, has a very complete game. His striking, once rudimentary, has improved significantly over the years. His wrestling is above average. His ground skills are excellent. And as mentioned, his conditioning is always top-notch.
But the problem for Sanchez is that as good as he is in some of these categories, Penn is better. While Sanchez uses more variation in his striking game, the Hawaiian champion is perhaps one of the most underrated boxers in MMA. As every fighter he's faced except Georges St. Pierre can attest to, his takedown defense is outstanding, and his Brazilian jiu-jitsu is his best attribute.
So how does Sanchez go about beating him? The challenger has said in pre-fight interviews that he's not going in with any specific plan, just that he trusts himself and his instincts to fight. While that course of action has served Sanchez well in the past, Penn is a different beast. Going in with no ideas of how to attack is a dangerous game, because what happens if Sanchez struggles early? How will he adjust to any unexpected developments?
In some ways though, perhaps Sanchez's go-for-broke, aggressive style is the perfect one for Penn, because Sanchez will find out very quickly where he stands. We know Penn is better on the ground, but in the MMA world, anyone always has a puncher's chance on their feet. That said, it should also be noted that Penn has always possessed a seemingly iron chin (he's never been knocked down in a fight).
By virtue of his standup activity, however, Sanchez has the capability of stealing away rounds. Few fighters outwork him, so Penn will have to trump his pace with accuracy and damage to ensure the judges see it in his favor if the fight goes to scorecards.
Sanchez's pace will also work against what at least for a time was Penn's weakness: conditioning. Penn, working with innovative trainer Marv Marinovich, has seemed to solve that problem in his recent outings, but Sanchez will still likely push him on that front as no one else has. While Georges St. Pierre effectively tired out Penn with his constant takedowns and ground & pound, Sanchez is much more likely to keep it standing throughout.
Overall, Sanchez does present some issues for Penn, but with heavier hands, vaunted takedown defense and a superb ground game, Penn has the edge in all of the important categories. It's likely that Sanchez sets a strong early pace, maybe even capturing the first round before Penn figures out his timing and starts landing the more significant blows. Sanchez has showed a warrior's will, and I don't expect him to go quietly, but over time, the difference in skill level will become more obvious.
Sanchez's heart may carry him through the fight, but it may not be enough to win him the gold. Too many factors favor Penn in this bout, from history to skill level to his renewed level of dedication. Sanchez may get another crack at the belt in the future, but Penn is still in his prime, and the greatest lightweight fighter in history will continue his reign on Saturday