An often-heard aphorism in MMA is that “you cannot have one foot in and one foot out of the game”. Former Two Weight Champion (non-consecutively) B.J. Penn very much sits on the border between activity and non-involvement. With his return to the octagon looming, barring of course yet another setback, it is important to analyze just how we got to the point where 38-year-old Penn, who’s last win was 7 years ago, faces 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez.
The return of “The Prodigy” has been anything but seamless. He has gone through four prospective opponents: Dennis Siver, Cole Miller, Ricardo Lamas and finally Rodriguez. Throw into that melee of opponent changes a USADA violation plus other allegations and instead of a rescue mission the UFC has a body bag to fill. Somehow though, Penn has been booked yet again against perhaps his toughest opponent yet (out of those who he was scheduled to face in his return).
The trajectory of the careers of the two men headlining UFC Fight Night 103 could not be more opposite. Whereas Rodriguez is riding a seven-fight-win-streak Penn is on a three fight-losing streak with his last win in 2010. Rodriguez too has been much more active fighting twice in the last year. The Hawaiian has obviously been retired and that roughly three-year-long absence from the sport is sure to confer some loss as well as some benefit.
“El Pantera” has also been rightly billed as a rising talent in the Featherweight division. Dominant wins over Andre Fili and Dan Hooker have propelled him into the top ten at 145 lbs. For his part, Penn retired in bad form dropping lopsided losses to elite competitors. Without a doubt, Penn has faced the tougher competition in his career but one has to wonder whether or not he has anything left to offer a sport that has evolved without him.
Many pundits have touted Penn’s move to Jackson/Wink as a promising sign. The camp has worked magic before by turning around the career of Andrei Arlovski – if only for a moment. While there isn’t much reason to expect a complete resurgence in the now poorly named “Prodigy” the move to a premier camp may just be enough to get him through a hungry contender. The fact that Rodriguez also trains/has trained with the same team means the possible divulgence of his weaknesses. Their exploitation however remains to be achieved.
The team at Jackson/Wink is some of the best game-planners in the entire sport. That asset, aside from the many others, will be invaluable in providing the framework off of which Penn can achieve success on Jan 15th. I suspect that game plan will be grappling heavy. By no means his Penn a poor striker but there are a number of reasons why he would do well to make this fight a grappling match. The speed and power of his opponent are obvious deterrents, which coupled with his own lack of athletic ability (at this point in his life) likely points to a lopsided advantage for the Mexican on the feet. Penn’s waning ability to take punishment is yet another reason he should be reluctant to engage standing.
However, the chief reason why Penn stands to benefit from grappling exchanges is not due to his lack of striking prowess but his proficiency on the mat. The Hawaiian’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills are among the best within MMA. Specifically his attacks from full back control are near impossible to thwart and would certainly spell doom for a relatively inexperienced grappler like Rodriguez. That isn’t to say “El Pantera” cannot get it done on the feet. But, his explosiveness and power will be more or less nullified by the veteran’s application of various grappling techniques.
Ultimately though, the implementation of a specific game plan is entirely dependent on the fighter. Penn may choose to strike with the more dynamic Chihuahua native. And who knows, he may even win via strikes. But prudence dictates that his best path to victory is on the ground where he has spent countless hours building his game.
Rodriguez looks to be the heavy favorite early on, and rightly so. Their respective runs in the UFC, as of late, have been uniquely opposite. If there is anyone that can turn back the clock though it is “The Prodigy”. Having the Jackson/Wink seal of approval behind you isn’t a bad touch either. Still though, it appears as though the hype behind Rodriguez is well placed – at least for the time being.
Penn’s return into the UFC may very well prove to be a repeat of his last few fights. The outcome though depends entirely on what game plan, if any, he chooses to follow.