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The Breakdown: Penn-Hughes III

UFC superstars Matt Hughes and BJ Penn meet for the third time Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 123. Read on for the breakdown of this historic rubber match...

Many athletes claim that age is just a number.  BJ Penn has a different take on that adage.

For the Hawaiian, weight is just a number—literally.

Penn has competed in four different weight classes during the course of his career, with 15 of his 23 professional fights occurring at lightweight, four at welterweight, one at middleweight and one at heavyweight.  Yes, you read that correctly.  On March 26, 2005, Penn faced former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in a heavyweight bout in Japan.  Penn weighed 191 pounds for that fight.  Machida weighed 220 pounds.   “The Prodigy” lasted until the final bell, losing a unanimous judges’ decision, but often getting the better of the Karate expert during standup exchanges.

After suffering back-to-back defeats to Frankie Edgar in lightweight bouts, Penn has decided to move back to the welterweight division on Saturday night to settle an old score with the most dominant 170-pounder of all time, Matt Hughes.  After all, weight is just a number, and Hughes is someone that Penn really wants to fight.

This won’t be the first time the pair has locked horns inside the Octagon.  Penn made his welterweight debut against Hughes back on January 31, 2004, after a nearly a year away from the UFC.  Hughes hadn’t lost in three years heading into that bout.  During that stretch, Hughes won the welterweight crown and successfully defended it five consecutive times, tying the record first set by Tito Ortiz a few months earlier (some guy named Anderson Silva later shattered the record).

I spoke with Penn 10 days before the fight, and I asked him why he was moving up in weight against such a great opponent without first taking a 170-pound bout against a run-of-the-mill opponent in order to acclimate himself to the new weight.  He was standing outside of McDonalds at the time, and his answer was a telling one.

“There is a guy standing a few feet from me right now,” Penn said.  “If I’m hungry, and I want his bag of food, I’m going to walk over there, beat him down and take it.  I’m not going to say, ‘Excuse me, sir, how much do you weigh?’ before beating him down.  Who cares how much Matt Hughes weighs?  I don’t care.  I don’t think warriors 100 years ago cared, either.  I’m sure they didn’t ask other warriors how much they weighed before fighting, so why should I?”

Penn completely dominated Hughes on that January night, stopping him in the first round with a rear naked choke to win the UFC Welterweight Championship – his first of two UFC titles.  Hughes avenged the loss a couple of years later with a third-round technical knockout win.

On Saturday night, the pair will face each other in an intriguing rubber match.  Penn has never seemed more vulnerable in his career than he does heading into this fight.  He has been a .500 fighter over his last 10 bouts, including back-to-back losses in his last two fights (both at lightweight) and coming up short in each of his last three welterweight bouts.

Hughes, by contrast, is in the midst of a three-fight winning streak.  The former two-time welterweight champion seems to have found his groove after suffering the worst stretch of his professional career, losing three of four fights between November 2006 and June 2008.  He has been particularly dominant in his last two fights, scoring stoppage wins against Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida.

A win by Penn demonstrates that the losses to Edgar were nothing more than a case of styles make fights and proves that he remains one of the best fighters in the game, pound-for-pound.  A win by Hughes firmly reestablishes him as one of the welterweight elite.

A year ago, most pundits would have given Hughes little chance to defeat Penn based on the matchup and their past history.  Despite the fact that Hughes stopped him in their previous bout, Penn looked dominant in the opening two rounds before suffering a badly damaged rib that basically rendered him a defenseless, stationary target.  Hughes had no answer for Penn’s takedown defense, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and boxing in either bout prior to the rib injury.  So, there is no reason to believe that a third bout would be any different from the first three combined rounds of their prior bouts.

That was before the world witnessed Edgar score several takedowns against Penn en route to back-to-back wins.  Granted, Edgar used speed to overcome Penn’s tremendous takedown defense, and Hughes is nowhere near Edgar in terms of speed.  Nevertheless, Penn’s vulnerability to the takedown and his inability to do anything from his back caused his critics to raise several potentially game-changing questions for Penn heading into this fight.

The first is whether Penn’s focus on his standup game has resulted in the erosion of his once otherworldly BJJ skills.  That question has been bandied about lately because his guard didn’t appear to be anything special against Edgar.  After all, he had plenty of opportunities to work for a submission from his guard and did virtually nothing with them in either bout against Edgar.

I think that is a preposterous question.  It is possible that Penn’s BJJ game could get a little rusty from lack of work with high-level training partners, but that had nothing to do with his loss to Edgar and will play no part in Saturday’s bout.  Penn has probably forgotten more BJJ than many UFC fighters have learned over the last few years.  Remember, we are talking about one of the greatest American BJJ practitioners in history.

The next question is whether Penn’s supposed lack of motivation has influenced his pre-fight preparations.  There is no sugarcoating this one.  Penn has shown up to several fights woefully out of shape and undertrained.  

No matter, I refuse to believe that he suffered from lack of motivation against Edgar.  After all, Edgar was the first man to defeat Penn in a lightweight bout in more than eight years, plus he snatched away the title.  Penn was fully motivated for the rematch.  He did not think that Edgar was his same league as a fighter and badly wanted to prove that, as well as winning back his title.  Penn lost the fight because Edgar is his kryptonite, not because Penn was underprepared.  Any thoughts to the contrary are silly.

Motivation and preparation won’t be a factor on Saturday night, either.  Penn is in the midst of a two-fight losing streak overall and a three-fight losing streak in welterweight bouts.  Not to mention the fact that Hughes put him in a crucifix and used his head as a punching bag in the third round of their last bout.  Afterward, Hughes questioned whether Penn really suffered a rib injury or merely ran out of gas after failing to properly prepare for the fight.  Those words still burn brightly in Penn’s memory.  He will be in great shape and fully prepared for Hughes.  Trust me on that one.

The final question is whether Penn has gotten to a point in his career where his skills have started to erode.  Most people forget that the Prodigy has been in the UFC for nearly a decade.  I don’t care if he is only 31 years old.  That is a lot of mileage for anyone at any age.  The guy who dominated Joey Gilbert in mid-2001 had lightning-fast hands, exceptional foot speed and some of the best submissions in the game.  He was also the best pure boxer and had the best takedown defense in the lighter weight classes, if not the entire UFC.   His biggest weakness was his inability to take an opponent to the ground, if the situation called for it.

A breakdown of Penn’s skills today doesn’t read much differently.   Maybe he isn’t quite as fast as he once was, but he is a much more technical standup fighter compared to his early days in the sport.  He also fights much more tactically these days.  His takedowns remain be a big hole in his game, particularly at welterweight, but that doesn’t really change anything.  

Penn is definitely a better fighter today than he was early in his career.  For that matter, so is Hughes.

There is no debating the point that the 37-year-old former champion no longer has the explosive takedowns that led to the most dominant run in 170-pound history.  At the peak of his game, Hughes could take down anyone, and he kept them there for as long as he wanted.   The quintessential moment of his dominance in that arena was during his second fight with Frank Trigg, where he picked up the world class wrestler, walked around the Octagon with him hanging over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, and then slammed him to the ground like a rag doll.

He hasn’t shown that same ability over the last few years, but he has also completely evolved as a fighter during that time.  The Hughes who couldn’t be stopped in the takedown department had rudimentary standup.  Today’s version has much better technical striking ability.  He bludgeoned his last two foes on the feet, something that would have been unheard of for Hughes a few years ago.  

Hughes also has vastly underrated BJJ.  After years spent rolling with Jeremy Horn, who is one of the best submission guys in the sport, Hughes has black belt-level skills, regardless of the fact that the only actual belt he possesses is the one that holds up his pants.  I’m not saying he will outslick Penn on the ground.  That isn’t going to happen.  But he isn’t going to be a fish out of water if the fight goes to the ground, either.

Today’s Matt Hughes presents a much more formidable test, in my opinion, than the one who faced Penn in 2006.  I know that he won their last matchup, but again, he was getting completely outclassed until Penn either suffered an injury or gassed out, depending on who you believe.  I don’t think he is going to get outclassed early in the fight on Saturday night.

So, what is going to happen when the referee signals for the action to begin?

I think both men will come out looking to kickbox early.  Hughes will likely take the lead with jabs and lead kicks to the outside of Penn’s lead left leg and body.  Penn will counter with right hands over Hughes’ jab and cleanup left hooks as he looks to encourage mini slugfests.  Penn knows he has better boxing skills and much more power in his punches, so he will be very comfortable boxing.

I have little doubt that Penn will win the exchanges.   He struggled on the feet against Edgar because he had no answer for Edgar’s speed.  Penn will be the faster fighter on Saturday night, so he won’t have those same troubles against Hughes.  

The question is whether Hughes can survive long enough to lull Penn into forgetting about his takedown defense.  Also, if Hughes is able to take the fight to the ground, will Penn be the same Rubik’s Cube on the ground, keeping the former wrestler occupied with omo plata, arm bar and sweep attempts so as to completely neutralize Hughes’ dreaded ground-and-pound attacks?  

I think he will do just that.  In fact, I think Penn will win this fight in one of two ways:  either by rear naked choke or technical knockout from strikes on the ground.   

But, alas, I picked Penn to defeat Edgar in both of their fights.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever predicted a Penn loss, which means I’m batting a robust .500 over his last 10 bouts.  Not exactly something to write home about.


BJ Penn

•    31 years old
•    5’9, 165 lbs
•    70-inch reach
•    15-7-1 overall (11-6-1 UFC)
•    Two losses to Edgar were his first losses by unanimous decision in his UFC career
•    1-3 in UFC welterweight division
•    3-2 in his last 5
•    5-5 in his last 10
•    5-7 overall against current or former UFC/PRIDE champions
•    54.5% of UFC wins by KO/TKO (6 out of 11)
•    36.4% of UFC wins by submission (4 out of 11)
•    Penn has never been submitted
•    Second fighter in history to win championships in two UFC weight classes (lightweight and welterweight)
•    Has competed in 4 weight classes (155 lbs, 170 lbs, 185 lbs and HW)
•    First non-Brazilian to win gold in the black belt division of the Mundial World Championship (BJJ)
•    Two-time winner of Submission of the Night (SUB4 over Kenny Florian by rear naked choke on August 8, 2009, SUB2 over Joe Stevenson by rear naked choke on January 19, 2008)
•    Current layoff is 84 days (UD5 loss to Frankie Edgar on August 28, 2010)
•    Longest layoff of UFC career is 273 days (TKO3 by Matt Hughes on September 23, 2006, until SUB2 over Jens Pulver on June 23, 2007), excluding the 3-year period when Penn was absent from the UFC and competing actively elsewhere

Matt Hughes
•    37 years old
•    5’9, 170 lbs
•    73-inch reach
•    45-7 overall (18-5 UFC)
•    3-2 in last 5
•    7-3 in last 10
•    8-3 overall against current or former UFC/PRIDE champions
•    44.4% of UFC wins by KO/TKO (8 out of 18)
•    27.8% of UFC wins by submission(5 out of 18)
•    27.8% of UFC wins by decision (5 out of 18)
•    Hughes has never lost by decision in the UFC
•    Holds the record for the most wins in UFC history (18)
•    Tied with Randy Couture for the most title wins in UFC history (9)
•    Tied with Chuck Liddell, Couture and Tito Ortiz for the record for most fights in UFC history (23)
•    Tied with Tito Ortiz for the second-most consecutive successful title defenses in UFC history (5)
•    Second all-time for most title fights in UFC history (12)
•    Submission of the Night (SUB1 over Ricardo Almeida on August 7, 2010)
•    Fight of the Night (UD3 over Matt Serra on May 23, 2009)
•    Current layoff is 105 days (SUB1 over Ricardo Almeida on August 7, 2010)
•    Longest layoff of UFC career is 350 days (TKO2 by Thiago Alves on June 7, 2008, until UD3 over Matt Serra on May 23, 2009)