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Buckle your seatbelts for Penn-Sanchez

Michael DiSanto, UFC - Diego Sanchez has been telling the world that he is a future champion in wait since the days of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. Actually, he has also proclaimed on several occasions that he would go down as one of the greatest mixed martial artists in history when it is all said and done, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

By Michael DiSanto

Diego Sanchez has been telling the world that he is a future champion in wait since the days of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. Actually, he has also proclaimed on several occasions that he would go down as one of the greatest mixed martial artists in history when it is all said and done, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Love him or hate him, Sanchez is definitely one of the best lightweights in the world. Nearly five years into his UFC career, it is time for him to begin living up to the hype. On Saturday night, he will receive the opportunity to do just that when he steps into the Octagon to challenge for BJ Penn’s lightweight title in the main event of UFC 107 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee.

I’ve written this before and it still rings true to this day: Sanchez’s style is best summed up with one simple word—bully. On the feet, Sanchez has stiff, unorthodox strikes, though they are laced with bad intentions. He is looking for a knockout at all times and has enough power to score dramatic, single-strike stoppages if a shot finds pay dirt.

Nevertheless, Sanchez knows that, barring a lottery-winning strike, which is possible in any fight, planting his feet and swinging wildly against a polished, explosive striker like Penn isn’t a wise game plan. Sanchez will instead attack with ferocious punches and kicks in an effort to open the door for a takedown, where he possesses the scariest ground-and-pound game in the lightweight division.

Unlike guys who throw arm punches on the ground with their head buried in their opponent’s chest, Sanchez postures up and throws his punches and elbows with bad intentions. His goal isn’t to convince the referee to pull him off an opponent; his goal is to cause as much damage as physically possible with each and every strike. He wants to beat up opponents, not just beat them.

Again, it is the bully mentality.

Keep in mind, however, that bullies often struggle when they cannot impose their will on their opponent, and Sanchez is no different. Not coincidentally, his two career losses came against men who he could not take down. Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch were both physically stronger and much better wrestlers than the title challenger, so he was unable to impose his will on either man.

Penn is neither as strong nor as good of a wrestler as Kos or Fitch. Yet, he is possibly the most difficult takedown puzzle to solve in the entire sport. Matt Hughes in his prime struggled to take down the champion in their two 170-lb bouts. Joe Stevenson, a dominant lightweight wrestler, failed to take Penn down. Even UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture commented about how difficult it was for him to take Penn down in training, after the pair hooked up for a few sessions a couple of years back. Only reigning 170-lb champion Georges St-Pierre was able to score takedowns with any regularity against Penn, though few mixed martial artists are able to transition as effectively between striking and wrestling better than GSP.

Suffice to say, Sanchez will need to set up his takedown attempts with strikes, rather than shooting in haphazardly, if he wants to get the fight to the ground. That means attacking aggressively with combinations and lead right hands to force Penn to raise his hands high in defense so that he can change levels and shoot for a double-leg under Penn’s boxing guard. Single-legs and high-crotch takedowns, as well as the myriad of Greco-Roman throws, are largely ineffective against Penn due to his amazing balance and flexibility, so Sanchez should focus solely on double-legs in his efforts to get the fight to the ground.

Despite Sanchez’s need to get the fight to the ground in order to bully the champion, getting Penn to the ground isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. Remember that the lightweight champion was the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu Jitsu Championships. His top-of-the-food-chain Brazilian Jiu Jitsu leaves him with no peers in the UFC lightweight division in terms of ground game. If the fight hits the mat, Penn is ultra dominant from the top position, expertly mixing in strikes with submission attempts. He is a virtuoso from the guard due to his inhuman flexibility, particularly in his legs, which allows Penn to use the rubber guard to basically neutralize an opponent’s attack while looking for a submission from seemingly innocuous positions. And if he takes a fighter’s back, a submission is all but guaranteed—period.

So it goes without saying that Penn never fears going to the ground against any opponent. Yet, he would be best served defending the takedown, rather than embracing it, against Sanchez.

As mentioned, Sanchez has the most fearsome ground-and-pound attack in the division. If he is able to posture up and unload, then Penn is in real trouble, despite his incredible guard game. Let’s assume, however, that Penn is able to expertly defend Sanchez’s ground attack. That still isn’t a reason for the champion to remain in the guard for long. If we have learned anything in the brief history of the UFC, it is that guys who spend most of a fight on their back, absent a submission victory, lose on the judges’ cards more often than not. Penn need look no farther than his bout against current UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre for a vivid reminder of that truism.

Penn should therefore look to keep the fight on the feet. That is the proper game plan in any event because the champion holds a comfortable advantage over the challenger in the standup realm. His technique is crisper. His punches are delivered more accurately. And he possesses more explosive power.

Anyone who doubts those statements need only re-watch Penn’s 2005 heavyweight fight with current 205-lb champion Lyoto Machida. Penn stood toe-to-toe with Machida for much of the fight, often getting the better of the exchanges, despite the unanimous decision loss handed out by the judges.

If Penn can stand with Machida, striking with Sanchez should be a walk in the park—should being the operative word, since anything can happen when two men kickbox with those tiny vale tudo gloves.

Penn will look to establish his dominance by fighting behind the jab early. He likes to set the distance with the jab to open the door for one-two combinations, which are really his bread-and-butter combination. Penn also likes to counter with the left hook and will occasionally lead with the right hand. Thus, his standup is sufficiently varied to prevent Sanchez from solely keying his counters on the jab.

If Penn can establish the jab, he will open up opportunities for big right hands. If he can do that and defend the takedown, then it is very likely that he will win the fight. The only reason that a win is not guaranteed in that scenario is because Penn’s one glaring weakness just so happens to be Sanchez’s biggest strength—cardiovascular conditioning.

Penn may be among the most talented fighters in the world across all weight classes, but that talent means nothing when his gas tank hits empty. His lack of cardiovascular conditioning is the single reason why he lost his first battle with GSP. In that fight, he continued to let GSP take him down so that he could rest because he was exhausted after handing out a thorough beating in the first round. If he shows up in less than stellar condition against Sanchez, then things could get very interesting, assuming that Sanchez survives Penn’s early onslaught.

Sanchez is among the best conditioned athletes in the sport. This guy is like the Energizer Bunny on speed—literally. He fights at a ferocious pace, constantly attacking at 100 mph without ever slowing down. Even though he has never before competed in a five round fight in the UFC, Sanchez is the one who wants to drag Penn into the deep waters of the championship rounds and see if he can swim, not the other way around. Sanchez knows that if he can force Penn to fight for every minute of the first three rounds that there is a good chance that the champion will begin to wear down, thus opening the door for the challenger to shock the world with an upset victory.

The problem for Sanchez, however, is that I am not convinced that he can last long enough against the future Hall of Famer to make cardio play a factor. Then again, I’ve been wrong before.

Whatever happens, this one should be a true barnburner.