The Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona is the unusual location for the first UFC card of year this Sunday night as the world’s biggest fight promotion gets going for another twelve months. In the main event of the Arizona action it’s all about the return of former two-weight UFC champion B.J. Penn as he takes on hot prospect Yair Rodriguez in a real make or break fight for the UFC Hall of Famer.
A native of Hilo, Hawaii Penn has been one of the biggest stars in the lighter divisions over the past 15 years or so. After making his MMA debut at UFC 31 in 2001, Penn immediately shot to prominence with three first round knockouts in a row. That run earned him a lightweight title shot and although he lost to Jens Pulver it wasn’t long before Penn would hold UFC gold. Wins over Takanori Gomi and Matt Serra sandwiched a draw with Caol Uno for the vacant lightweight title before Penn choked out Matt Hughes to win the welterweight strap.
A stint outside of the UFC saw Penn then stripped of his title before losses to Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes upon his return were a catalyst for a move back to 155lbs where he won the vacant lightweight belt against Joe Stevenson. Penn defended that belt either side of a welterweight superfight with GSP before losing to Frankie Edgar twice. Since then Penn has beaten Matt Hughes, drawn with Jon Fitch and lost three fights in five years. The last of those was a trilogy bout with Frankie Edgar in Penn’s 145 lbs debut – the weight he fights at for a second time on Sunday.
Like Penn, having also trained at the famed team Jackson/Winklejohn gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 24 year-old Rodriguez comes into this fight as someone his opponent is likely to know very well.
A member of the forgettable TUF: Latin America house, Rodriguez won the season of the show when he entered as a 3-1 novice. A split decision win against scrappy American Charles Rose was another step in the right direction for Rodriguez while a victory over Daniel Hooker began to move him towards the rankings.
But it was his Paolo Di Canio flying knee KO of Team Alpha Male student Andre Fili which really made people sit up and watch. That win earned him a main event slot in his next fight which turned out to be a superb 5-round scrap with Alex Caceras from which he emerged victorious.
When looking at this fight and trying to break it down technically we run into a few problems, all of them with BJ Penn.
For years Penn was one of the best fighters in the world. He had fantastic boxing, expert jiu-jitsu and a takedown defence which was years before its time. But that BJ Penn hasn’t been seen in a long time.
Now you could forgive the fact that he was beaten badly against Nick Diaz and Rory MacDonald at welterweight but in his last outing against Frankie Edgar Penn looked a shadow of a once great fighter. Since then he has relocated to Greg Jackson’s gym, and also trained with Jason Parillo, where the word is that he has recaptured some of his former glory. But until Sunday night we just don’t know.
Will we see the smooth, fast, powerful BJ Penn?
Or will we see the stiff, wooden, upright shot-looking Penn who took on Edgar?
Time will tell.
Rodriguez on the other hand is much more easy to predict. Although he has his flaws, the Mexican is an extremely well-rounded and effective fighter. In 2017 it’s a huge thing to say someone is one of the best strikers in MMA – but Rodriguez is. He has some of the best kicks in the sport and has improved his hands over the last few fights. Along with that, he looks to have a slick jiu-jitsu game and is very hard to hold down.
That makes the prediction in this one pretty simple. It has to be Yair Rodriguez. We can all live in hope that BJ Penn met Doc Brown somewhere in Albuquerque and will look like he did 10 years ago. And if he does, we will have a serious fight on our hands. But I’m afraid that’s not realistic.
What’s more likely to happen is Yair preying on a 38 year-old who isn’t what he used to be. I expect him to come out swinging hard early and it shouldn’t be too long until we see what shape Penn’s game is in. Over the years Penn has been known for his never ending heart and unwillingness to give up and I’m sure that will be the case again this time. With that said, it’s unlikely over five rounds that that will be enough to save him.
Outside of that this card has some hidden gems like Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders and Joe Lauzon vs. Marcin Held but arguably the most important bout on this whole card sees Sergio Pettis take on John Moraga. As two ranked flyweights in a very mixed up division, this one could have contender implications as we move through 2017 – especially for Pettis. And, with the Demetrious Johnson having recently knocked off another challenge this one is coming at a great time for the winner.
Yair Rodriguez vs. B.J. Penn – Rodriguez should get the stoppage
Joe Lauzon vs. Marcin Held – Could be a sub, but Lauzon via decision
Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders – 50-50, I’ll take McGee over 3
John Moraga vs. Sergio Pettis – I like Moraga here via submission
Frankie Saenz vs. Augusto Mendes – Saenz
Oleksiy Oliynyk vs. Viktor Pešta – Oliynyk
Alex White vs. Tony Martin – Martin
Devin Powell vs. Drakkar Klose – Klose
Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger vs. Nina Ansaroff – Ansaroff
Walt Harris vs. Chase Sherman – Sherman
Joachim Christensen vs. Bojan Mihajlović – Christensen
Dmitri Smoliakov vs. Cyril Asker – Smoliakov
BET OF THE WEEK
I’m going with a big 9/1 bet this week. Rodriguez via submission.
Early Prelims – 11.15pm on Fight Pass
Prelims – 1am on BT Sport and Fight Pass
Main Card – 3am on BT Sport
For more on Penn vs. Yair, check out this week SevereMMA Podcast.