by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
Diego Sanchez’s dream is finally realized when he faces lightweight champion B.J. Penn Saturday night at UFC 107 in Memphis, Tenn.
The original “Ultimate Fighter” winner has risen quickly in the lightweight ranks, aided by the bodies left in the wake of Penn’s divisional dominance.
Penn, meanwhile, says he’s through being unfocused and wants to take his place among the all-time greats in the sport. He’s stuck with strength and conditioning guru Marv Marinovich and claims to have worked out all the kinks in his ability to endure grueling fights.
Should “The Prodigy” retain his crown, it would be the fourth title defense in a stellar career. If Sanchez is victorious, a variety of intriguing match-ups open in the division, possibly some of those who failed to take the belt from Penn.
He’s earned the nickname “Prodigy” with his jiu-jitsu excellence, but Penn’s stand-up is simple, clean, and devastating. Gifted with long arms, he can afford to take a slightly narrower stance than most and keep his jab working. The strike sets up most of his attacks, and its loose and faster than most. Many have said it’s the best in MMA. The persistent shots set up a right uppercut – his second favorite weapon – with which he tries to catch guys coming in or going out.
But the key to his dominance is his defense: when opponents get close and fire back, he simply turns his left shoulder in and tucks his head. He knows if a shot is coming, he’ll be able to ride his opponent back to the cage, where he can sprawl out. If he hurts you, expect a flying knee to come straight up the pipe. In the clinch, he prefers short punches over plumb work and will throw knees to distract.
Against Sanchez, that jab/uppercut combo will be working overtime to counteract aggression. Sanchez is a straight-ahead guy: straight-ahead attacks and straight-ahead takedowns. His job will be to take the steam out of Sanchez’s momentum by sidestepping it and repaying with uppercuts on the inside, or knees when an inevitable shot attempt comes. All in all, he needs to get in and get out before Sanchez can return fire.
Sanchez, a southpaw, got his wings as a great ground-and-pound guy in his early career. Watch his early fights – a striker he’s not. But after years of diligent work with some of the best in the business, his stand-up is respectable. His kicks are driven by his hips, his punches are straighter, and he’s more relaxed in his exchanges.
Still, his strikes are mostly a precursor to a ground and pound game, especially when paired against a superior striker. Against Clay Guida, his last fight, his striking attack mirrored Penn’s in that he used a straight right uppercut to cut down the fellow ground-and-pounder. When Guida was rocked, he charged in with a flying knee, same as Penn. The difference, however, is that his punches tend to come in big, forward flurries. From range, he likes to head hunt with his rear leg, then cut off the cage and storm in.
Against Penn, he may not come out guns blazing with strikes. Penn will expect that. Instead, he may test the range with his kicks then time a forward attack. His best chance is to draw Penn into a firefight early on and transition from punching to kicking range, stepping off for a big head kick. Otherwise, he’ll be competing with Penn’s uppercuts inside. Another option, at least on the feet, is to go hog wild with leg kicks in the early rounds, making a takedown rush easier.
What can be said about Penn’s grappling game that hasn’t been said already? He’s The Prodigy. But, as he repeatedly says, the key to his ground dominance lies in his mastery of the basics. No need for any advanced sweeps or passes or takedowns: he’ll get opponents with the same thing every time. Part of that is because of his flexibility; his Gumby-like legs act as arms on the mat. But it’s also because he’s completely mastered balance and leverage – again, advanced basics. When he passes guard or takes someone’s back, he tends to keep the position because his base is so strong.
With Sanchez, he’ll look to capitalize off a scramble that’s bound to come with the intensity that the “TUF” winner brings. He could spend some time on his back if Sanchez can set up the shot correctly. If that’s the case, he needs to stay very busy from the bottom to ensure Sanchez doesn’t start teeing off from top position. His best hope is to threaten Sanchez enough to force a scramble, where he can either get back to his feet or reverse. The key is being the benefactor of the scramble.
Sanchez likes to dominate his opponents in every way, and his movement in the cage reflects that. He likes to be the guy moving forward, throwing punches while closing the distance. Early on, it overwhelmed opponents who were not prepared for it. But these days, he’s expected to come forward slugging. At which point he decides to do so is the only variable.
Penn, like his grappling, is more flexible to his approach. He tends to be more of a counter striker, firing back when opponents close on him. But he’ll also give chase, especially if he feels he has them hurt. On the ground, he also tends to take what’s given to him, though he masterfully took the lead late in his fight with Kenny Florian at UFC 101, taking the two-time contender down and controlling him on the ground.
Penn used to get the business for gassing out late in his fights, but he’s since hired super-coach Marv Marinovich to overhaul his strength and conditioning program. So far, it’s worked beautifully; he’s been able to sustain energy into the later rounds, even if placed in a protracted clinch battle.
Sanchez’s conditioning has never been questioned. He’s always been known as a relentless competitor from bell to bell, grinding opponents out by taking them down and pounding on them. His game has changed in recent years with the evolution of his striking, with more demands placed on his cardio by integrating a well-rounded striking attack. In his war with Guida, his later punches didn’t quite have the snap as they did in the first round.
THE “X” FACTOR:
For Sanchez, it’s his first five-round title fight, and against one of the most celebrated fighters in the sport’s history, no less. While all-encompassing belief in himself sells most on his durability going into deep waters, the question is whether that belief will hold if he runs into problems executing his game plan. Against Jon Fitch, his greatest test, Sanchez never stopped looking for a way to finish the fight. But their 15 minutes together was mostly spent grappling and scrambling. On the feet, he’s rarely had opponents who push back effectively. Fitch teammate Josh Koscheck did it in their fight at UFC 69, but that encounter could be stricken due to Sanchez’s illness going into the meeting. The idea, though, is the same. Will Penn be able to stop him in his tracks and break his will?
For Penn, he’s pretty much proven doubters of his lightweight dominance wrong. He may never get the welterweight belt he wants so much – an evening spent eating Georges St-Pierre’s elbows are quite the roadblock – but he’ll always be in the pantheon of the sport’s best. At that point, questions begin to revolve around how hungry and/or complacent he is with his position, because as Penn has shown in the past, he doesn’t like to stand still.
In the fight, the question is whether Penn can withstand an early storm, or stay in the fight if he’s on his back taking punishment.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
–Keep the jab coming and fire the uppercut as Sanchez closes
–Angle off when Sanchez charges, catch him with punches in transition
–Get ready to sprawl against the cage and frustrate Sanchez to giving up the shot
–Use a scramble to set up submission
–Draw Penn into a firefight early and catch him with a fast transition from punching to kicking range
–Get Penn to the ground and establish top position
–Punish Penn from up top with elbows and ward off submission attempts
–Keep the pressure on the whole fight
UFC Lightweight Champion B.J. Penn:
Challenger Diego Sanchez: