Breakdown: Penn vs. Pulver

Unless you’ve been living in a really deep cave for the last six months, you’re aware that all of the excitement surrounding this season of The Ultimate Fighter has been leading up to this: the rematch between the series’ two coaches, former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver and former UFC welterweight champion BJ Penn.

Despite the fact that neither competitor is even within spitting distance of the UFC lightweight title, this is easily the most anticipated lightweight fight in the UFC since…well, the first Pulver-Penn fight, all the way back in 2002. In case you haven’t been watching The Ultimate Fighter (and judging by the ratings, a lot of you haven’t), let’s catch you up to speed.

The Backstory: In 2002, Jens Pulver was the dominant lightweight in all of mixed martial arts: possessing a lethal left hand, excellent takedown defense and conditioning, and a chip the size of Rhode Island on his shoulder, Jens had walked through his UFC competition in order to become the organization’s first-ever lightweight champ.

In 2002, BJ Penn was the hottest lightweight prospect in all of mixed martial arts: after becoming the first American to ever win a gold medal in the black-belt division at the Mundials (Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s equivalent of the Super Bowl), BJ tore through his first three professional opponents, including his famous 11-second highlight-reel knockout of Caol Uno. In fact, BJ was so dominant against Uno, Din Thomas, and Joey Gilbert that oddsmakers made Penn a 7-1 favorite in only his fourth professional fight.

Imagine, if you will, Pulver as your classic Miletich fighter: hardworking, proud, and driven to succeed, here was a man who’d come from a very modest (to put it as nicely as humanly possible) background, come up through the ranks with little to no fanfare, and reached the top of his profession.

Imagine that you’ve won that elusive belt, the respect of your peers, and the paycheck that comes with the title of champion. Now imagine that all of a sudden, you’re a 7-1 underdog…to a man with three professional fights.

If you can imagine all that, then you can imagine how Jens responded. Both fighters came into the fight as prepared as they could be, and both fighters engaged in a back-and-forth classic. Pulver was clearly superior on his feet, but Penn managed to get him down, and lock in and straighten out an armbar…just as the horn sounded to end the second round. It was that kind of night for BJ, as he lost a close majority decision to a clearly superior Pulver, who felt nothing if not vindicated by his win. Grinning broadly, Jens looked into a television camera and said proudly, “Sometimes hype just ain’t enough.”

Here’s where the two fighters’ paths diverge: claiming that there wasn’t enough money in fighting as a lightweight, Pulver left the UFC after the fight to bounce around in smaller promotions for a couple of years and try his hand at professional boxing.

Since Jens was forced to vacate the lightweight title, the UFC decided to set up a match between Penn and Uno to determine who would hold the vacant title. That fight resulted in a draw so uninspiring that the UFC decided to retire the lightweight title to an office closet somewhere, where it sat for almost five years.

With no championship left to fight for, Penn began to toy with the idea of moving up in weight, and began tuning up for a run at welterweight by destroying future PRIDE lightweight champ Takanori Gomi in an 12-minute massacre. After that fight, Penn pulled off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history by defeating defending welterweight champ Matt Hughes (Pulver’s MFS teammate) in one round for the title in his first fight at 170 pounds. Unfortunately, BJ couldn’t come to terms with the UFC on a new contract, and he left the promotion without ever defending his title.

Still, Penn’s star was ascendant, as he dominated Gomi, Hughes, Duane ‘Bang’ Ludwig, and Rodrigo Gracie in the span of one year and cemented his place as one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He continued to take interesting and challenging fights through K-1, gaining 30 pounds to take on Lyoto Machida as a heavyweight only to lose by decision, then coming back to welterweight to defeat Renzo Gracie.

Finally, more than two years after making history by defeating Hughes, Penn returned to the UFC’s welterweight division, and his first opponent was none other than rising star Georges St. Pierre. In one of the fights of the year, Penn lost a razor-thin split decision at UFC 58, seemingly eliminating him from another shot at Hughes.

Strangely enough, the injury-prone St. Pierre pulled a groin muscle in training for his championship fight and had to pull out of the bout, so who else could the UFC find to take the fight on short notice? BJ Penn.

In the main event of UFC 63, Penn was decisively beating Hughes once again before sustaining a serious rib injury in the second round. Barely able to draw breath or get off his stool for the third round, he was soundly squashed two minutes later by Hughes’s clinical ground-and-pound skills.

With the fast-growing popularity of MMA in Japan, Pulver had a great deal of name recognition in the Far East, so he returned to fight in both the Shooto and PRIDE promotions. Jens won his two fights in Shooto, but immediately found himself on the business end of Takanori Gomi’s fists in his first fight in PRIDE, suffering a first-round knockout. From there, he became something of a gatekeeper in PRIDE’s lightweight division, easily knocking out lesser fighters such as Tomomi Iwama and Kenji Arai, but taking a pretty healthy beating at the hands of Hayato ‘Mach’ Sakurai.

With his PRIDE career stalled at .500, Pulver returned to the U.S. to take part in an IFL supercard, and with the UFC recently reinstating its lightweight division, it seemed like an ideal time for the promotion’s prodigal champ to come home. So Jens made plans to return at UFC 63—the same card headlined by the Hughes/Penn fight. Everything seemed like he’d be able to ease his way back into UFC competition; in fact, the matchmakers had found an unknown for him to tune up on: a skinny 22-year-old grappler from Massachusetts named Joe Lauzon.

Jens’s return to the octagon had all of the earmarks of a fairytale: the adulation of the crowd, Jens returning the affection by blowing them kisses, Jens surrounded once again by his Miletich teammates, and Bruce Buffer’s glowing introduction. As soon as Herb Dean signaled to start the fight, however, the fairytale went horribly, horribly wrong.

Lauzon shot in right away and took Pulver to the ground. Jens managed to escape, but knew almost instantly that he had to be wary of the kid’s takedowns. Lauzon faked another shoot for Pulver’s legs: Pulver went to sprawl, but with no one underneath him to support his weight, he slipped. Seizing the moment, Lauzon rushed forward, grabbed the back of Pulver’s head, and kneed him in the jaw; with Jens stunned, Lauzon starched him with a massive left hook, taking him completely out of his faculties and ending the fight.

Jens is at a crucial point in his career: he’s 3-3 in his last six fights and if he’s serious about earning another lightweight title shot, he’s going to need the positive momentum that a win over a big name like Penn can generate.

BJ’s at an equally crucial point in his career: he’s 1-3 in his last four fights. To add insult to injury, he was clearly in control of both of his last two losses before falling late, whether through undertraining (St. Pierre) or through no fault of his own (Hughes). While he doesn’t plan to stay at lightweight, this’ll be his last chance to even the score with Jens and wipe that loss out of his mind.

So how well do these fighters match up with each other? Let’s have a look.

Striking: That nasty left hand is Jens’s calling card, and he’s put some solid fighters to sleep with it. As a former professional boxer, he’s got a level of comfort on his feet that almost no UFC lightweight can approach.

Unlike a lot of BJJ masters, though, BJ’s no stranger to throwing punches. He soundly outstruck Gomi, St. Pierre, and Hughes and absolutely loves to trade blows with anyone. His striking’s become much more technically sound over the course of his career, but he seems to have lost a little of that explosiveness that made him so dangerous early in his career.

Jens’s knockout power is beyond well-documented, so BJ would be wise to keep his punches tight and straight and avoid giving Jens a stationary target. Jens, on the other hand, will probably look to sprawl and brawl, trying to sucker BJ (who prefers to be the aggressor on his feet) into standing and trading with him.

While BJ’s standup is dangerous—particularly at 155 pounds—I still have to give Jens the advantage here.

Advantage: Pulver.

Ground game: This is BJ’s bread and butter, and very few fighters at 155 pounds can even remotely claim to match his skills in grappling and submissions. If there is an underrated part of his ground game, though, it’s his ground-and-pound attack, which he used to tenderize Gomi and Ludwig en route to choking them out. Given the mileage on Jens’s chin, look for BJ to try to mount him and start dropping hammers, trying to force an opening for a submission or a referee stoppage.

Like BJ’s standup, fans tend to largely ignore Jens’s mat skills, but they’re certainly substantial. While he’s not going to make a skilled fighter like Penn tap out, his takedown and submission defense are excellent, and his strength and wrestling skill gives him a decent chance in a scramble or clinch situation. Unfortunately, against a ground ace like BJ Penn, a decent chance may not be enough.

Advantage: Penn.

Chin: Penn’s had only one of his losses end early, and even then he wasn’t knocked out or even dazed: he was stuck underneath Matt Hughes with a separated rib, and Hughes was elbowing the hell out of him. Other than that, no one’s even come close to turning his lights out.

Jens, on the other hand, has been knocked out three times in his last six fights. Every time a fighter gets knocked out, he essentially gets a concussion, and—as anyone who watches pro football will tell you—every concussion that a fighter suffers almost exponentially increases the chances of him suffering another one. Randy Couture noted this when asked to pick a winner in the fight, and I think it’s a very valid point, particularly against someone as strong as BJ.

If anyone has the punching power to hand BJ his first professional knockout loss, it’d be Jens, but sadly enough, BJ ringing Jens’s bell is far more likely.

Advantage: Penn.

Stamina: Jens Pulver trains at one of the toughest gyms on Earth, bar none, and one of the key pillars of the Miletich training philosophy is a fanatical devotion to conditioning. As just about every great fighter has pointed out, the only thing that you can really control in a fight is the shape that you show up in; with that in mind, when was the last time that you saw a Miletich fighter (who wasn’t fighting on short notice) run out of gas in the octagon?

BJ, conversely, takes a less serious approach to his conditioning. He freely admitted that his lack of cardio work may have cost him the St. Pierre fight, and sometimes he seems disinterested in that aspect of his training. Still, he’s had to train pretty hard to get his weight back down to 155, so he should show up in excellent shape. Excellent shape, mind you–not Miletich kind of shape.

Advantage: Pulver.

Intangibles: The general consensus among all of us so-called experts is that BJ Penn hasn’t quite fulfilled his potential, while Jens Pulver, on the other hand, to be on the downside of a spectacular career. Of course, we’ve all been wrong before: look no further than Randy Couture for that.

Both men appear extremely focused coming in, and the genuine resentment between both fighters—Jens raging over BJ’s perceived lack of respect, and BJ angry over what he sees as Jens’s unwillingness to schedule a rematch in the first place—should guarantee that they’ve given this fight their unwavering attention.

In the end, what’s it come down to? For one thing, Jens is slowly reaching Ken Shamrock territory here: while Ken was never afraid to step in there with up-and-comers and true contenders, unfortunately time and mileage catch up to everyone eventually.

Every time that Pulver’s tried to step up in competition over the last five years, he’s been knocked out: his fights against Gomi, Ludwig, Sakurai, and Lauzon all ended the same way–badly for Jens.

On the other hand, while BJ’s lost three of his last four fights, he only took substantial damage in one of those fights (the second Hughes fight) and generally tends to dish out more punishment than he absorbs. People have questioned his dedication in the past, but getting the opportunity to face his first real nemesis in the sport again is going to bring out the best in him.

As for Jens, his spirit is obviously willing, but his body may be a little too weak to face an opponent at Penn’s level. Sure, Jens thrives as the underdog, but even in the year of the upset in MMA, this seems like a little too much of a stretch.

My Prediction: Jens is going to come out like a man possessed, but I think that BJ’s going to weather the storm, establish control of the fight on the ground, and pound on Jens until he leaves a submission open. BJ Penn wins by submission in round 2.

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