UFC 137 Preview Part Seven: BJ Penn vs. Nick Diaz Is Too Close To Call

Inside the Octagon, the key battleground is often inside each fighter’s head. In an unusually grueling and tactical sport, mental strength and agility are both key skills of the successful fighter. Having the dedication to get into the best possible shape or devise the perfect gameplan is what separates the best from the talented.

Both Penn and Diaz are both naturally gifted fighters and athletes. They can do things it takes others years of dedication and practice to perfect seemingly without effort. Penn was winning Brazilian jiu-jitsu world championships just a few years removed from being a directionless rich kid getting into street fights in Hawai’i, while Diaz was able to defeat Takanori Gomi in 2006 despite having smoked enough cannabis before the fight to be three times over the allowed limit for its chemical compound THC.

The reason, of course, is their natural genius. Both have an instinctual all-round game that even in a sport now dominated by ultra-professional supercamps many top fighters lack. While he started out under the tutelage of Cesar Gracie learning BJJ, Diaz has barely used his grappling skills in his last few fights as he’s concentrated on his ever improving striking skills. His “Stockton slap” boxing style is reminiscent of retired prize fighter Joe Calzaghe in its emphasis on quantity of shots over quality, with Diaz, like Calzaghe, looking to wear down his opponents with the sheer volume of punches he can throw without tiring.

Penn, likewise, mixes great jiu-jitsu and boxing, although intriguingly in both cases his style is very different. Penn’s grappling is more focused on attacking from top position, always looking to transition into his favored rear naked choke submission. Meanwhile, his boxing is of a classic boxer-puncher variety, with Penn picking his shots as he uses his jab to setup devastating hooks and uppercuts.

When they’re on their game, these two fighters can beat anybody, possessing the talent to take on the best of the best. In what may end up as the fight of the year, Diaz shocked everyone by out-striking Paul Daley in his most recent defense of his Strikeforce welterweight title this past April. Meanwhile, in an underappreciated performance, Penn managed to outwrestle Jon Fitch for two rounds when they fought in Australia. And yet, despite both men excelling on the feet and on the ground, both have underachieved in recent years.

While Penn looked awesome against the likes of Sean Sherk and Kenny Florian, he meekly surrendered to Georges St. Pierre after being overwhelmed by the larger man and twice ran out of ideas when confronted with the speed and movement of the smaller Frankie Edgar. Those three fights all raised the same issues about Penn’s poor preparation, substandard camp and his inability to come from behind when put on the back foot.

Diaz may not have lost in the past few years, but he’s refused to use his world-class BJJ against even the most limited grappler in an attempt to prove his toughness by striking with strikers. This may just be a self-defeating affection that he was only getting away with due to the substandard level of competition in Strikeforce. Against a blown-up lightweight in K.J. Noons, Diaz was frequently tagged and at several points of the fight was badly hurt. More bizarre was his performance against Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos, where he spent the entire fight refusing to check Santos’ leg kicks and made what should have been a one-sided defense somewhat competitive.

On Saturday, if either man is to emerge victorious they’re going to have to bring their A game, especially as both men have advantages that can potentially make the most of their opponent’s weakness. Penn’s excellent wrestling could result in Diaz reliving the nightmare of his previous UFC run, where he was repeatedly taken down and held there by battle-hardened wrestlers. Diaz’s exceptional cardio and conditioning, developed through competing in triathlons in his spare time, may allow him to set a pace at which Penn cannot last.

Because of all this, it’s a fairly balanced fight between two of the most instinctively excellent, yet frequently inconsistent, fighters in the UFC. With so little separating them, the result may hinge on who enters the Octagon in the best shape and with the clearest idea of how they’re going to secure victory.

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