Penn-Florian: Behind the Numbers

Michael DiSanto, UFC - On Saturday, August 8, 2009, BJ Penn returns to the Octagon to defend his lightweight championship against former title challenger and universally regarded top contender Kenny Florian. Anytime the sport pits one of its champions against the undisputed No. 1 contender it is a must-see event. When that champion is attempting to tie the record set by a bitter rival, things become that much more interesting.
By Michael DiSanto

On Saturday, August 8, 2009, BJ Penn returns to the Octagon to defend his lightweight championship against former title challenger and universally regarded top contender Kenny Florian. Anytime the sport pits one of its champions against the undisputed No. 1 contender it is a must-see event. When that champion is attempting to tie the record set by a bitter rival, things become that much more interesting.

Penn is in search of his second consecutive successful title defense. That doesn’t seem like much. But it is enough to tie him with Jens Pulver for the most successful 155-lb title defenses in history. Don’t think that record escapes Penn’s attention. He hasn’t said much about it, but there is no doubt that he wants to erase Pulver from the UFC’s record books by breaking his record.

Beating Florian has been much easier said than done over the past two-plus years. The Bostonian has been perfect inside the Octagon since his October 2006 loss to Sean Sherk, and he isn’t about to be anybody’s patsy at UFC 101.

What will happen once the referee signals the start to the action? Will Penn take the penultimate step toward breaking Pulver’s record? Will Florian finally fulfill his title dreams?

Let’s take a look at this fight behind the numbers and see.

PHYSICAL SIZE

Let’s dispose of this one very quickly. The challenger is slightly taller than the champion—an inch or so, depending on who is doing the measuring. He also enjoys a few inches in the reach department—always a dubious statistic because it the length of one’s wingspan, rather than the distance from the armpit to the end of one’s clenched fist.

Penn walks around at a much heavier weight in between fights, but when the bell sounds, both fighters will be roughly the same weight, as neither are master weight cutters.

None of that matters, though.

Penn isn’t the biggest lightweight in the world, but physical size will never be an issue for him in any lightweight fight, regardless of what the statistics show, because this guy has competed successfully against men far, far larger than any lightweight on the planet. He beat Matt Hughes, who is an absolutely huge welterweight, for the UFC 170-lb title. He defeated two Gracies at 185 lbs in non-UFC bouts. And, unlike Rashad Evans, Penn lasted the distance against current 205-lb champion Lyoto Machida in an openweight bout in K-1 Hero’s back on March 26, 2005.

His positive experience fighting much larger men likely makes all lightweights feel like featherweights when he locks up with them. That is a very real advantage for Penn against all lightweights, including Florian.

AGE

BJ Penn has been a household name among UFC fans since he burst onto the scene with a dramatic first-round technical knockout win over Joey Gilbert at UFC 31 on March 4, 2001. Florian, by contrast, wasn’t introduced to UFC fans until The Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV nearly four years later. Yet, Florian is actually slightly older—he turned 33 on May 26, whereas Penn won’t turn 31 until December 13.

With both men still in their fighting primes, age will not be a factor on August 8.

EXPERIENCE

This is where Penn holds a massive edge.

‘The Prodigy’ is 9-4-1 in 14 UFC bouts, with five of those wins coming by way of strikes and three by submission. As a lightweight, Penn is 8-1-1 in the UFC. His lone loss came in a close loss to Jens Pulver at UFC 35 on January 11, 2002. Mix in a draw against Uno a little over a year later, and Penn has been perfect at lightweight for over six years.

Granted, he took nearly a three-year hiatus from the division to compete as a welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight. His 155-lb record during that period is spotless nonetheless.

Florian, by comparison, is 9-2 in 11 UFC bouts, with three of those wins ending with punches and five ending via submission. He also holds an extremely impressive lightweight record, racking up one less win than the champion in two fewer bouts.

While they appear relatively equal in terms of experience, it is the quality of opponents that truly separates the two.

Penn has fought for UFC gold seven times, scoring three wins and a draw. He has also competed eight times inside the Octagon against current or former UFC champions, winning half of them. If one includes his fights in K-1 and Rumble on the Rock, then he competed 10 times overall against current or former UFC and PRIDE champions, again winning half of them.

Oh yes, one must not forget those two wins over Renzo and Rodrigo Gracie. Neither of those men ever won championships, but they are fighting standouts anyway.

Florian has but a single title challenge on his record—a unanimous decision loss to Sean Sherk at UFC 64 on October 14, 2006. Other than that, he has faced two other “top contenders” in Joe Stevenson and Diego Sanchez.

The challenger delivered a career-best performance against Stevenson, submitting him in the first round back in his most recent trip to the Octagon back in November. Against Sanchez, however, Florian looked lost against his foe. Of course, that bout occurred more than four years ago, so Florian isn’t the same fighter as the one who ran around the ring from Sanchez at the first Ultimate Fighter Finale.

Sherk, Stevenson and Sanchez are all world-class fighters. But they aren’t pound-for-pound greats. They aren’t multi-division champions. No, they are not BJ Penn.

Penn has competed in the limelight against the best of the best for most of his career, so this is just another day at the office for him. It is the biggest fight of Florian’s life.

Advantage Penn.

CURRENT TREND

The champion is coming off the fourth loss of his UFC career, a thorough beating at the hands of 170-lb champion Georges St-Pierre. The beating was so one-sided that Penn’s corner threw in the towel before the start of the final round. He is riding a four-fight winning streak as a lightweight, but the sour taste of defeat from the GSP fight undoubtedly covers the sweet taste of those 155-lb victories.

Florian is riding a career best six-fight winning streak. The former collegiate soccer player has never looked better in his entire career. During his current streak, Florian stopped Stevenson, Joe Lauzon, Din Thomas, Alvin Robinson and Dokonjonosuke Mishima inside the distance. Only Roger Huerta was able to last the distance.

Florian is peaking at the right time. Penn may be battling some self doubt after being outclassed by GSP.

Advantage Florian.

CURRENT LAYOFF

Penn is in the midst of a 181-day layoff—not an unusual amount of time away from competition for the Hawaiian. In fact, the longest layoff of his career occurred between UFC 63, when he lost to Hughes, and the finale of TUF Season 5, when he avenged his loss to arch rival Pulver. In the interim, Penn served as a coach opposite Pulver on the UFC’s hit reality show. He also took a 221-day hiatus between UFC 84, where he dominated Sherk, and his recent bout against GSP. Thus, the 181-day layoff will be business as usual for Penn.

Florian, by contrast, will end the longest layoff of his UFC career, 266 days, when he faces Penn. Guys can hit pads and spar all they want. But it is impossible to simulate the adrenalin spikes and speed of an actual fight, particularly when facing a living legend like Penn. One must therefore expect that he will be at least a bit rusty early in the fight.

Again, advantage Penn.

TRAINING CAMP

Many fight cognoscenti have openly wondered whether Penn’s past training habits have led to a plateau in his development. Only Penn knows for sure. Nonetheless, he broke from his normal routine for this fight by spending time at California’s Sports Science Lab, training under the watchful eye of Marv Marinovich, a guru in sport-specific training programs.

According to reports, his time spent training with Marinovich allegedly created a stronger, faster and better conditioned Penn. If that is true, it is a truly scary proposition.

Florian owns his own gym. But he relinquishes control over much of his training to head coach Mark DellaGrotte. For this fight, Florian also spent time training with welterweight king and two-time Penn conqueror GSP.

GSP cannot possibly paint the blueprint for Florian to win the title because the two are such different fighters. Florian will never have the same wrestling ability as GSP, which was a huge factor in both of his wins. But he cannot help but get better training with one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Penn gets a tip of the hat for seeking out Marinovich’s guidance for this fight, but the edge in training camps goes to Florian.

THE PREDICTION

There was a time, not too long ago, when BJ Penn was considered the best fighter in the world, pound for pound. It is not that farfetched of a notion, despite his recent struggles at 170 lbs, because Penn can do things in a cage that nobody else can do—period. He is nearly impossible to take down, except for the very best wrestlers in the sport. He has crisp, quick hands that he fires with precision accuracy. His punching power at lightweight is enough to make anyone stop and take notice. And he has the flexibility and creativity to be able to pull off submissions and escape from positions that would be impossible for most mere mortals.

Penn is very close to the perfect lightweight fighting machine. For my money, he is better in every aspect of the fighting game when compared to Florian, except for one. And that one factor plays a huge part in the outcome of any fight that lasts beyond two rounds—conditioning.

Penn’s Achilles heel has always been his conditioning. All the skill in the world means nothing once one’s gas tank hits empty. Black belts turn into white belts at that point. Knockout punches turn into powder puffs. Penn knows all that. His conditioning has let him down on more than one occasion inside the Octagon.

If Penn shows up with his gas tank only half full, Florian may very well be the next UFC Lightweight Champion. Florian is a cardio freak, as he displayed by remaining relatively fresh during the five-round pounding he suffered from Sherk. His game plan on August 8 will be to survive Penn’s early charge and pour it on in rounds three through five.

If Penn has really addressed that hole in his game, then Florian may be in for a rough night. Taking the time to train at Sports Science Lab suggests that he has done just that, so I expect Penn to come out and put on a virtuoso performance against Florian, tying Pulver’s record in the process.



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