Normally when I write these prediction-essays, I don’t bother to do so unless I’m feeling a certain way about a fight that I know a lot of people feel differently about. Otherwise, what’s the point of going to such great lengths to outline a prediction that the vast majority supports?
For the main event of UFC 84 on May 24, going with the headline “Why B.J. Penn will beat Sean Sherk” is just too obvious. Sure, Sherk is a legit fighter and has a chance to win. It’s just that going into the fight, I haven’t spoken to too many people who believe that will actually be the case.
As such, I’ve decided to go out on a limb and make things interesting by not only predicting that Penn will beat Sherk, but that he will do it in a dominant fashion that will be reminiscent of how he beat Jens Pulver and Joe Stevenson. Meaning, B.J. not only wins, but he wins big.
The more and more I analyze this fight, I just don’t see many ways for Sherk to win. For me, I see only two areas for Penn that are of concern. The first area is quite obvious, which is Penn’s cardio. However, since dropping to ’55, Penn hasn’t rested on his laurels and his god given fighting skills. He’s spent more time in the gym because he knows he can’t take as many liberties when he has 15 additional pounds to cut.
I also believe that some of Penn’s weight and conditioning issues stemmed from the fact that at one point, fighting became too easy for him. He was such a step above his competition that it’s possible he began to cut corners. While it’s not like I spent any time in Hawaii with the guy, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he didn’t cut corners during his training camps for Pulver and Stevenson.
I also don’t believe he cut corners for Sherk, either. We all know about the animosity that exists between the two. When Penn gets pissed, that gives him additional incentive to get to the gym and push himself. He pushed himself to prove a point vs. Pulver and I think the fight vs. Sherk is every bit as personal. Maybe he’ll bury the hatchet with Sherk like he did after his fight vs. Pulver, but until the fight is behind them, I don’t see Penn losing his edge.
Based on Sherk’s reputation for being a beast when it comes to conditioning, I just don’t see Penn trying to help an opponent he wants to beat by giving him a way to win. If you thought Penn was pumped and primed for Pulver, I think you’ll see him fight like a man possessed vs. Sherk so that he can make a statement.
The other concern for Penn is what happens if Sherk puts him on his back and uses his outstanding wrestling skills to control him on the mat? If Sherk grounds the current lightweight champ, it’s going to be very tough for Penn to score points with the judges. And while I’ve read other pundits raising this concern, I do have to wonder, is this really that big of a concern?
You hear people talk about how being in Anderson Silva’s or Frank Mir’s guard can be a dangerous place for an opponent. Well, being in Penn’s guard isn’t exactly the safest place in the world, either. In competitive grappling, allowing your opponent to have top position so that you can “play the bottom” is a commonly utilized tactic. But you rarely see it in MMA because of the striking element on the ground. So while Penn will try to avoid allowing a stronger fighter put him in top position, I don’t think it will be the end of the world if Sherk is able to take him down.
Penn’s submission skills are simply amazing. And he’s mastered jiu-jitsu from a traditional standpoint. There are a lot of schools that teach jiu-jitsu, but many instructors these days focus too much on a No-Gi style that is derived from MMA. A lot of fighters coming up learn jiu-jitsu without ever wearing a Gi and are essentially being taught submission wrestling. As such, they never really learn how to properly work off their back. If you wonder why Anderson Silva is so dangerous off his back when his wrestling isn’t the best, it’s because he was taught traditional jiu-jitsu in its purest form.
If Sherk grounds Penn, he will have to remain active in order to prevent the referee from standing them back up. So he’s either going to have to strike Penn from inside his guard, or try to pass it. And I just don’t see Sherk’s ground and pound being overly effective vs. Penn from guard. While I’ve yet to see the two stand next to each other for an extended duration, my assumption is that Penn is the taller fighter. When Penn has a low guard and controls Sherk’s hips, I am wondering if Sherk’s arms will be long enough to extend to a point where they can get enough power behind them to do damage to Penn’s face.
He also must make sure that when he tries to strike Penn from his guard that he isn’t reckless with the punches and elbows that he throws. If he starts throwing wild punches, Penn could move to a high guard and open it when Sherk chambers his punch and then go for a triangle. If Sherk misses with an elbow, Penn could potentially catch him in a head and arm choke. I’m not predicting that the fight will end in either scenario, only pointing out that those are things Sherk must be mindful of.
From my perspective, I think Sherk is going to have to try and pass Penn’s guard if he wants to do serious damage while in top position. While Sherk’s submissions are decent, I don’t consider him a jiu-jitsu master. If he tries to break Penn’s guard, he does run the risk of getting submitted. Based on the strength of Penn’s guard, I don’t think top position will be the safe haven for Sherk that is has proven to be against so many other opponents. Yes, he’s fought fighters with good jiu-jitsu before, but never anyone like Penn.
If I was Sherk, I might try to avoid leg takedowns and instead try and body lock Penn and try and take him down with an inverted slam. By putting him down horizontially, he might be able to avoid Penn’s guard and move right into side control. But I’ve never really evaluated Sherk’s Greco Roman wrestling ability so I have no idea if this is even a feasible strategy. The point I am trying to convey is that if Sherk can somehow find a way to get Penn down in a position where he sets himself up to evade his guard, then I’ll feel better about his chances.
Now, if Sherk can’t get the fight to the ground, then Penn will win the fight and he will win it easily. Sherk’s boxing is decent but his striking has never been and likely will never be his strong suit. You also have to take into account the body type of each fighter and I expect Sherk to be the shorter fighter with Penn having a good reach advantage. Combine the fact that Penn is a stronger striker with more reach, and I can easily see Sherk finding himself in a situation where he could possibly get finished early on his feet.
The Muscle Shark’s only saving grace on the feet is that Penn may have to limit his combinations and not fully commit to kicks or punches in order to limit Sherk’s ability to attack his legs and take him down. If Penn fights smart, he won’t completely open up while standing until he hurts Sherk. As such, I can see Penn being cautious and patient early on and using his reach to pick a part Sherk standing. While such a strategy might not make for the most entertaining fight, it will allow Penn to score points and set himself up to take some chances later in the fight if he’s able to hurt Sherk.
While reading this, some critics are going to accurately point out that Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre controlled Penn on the ground through superior wrestling and that Sherk is also a great wrestler. But Hughes and Sherk are legitimate welterweights and this fight is being contested at 155 pounds. It’s also uncertain just how well Penn prepared for those fights. This isn’t the same fight and this isn’t the same B.J. Penn.
I know Sherk still has his fans, but this analysis isn’t based on popularity. Taking the personal element out of it, I just don’t see very many ways for Sherk to win this fight. Sorry Sherk fans, but lay and pray for 25 minutes isn’t an option.
My breakdown isn’t based on personal politics, as I am just calling it like I see it. And I see Penn wining via TKO in the fourth round.