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St. Pierre vs. Penn: Too Close to Call

B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre are two very different people with different approaches to the sport of mixed martial arts. However, one thing they have in common is that they both have been blessed with athletic skills that translate beautifully to martial arts.

One look at St. Pierre and you can tell he is a world class athlete while Penn on the other hand, does not possess a similar look. But never judge a book by its cover, as Penn has almost as many athletic tools to work with as St. Pierre.

To predict a winner for this Saturday’s fight is relatively easy, as all one needs to do is blurt out a name. Where the real challenge occurs is attempting to break down the fight and predict an outcome. Will the fight be fought on the feet or on the floor? Will Penn’s hands prove superior to St. Pierre’s? Will St. Pierre’s clinch game limit Penn’s ability to achieve separation and put momentum behind his punches? Will St. Pierre’s wrestling or Penn’s jiu-jitsu prove the difference?

Both fighters are so evenly matched that while I will offer a predicted winner at the conclusion of this article, I’m not going to dare attempt to try and forecast how the fight will go. St. Pierre holds a previous win over Penn in a fight that occurred nearly three years ago but both fighters have grown mentally and have improved physically. The fight we see at UFC 94 is going to look vastly different than the one we saw at UFC 58.

St. Pierre and Penn possess so many physical assets that there is an overlap when it comes to select attributes. For example, both St. Pierre and Penn have tremendous hand speed with Penn having garnered praise from several boxing trainers that he has worked with, most notably Freddie Roach. After a few sessions with Roach, he felt compelled to label Penn the best boxer in MMA. For those who want to question Roach’s MMA credentials, understand that he is hardly alone in his line of thinking.

Penn’s best weapon in his striking arsenal is perhaps his jab. In MMA, you don’t want to have as active of a jab as you would in boxing because it can leave one vulnerable to a takedown. However, when you are as accomplished in jiu-jitsu as Penn, being put on your back isn’t always the end of the world.

In fact, when you are as good as Penn, sometimes it could prove to be the end for his opponent on top. That was the dilemma that faced Sean Sherk at UFC 84 this past May. Despite having his face turned into hamburger meat by Penn’s jab, Sherk never elected to use his world class wrestling skills to take Penn to the floor.

Despite his strong back game, Penn wants to avoid being taken down by St. Pierre. St. Pierre’s wrestling has really improved and his top game is strong. The idea of Penn being able to sweep St. Pierre or someone rope him into a triangle is a very unlikely one.

Penn was also blessed with tremendous flexibility, a key asset that allowed him to become the first American-born jiu-jitsu world champion. With Penn’s striking having been so prominently displayed in recent wins, it’s easy to forget that he is perhaps one of the best grapplers in all of MMA, if not the best.

St. Pierre’s hands are quick and while he doesn’t possess one punch knockout power, he has enough pop in his punches that he can finish an opponent with a combination. However, the most dangerous element of his standup attack are his kicks and knees. While Penn’s kicks are underrated, they are not on par with St. Pierre’s.

Thanks to St. Pierre’s aforementioned flexibility and quickness, he has the ability to land his kicks low, high, and everywhere in between. Not to mention he has the ability to follow his kicks. Moving backwards is not a suitable method in which to counter a St. Pierre quick because there’s a chance he’s going to follow it up with another strike. If Penn wants to defend against a kick, he needs to circle away from the strike in order to take himself out of position for a followup.

When it comes to the clinch game, St. Pierre also has an advantage as he is able to deliver knees strong enough to break bones and take the wind out of his opponents.

From a physical perspective, this fight appears to be a tie on all levels. The difference maker in this fight will come down to the mental game, an area that has been called into question for both fighters in the past.

For St. Pierre, his toughness was called into question following a first round TKO against Matt Serra at UFC 69 in April of 2007. Soon after the loss, UFC President Dana White felt compelled to go on the radio and reveal that prior to the fight that St. Pierre was suffering from a severe case of nerves. To a degree, St. Pierre even acknowledged some performance issues as he made it a point to begin seeing a sports psychologist.

But what was once an area of concern is no longer, as St. Pierre showed a true warrior spirit in returning to form following the Serra loss with dominant wins over Josh Koscheck at UFC 74 and Matt Hughes at UFC 79. Then, at UFC 83 this past April, St. Pierre wrecked Serra with knees to the body, TKO’ing him at 4:45 of round 2 and regaining his title in the process.

If St. Pierre is human, he will feel a degree of nerves on his way to the Octagon on Saturday night. However, he has matured as a fighter and a person and experiencing some level of nervousness is not uncommon for a fighter. According to those who know Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, he appeared to be nervous entering the cage against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92 and we all saw how things worked out.

If nothing else, St. Pierre can walk into the Octagon on Saturday with the knowledge that he has already beaten Penn. As such, should he lose, it will not be the end of the world. St. Pierre also has the first-hand life experience of knowing that no matter how far a loss might set him back, he has the ability and fortitude to climb back to the top of the mountain.

The bulk of the pressure heading into this fight is on Penn. He desperately wants to avenge his the UFC 58 loss to St. Pierre in order to bolster his legacy. However, if he loses on Saturday, it’s going to be very difficult for Penn to earn another shot at St. Pierre. Penn also wants to make a permanent move to welterweight and the only way that’s going to happen is by winning on Saturday. A loss will mean that it’s back to the 155 pound division with a title defense against Kenny Florian.

While the pressure will be there for Penn, when in his eight year career has he ever shown signs of cracking? Penn enjoys high-pressue situations. Moving up fromt lightweight to welterweight at UFC 46 in 2004, Penn pulled off a major upset in taking the 170 pound title away from Hughes following a rear naked choke in the first round.

Soon after the win over Hughes, Penn left for K-1, where he experienced even greater pressure taking on the legendary Renzo Gracie in front of his hometown Hawaiian fans in June of 2005. Pressure was not a factor, as Penn took care of business and walked away with a unanimous decision victory.

Despite his ability to perform in high-pressure situations, Penn’s ability to prepare for them was called into question following consecutive losses to St. Pierre at UFC 58 and then Hughes at UFC 63. While Penn’s claim that he suffered broken ribs vs. Hughes proved legitimate, the fact remains that he did not have the gas tank needed to match the pace that both Hughes and St. Pierre had set.

But much like St. Pierre answered questions about his mental toughness following his loss to Serra, Penn put conditioning concerns to rest following three consecutive dominant wins over Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, and Sherk. Forget what you might have watched during the first episode of UFC Primetime, as Penn has learned his lessons from the past and is taking this fight as serious as one can. The UFC wants to sell a pay-per-view and was willing to exploit a few days of rest by Penn in an attempt to drum up some controversy. Cardio will not be a factor come Saturday.

Both fighters come into UFC 94 having answered questions that lingered following critical losses having displayed added maturity in the wins that proceeded the defeats. Both fighters come into UFC 94 in the prime of their careers. Based on the way both have surged in recent victories over top-level competition, I can’t envision either fighter being able to finish the other. The fight will come down to a game of inches and I’d be shocked if it didn’t go to the judges scorecards. And when the scores are calculated, my gut tells me that Penn will be announced as the winner via split decision.

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