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UFC 137 Breakdown: The Main Event

B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz‘s mutual respect and admiration may have rendered them unusually subdued coming into their upcoming bout, but the moment these two step inside the Octagon at UFC 137, there will be guaranteed violence. The Zuffa brass may not exactly feel “fortunate” following all the main event turmoil leading up to this Saturday, but surely they will admit that having such a strong co-main event ultimately saved this card from sinking completely. And while Georges St. Pierre‘s injury will leave a sour taste in people’s mouths, the fact remains, a fight pitting Penn against Diaz would have been considered a mouth-watering main event under normal circumstances.

Welterweight Fight: B.J. Penn vs. Nick Diaz

What Nick Diaz will attempt to do is far from a mystery. He will move forward, throw his “peppering punches”, throw plenty of combinations, and go to the body repeatedly. This is the way Diaz has always fought, but he has done remarkably well in actually improving upon it in recent times. While his approach and strategy remain the same, his technique has gotten significantly better. That is not to say that Diaz will ever be mistaken for a technical striker, but there can’t be any doubts as to his efficiency.

Many of Diaz’s opponents have fallen victim to the sheer volume with which he throws, and Diaz will look to overwhelm Penn the same way he did to his previous adversaries. He will look to take advantage of his reach by establishing his jab, continuously look for his lead right hook, and follow it up with the left; most likely to the body. Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the improvement in Diaz’s boxing has been his increased power. While the Stockton native isn’t a heavy hitter by any means, he has learned to sit on his punches in order to put more weight behind them. And while volume remains his main asset, he has proven that he can hurt his foes when he connects cleanly. Diaz’s single most dangerous punch is his left hook to the liver, and if he is to have any chance of stopping the otherwise iron-chinned Penn, the left hook to the body is the punch he will have to bank on.

However, for all of Diaz’s offensive improvements, his defense has remained typically shaky. His flat-footed stance continues to make him a still target, which, coupled with his lack of head movement, makes him extremely susceptible to getting lit up by a talented counter-puncher. Additionally, while Diaz does a good job at utilizing his reach effectively, he is all too content to stand inside the pocket. This almost cost him dearly against Paul Daley, and had it not been for Diaz’s otherworldly chin and recovery, he likely would have been separated from consciousness in that bout.

This plays right into BJ Penn’s hands, as the Hawaiian is a superior technical boxer with great counter-punching ability. On paper, Penn could have a hard time getting past Diaz’s reach and get his jab going, but his superior footwork and hand speed will likely compensate. In addition to his laser-like jab and his lead left hook, Penn’s single most lethal strike is by far his counter right hook. And this is where things get tricky for Diaz, as unlike many of his previous opponents, he will not simply be able to cut off the cage, pressure Penn into backpedaling, and start unloading with combinations. Instead, “The Prodigy” will step inside and stop Diaz in his tracks with accurate counter-striking. Penn would be smart to look to counter with a straight right as well, as Diaz’s southpaw stance makes him particularly vulnerable to that shot.

For Penn, efficient and clean counter-punching will be key to his success. He can’t afford to allow Diaz to settle into a rhythm and get his usual offense going, as this will almost assuredly tire the former multi-divisional champion out. Instead, his superior speed and especially, fire power, should be able to stop Diaz from throwing with the same volume and with his usual comfort level.

Crucially, it is Penn who possesses a second path to victory. If Diaz gets the better of the stand-up exchanges, Penn should be smart enough to take the fight to the ground. Penn’s wrestling ability, particularly his double leg takedown, has long been severely underrated. Given Diaz’s historically iffy takedown defense, Penn — who out-wrestled Jon Fitch earlier this year — shouldn’t have too much trouble planting his opponent on his back.

Diaz is guilty of being too comfortable off of his back, as he rarely attempts to scramble back to his feet and instead relies on throwing submissions from the bottom. Against a grappler of Penn’s caliber, this will prove to be a lost cause. In fact, going for triangles from the bottom will provide Penn with some guard passing opportunities. Penn’s fantastic guard passing is made easier by some vicious ground and pound. In particular, Penn’s elbows are something Diaz needs to be wary of, especially given his history of marking up and cutting too easily. Diaz might be one of only a handful of fighters who can survive with BJ Penn on their back, but it is nevertheless a position the Cesar Gracie product should desperately avoid.

Diaz will hold a strong edge in cardio, as Penn has a history of fading when things don’t go his way, and Diaz’s frantic pace is too much for most fighters to handle. However, Penn’s conditioning has never reared its ugly head in fights where he has been in control. It is only when he gets beaten up that he starts to slow down. As long as he is dictating the action, Penn should be fine.

If Diaz is to win, he needs to use his reach to frustrate Penn, pile up the pressure, tag him continuously while avoiding the incoming counters, and wear him out. In reality however, the match-up is just too difficult for Diaz to overcome. Penn’s head movement and chin — which might be even better than Diaz’s — mean that Nick will have a hard time landing at will or hurting him. Furthermore, Penn’s counter-punching will prove problematic for the defensively deficient Diaz. On the ground, Penn possesses one of the best top games in MMA and happens to be one of the few fighters in the division with overall better grappling than Diaz. Nick’s toughness makes him incredibly hard to finish (though it isn’t completely off the cards), but Penn should walk away with a comfortable decision.

Official Prediction: BJ Penn to defeat Nick Diaz by Decision

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