Penn’s next step a tricky manuever

By Dave Meltzer, Yahoo! Sports
2 hours, 12 minutes ago

BOSTON – Perhaps the biggest surprise this year among top mixed martial artists is that, for the first time in his UFC career, B.J. Penn finds himself out of the championship picture – at least temporarily.

Penn, whether he held a championship belt or not, was considered by most within the industry as the best lightweight fighter in the world from the day he stepped into the Octagon in 2001.

Today, at 31, in a sport where a lot of results are based on inches and luck, you can conclusively say he’s no longer the world’s best. Not after consecutive losses to Frankie Edgar, the second, via a dominant five-round decision Saturday night at UFC 118 in Boston.

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Penn has a 15-7-1 professional record, which hardly look like Hall of Fame numbers. The record is misleading because 11 of his fights have been championship bouts. Eight bouts have been out of his natural weight class, including two at middleweight, two classes up, and one four classes up at heavyweight. In reality, his legacy in the sport probably will be based on whether his comeback run is successful.

Penn didn’t speak to the press after his loss. In the cage, he was gracious with no excuses.

“Frankie fought a great fight, he’s the man,” was all Penn offered. “I’ve got nothing bad to say.”

When asked about his future, including being asked by Joe Rogan about a possible move to welterweight, Penn had no answers.

“I’ve really got to go home and think about that, no quick decisions.”

While a move to welterweight would give him a number of fresh matches with new name opponents, he was clearly too small and took a pounding the last time he fought at that weight, against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94. An in-shape Penn gives up a good 15 pounds to most in the division in the cage, and 25 to the major weight-cutters.

As a lightweight, booking him becomes difficult. Because of who Penn is and the money he commands, he has to fight stars. Penn would need a strong winning streak to get another title shot if Edgar becomes a long-term champion. But if Gray Maynard, Edgar’s next opponent, wins the title, as long as Penn hasn’t lost again, he would immediately be the contender people would most like to see challenge.

With Edgar as champion, it becomes questionable as to putting him against rising stars like Evan Dunham and George Sotiropolous. If Penn were to beat either of them, he would eliminate a rising title contender while not creating a new contender. If Edgar is no longer champion, those matches could make more sense, but Dunham still also needs to establish his name recognition before making such a fight.

Former PRIDE champion Takanori Gomi scored a strong knockout over Tyson Griffin on Aug. 1, and was once Penn’s rival among insiders as the game’s best lightweight several years back. But aside from the Griffin win, Gomi hasn’t looked top-level in the past few years. Penn dominated him on the ground in a fight seven years ago. Kenny Florian has the biggest name of the potential opponents, but Penn decisively went through him last year in a title match and it’s too soon for a rematch.

Clay Guida may be the most popular of the lightweight fighters outside of Penn, and it would be a match people would care about. Penn would be the heavy favorite, as even though Guida has the same type of gas tank as Edgar, which gave Penn fits, he doesn’t have the speed or boxing ability to take advantage of it.

Perhaps the most intriguing opponent right now would be Nate Diaz. Diaz fought most of his career as a lightweight and looked thin when he moved to welterweight. Even though he has scored two straight impressive wins as a welterweight, Diaz said after beating Marcus Davis on Saturday that he wants to fight someone in the top three in either the lightweight or welterweight division.

There are major upsides for Diaz as the next opponent. First, his recent wins have been impressive enough that people see him as a star ready to break through. He also always has exciting fights, a major factor in matchmaking what would likely be a top-two match on a show. Like his older brother Nick, he comes across with almost a street thug attitude that appeals to many, and also isn’t liked by many. But the key is, people have strong feelings about him, which makes him marketable.

Diaz can be a superstar to the public easier than most, and a win over Penn would instantly put him there. A win by Penn would likely elevate Penn in a way that a win over Guida or Gomi wouldn’t. The only question is whether the UFC would want Diaz to move back to lightweight.

Penn walked into this sport as a 22-year-old who had become the first non-Brazilian to win a gold medal in the black belt division in the World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu championships in Rio de Janeiro. Before he ever had his first MMA fight, just from his training at various high-level gyms and what he was able to do in practice with world champions several weight classes above him, he was talked of as one of the most amazing fighters on the planet.

A natural lightweight, Penn had the mentality that size didn’t matter. Penn moved up a weight class in 2004 and choked out a prime Matt Hughes to win the welterweight title – Hughes’ only loss in a 20-fight span. Penn then signed to fight in Japan, which resulted in a nasty legal battle with UFC that kept him out of the organization for two years.

In 2005, he fought Lyoto Machida, then a 220-pound heavyweight, in a Japanese freak-show match, and lost a competitive decision. When he returned to UFC in 2006, Dana White wanted him to fight at lightweight, his best weight, and become the dominant champion he was long expected to be. He had no interest, and instead clamored to get a fight with Andrei Arlovski, at the time the UFC heavyweight champion.

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