PENN NOW STANDS ALONE IN THE 155-LB RECORD BOOKS
Baby Jay Penn makes no bones about it. He wants to go down in history as the greatest lightweight champion in the history of the sport. His lopsided win over Diego Sanchez at UFC 107 over the weekend was a big step in that direction because he now stands along as the most successful champion in the brief history of the division.
The UFC Lightweight Championship doesn’t have a long list of former champions. Only two can lay claim to having previously possessed that piece of highly sought after gold—Sean Sherk and Jens Pulver. That brief history is partially due to the fact the inaugural champion wasn’t crowned until a few months following UFC’s seventh birthday, when Jens Pulver defeated Caol Uno by majority decision at UFC 30 on February 23, 2001. Pulver went on to successfully defend the title twice—once against Dennis Hallman and once against the current champion, which still stands as Penn’s only defeat at 155 lbs—before losing it when a contract dispute prompted him to leave the promotion.
Sherk successfully defended the belt once against Hermes Franca, though like Pulver, he never lost it inside the cage, either. It was stripped from him after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance in his post-fight drug test after the Franca fight at UFC 64 on October 14, 2006.
Heading into UFC 107, Penn had successfully defended the title twice—once against Sherk at UFC 84 on May 24, 2008 and again against Kenny Florian at UFC 101 on August 8, 2009. His thrashing of Sanchez broke the tie with Pulver and leaves Penn alone atop the list with three consecutive successful defenses.
If Penn wants to be remembered as the greatest lightweight champion for more than a few years, it stands to reason that he will need to rack up at least a few more successful defenses. That seems very possible considering the lightweight landscape at the moment. There are a number of interesting matchups for him, including Frankie Edgar, Tyson Griffin, Gray Maynard and rematches with Sherk and Florian, assuming that they continue winning. Nevertheless, Penn would be the rightful favorite in any of those matchups.
Fans should be careful not to discount the significance of successfully defending any UFC title three consecutive times. Only seven other champions equaled or bettered that mark. Reigning 170-lb kingpin and fellow pound-for-pound great Georges St-Pierre is currently tied with Penn at three. The iconic former champion Chuck Liddell, who was perceived to be about as dominant a champion as we had ever seen in the Octagon, was only able to successfully defend the 205-lb title four times, tying him with Frank Shamrock and Pat Miletich. The all-time record for consecutive successful title defenses sits at five, with three men sharing that lofty mark—Anderson Silva, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes. Silva may indeed set a new mark for greatness across all weight classes the next time he steps into the cage, but until he actually does that, Penn remains only two wins away from the all-time record.
SANCHEZ: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Sanchez came within whisper of suffering a first-round knockout loss in his first title challenge. Had Penn landed one or two more clean shots during that first salvo of punches, I am convinced that Sanchez would have been left in an unconscious heap on the Octagon floor.
That didn’t happen, so Sanchez was able to survive the biggest wave of fistic adversity that he has ever faced. There is no doubt that his tremendous heart and unbelievable mental strength helped carry him through those initial intense moments and allowed him to survive until late in the fifth round when the ringside doctor waved off the action due to one of the longest, deepest cuts that we have witnessed in UFC history thanks to a perfectly placed Penn right high kick.
Sanchez should be proud of the fact that he lasted until 2:37 of the final round, which is the longest that any lightweight has lasted with the champion since early 2003. He should be proud of the fact that he did not get knocked out, despite taking tons of hard shots for virtually the entire fight. And he should be proud of the fact that he kept trying to find a way to win, despite what became increasingly insurmountable odds.
The courage that Sanchez showed at UFC 107 was nothing short of amazing. Sanchez has always been a fun fighter to watch due to his all-action, non-stop style. But his beautiful display of human spirit raised his profile tremendously with me, and it is a big reason why I will always tune in when he fights.
Sanchez came up short against the greatest lightweight champion in the brief history of the division, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
That is the good. Now, it is time for the bad.
It was actually a bit unfortunate for Sanchez that he survived Penn’s initial attack. Had he suffered a quick knockout or submission loss in the first minute of the fight following the initial knockdown, his fans could have rationalized the loss by claiming that their man walked into a lucky punch, thus leaving in their minds the possibility that Sanchez could defeat Penn in a future bout.
Sanchez did not suffer a quick knockout or submission loss following the knockdown. He suffered a complete, systematic dismantling that left no question whatsoever who is the better fighter. Even Sanchez’s staunchest fans can’t honestly believe that a future bout would turn out any differently, absent some dramatic changes in their guy’s game or a complete disregard for pre-fight training by Penn. That leaves Sanchez in a temporary no man’s land for as long as Penn holds the title.
While that is bad news for a man who so desperately wants to win a world title, it is the same reality that Sherk, Florian and Joe Stevenson are living in at the moment.
The ugly truth that became apparent during Sanchez’s loss to Penn is that he was incapable of adapting to his environment and adjusting his game plan once it became obvious in the first few moments of the fight that what he was trying to do wasn’t working.
Sanchez fought the entire fight from a distance, even though he had no chance at outboxing Penn. He never altered his fistic attacks from lead right hooks and lunging lead lefts, both thrown from much too far away, which allowed Penn to counter at will with right hands flush on the button. He never varied his takedown set ups, continually shooting well outside the effective range against one of toughest guys to take down in the entire sport.
There are several possible explanations for Sanchez’s inability to transition to a Plan B. Maybe after the knockdown punch he was on autopilot for the rest of the fight. For all we know, Sanchez may have no memory of the first round. If that is what happened, then his inability to go to a Plan B is no big deal.
Another possible explanation is that Sanchez’s corner did not give him the proper advice by pointing out specific changes that he needed to make in between rounds. Identifying and communicating those between-round changes are a critical to any successful corner. I wasn’t in the challenger’s corner, so I cannot intelligently debate whether they offered sufficient wisdom to their fighter.
The most troubling possibility is that Sanchez is a one-trick pony; he can only fight one way. That seems a bit absurd considering the fact that the Sanchez who fought Jon Fitch was more adaptable than the one who faced Josh Koscheck. Also, he showed a very diverse game against Joe Stevenson in his lightweight debut.
The most plausible explanation is that styles make fights. Sanchez’s style is perfectly suited for Penn to shine, so it was not surprising that he was unable to mount even a modicum of effective offense.
Whatever the case, Sanchez needs to make very real changes to his game if he wants to be able to compete with Penn anytime soon. In the interim, I fully expect him to dominate the rest of the lightweight division because there is no hiding from the fact that Sanchez is still an absolute monster at 155 lbs.
MIR 3.0 IS DOWNRIGHT SCARY
When Frank Mir first won the UFC Heavyweight Championship, he faced three major holes in his game--his cardiovascular conditioning was deplorable, his hands were subpar and his takedowns were almost largely ineffective against anyone with decent wrestling skills. Yet, Mir still won the title by pulling guard (sort of) against Tim Sylvia and immediately transitioning into an arm-breaking submission hold. His Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills were that good.
That was Mir 1.0.
The motorcycle accident following his win over Sylvia changed everything for quite awhile. The serious physical and emotional damage he suffered from the accident and his lengthy absence from training and fighting resulted in a timid, unconfident former champion who was little more than a shell of himself for more than a year after returning to competition. The results were to be expected. He lost two out of three fights following the accident, and the fight that he won, a unanimous decision victory over Dan Christison, was an ugly effort at best.
Yet, Mir somehow turned the corner and overcame the physical and emotional demons that haunted him following his accident. That much was apparent from his one-minute submission win over kickboxer Antoni Hardonk, a guy who many thought would run through Mir since the former champion had suffered a knockout loss in his previous fight to Brandon Vera. Mir followed that win by handing current UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar his lone professional loss, once again by submission in just over one minute, and then turned in a career-altering performance by becoming the only man to ever knock out longtime PRIDE Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. His kickboxing skills and conditioning were on point that night, something we really hadn’t seen before with Mir. The win earned him the interim UFC Heavyweight Championship and a second bout with Brock Lesnar.
That was Mir 2.0.
Mir fought valiantly against Lesnar in the rematch, even landing an impressive flying knee. But he was completely overwhelmed by Lesnar that night, suffering a technical knockout loss early in the second round. The loss highlighted a new hole in Mir’s game—at 250-lbs, Mir needed to add a lot of size and strength if he wanted to compete with a giant like Lesnar.
Mir responded by undergoing the most intensive strength training program of his life under the watchful eye of Mark Philippi, a seven-time competitor in the World’s Strongest Man contest. In very short order, Mir completely transformed his physique, adding what Philippi estimated to be 25 to 30 lbs of dense, thick muscle and untold strength. He added so much functional muscle that he actually had to cut weight to make the 265-lb heavyweight limit.
He also changed his striking coach, opting to study under Mark DellaGrotte, looking to become more fluid and varied with his strikes since he believed that he had hit the ceiling in terms of improvement under his previous standup trainers.
The results of those changes were nothing short of shocking.
I would have never have imagined Mir knocking down a skilled striker like Cheick Kongo with a single left hand—not in a million years. He set up the punch perfectly, feinting repeatedly with his left hand before ducking and slipping his head to the right to create a throwing angle for his overhand left. Mir didn’t have that depth to his striking two years ago. I’m not sure that he had it when he faced Nogueira.
Say hello to Frank Mir 3.0. Wow.
Let’s not get completely ahead of ourselves too quickly. His 72-second win over Kongo didn’t last long enough for Mir to show the true results of his new physique and training techniques. For example, we still don’t know if he can go three hard rounds at this new weight. We don’t know if he is as quick and nimble on the ground as in the past. And we don’t know if he can utilize his improved size and strength to neutralize some of Lesnar’s physical advantages.
But we cannot discount what we saw at UFC 107. Mir looked like a vastly improved version of a guy who has already ruled the division once and may very well be ready to rule again. That is downright scary.