Can you believe that we’ve made it this far? When the meat and potatoes for UFC 194 was announced, the majority of MMA fans didn’t believe that the card would make it all the way without a significant injury altering things, and the brass even prepared as such with both Chad Mendes vs. Frankie Edgar be scheduled the day before and Jacare Souza vs. Yoel Romero being put on the card as potential injury replacements should either title fight take a hit. But they didn’t and now we are on the verge of completing the most stacked weekend of MMA fights in the sport’s short history.
The UFC has regularly tried to either close the old year and/or open the new one with a bang since 2006 turned into 2007 (Liddell-Ortiz 2); it has quite often not gone according to plan, and injuries haven’t always been the culprit. Remember UFC 107? Marking the UFC’s first and currently only trip to Memphis, Tennessee, it was intended to be an opportunity for Rampage Jackson to fight in front of his home crowd against hated rival Rashad Evans after their stint as coaches on the tenth season of TUF. What more could he ask for?
While I doubt he could have asked for more, Jackson decided that September to pull out of the long scheduled fight to go play B.A. Baracus of The A-Team in Hollywood, a move he would later admit wasn’t fair to the UFC after they had gone out of their way to set up his grudge match in his own hometown. Though the fight did eventually go down at UFC 114 that May, it was the beginning of Rampage’s bad blood with UFC management, and Dana White specifically, which led to Rampage eventually leaving the UFC on bad terms in early 2013.
But this isn’t about Rampage and his decision to leave. No, this is about what the UFC did to replace Rampage, showing that the UFC has traditionally done all they can to salvage a lost fight. What did they give Memphis fans? Arguably the greatest lightweight at his peak.
B.J. Penn agreed to defend his belt roughly four months after his prior defense at UFC 101, a pretty fast turnaround for most champions. His opponent, Diego Sanchez, looked revitalized following his recent drop from welterweight, turning away former title contender Joe Stevenson at UFC 95 and engaging in many people’s choice for Fight of the Year against Clay Guida at the TUF 9 Finale, walking out with a split decision victory.
Since returning to the lightweight division following losses to Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, Penn had been unstoppable at 155 lbs, running through former lightweight champ Jens Pulver in their highly anticipated rematch, demolishing the aforementioned Stevenson for the title while leaving him in a pool of his own blood (Stevenson would never be the same fighter again), disposing of Sean Sherk with ease following a highlight reel flying knee and punches, and beating perennial bridesmaid Kenny Florian. While none may be looked at as all-time greats, none were a cupcake, and Penn made each and every one of them appear to be minor leaguers next to him. With the run he had been on, few believed Penn would be dethroned any time soon even as Sanchez appeared to be as tough of a test as was available at the time.
It didn’t take long for Penn to establish his dominance, as 30 seconds in he dropped Sanchez with a counter right. Sanchez popped back up in a hurry, only to be dropped again immediately by a knee from Penn followed by a barrage of punches that he barely survived. Sanchez would make his way back to his feet, but his usual aggressive edge wouldn’t return, and Penn would dominate him for the rest of the fight. The bout ended midway through the fifth round following a head kick that opened up a canyon of a cut on Sanchez’s forehead: it was then and still is the largest cut seen this side of Marvin Eastman.
Statistics rarely paint an accurate picture of a fight, but in this case it did a fantastic job of telling the story. Penn outlanded Sanchez 70 to 8 in terms of significant strikes, and 149 to 8 in terms of overall strikes, with Sanchez landing a pitiful 7% of his attempted strikes. Is it because Sanchez sat back? No, Sanchez was trying to make things happen as his 27 takedown attempts will attest to. Even more telling was the amount that Sanchez landed: zero. Let me repeat that for emphasis: 0 for 27 in takedown attempts. No need to calculate the percentage of successful takedowns there.
It would end up being the last successful title defense by Penn, as his decline would come quicker than any of us expected at the time, losing his belt to Frankie Edgar four months later. This performance would prove to be the most memorable moment of Penn’s career in addition to his last vintage performance in the eyes of a lot of fans as it didn’t represent a flash KO or submission (though he did have plenty of those), but just pure and utter domination of a worthy opponent while still getting the stoppage on Sanchez, something that hadn’t been done before or has it been done since. Fans got their money’s worth too as Penn made the fight a marvel to watch despite the one-sidedness of the affair; fans knew that they were watching an artist working his craft.
We are now six years past our last seeing a vintage B.J. Penn and the MMA landscape has changed dramatically. Not a single UFC champion from that time still holds a belt with only Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva remaining on the roster as Penn, St. Pierre, and Brock Lesnar are in their various forms of retirement. Jose Aldo is currently the UFC’s longest reigning champion, and was plying his trade in the WEC as its babyfaced champion of 24 days at the time Penn shredded Sanchez. Now Aldo puts his belt and perhaps even his legacy on the line tonight in one of, if not the, most anticipated fight(s) in UFC history. Perhaps we will be seeing a legend making performance tonight, but there is no guarantee that it will be from Aldo or even Conor McGregor for that matter.
I am not a poetic person, and will not try to be, as I’m sure most of you have little concern what happened upon this day at any point in history and are only caring about what happens tonight. I don’t blame you. Today isn’t the best day to be reflecting on the past when the present is staring us directly in the face. Wherever you are, whomever you are with, and whomever you root for, enjoy the fights tonight, since I have a feeling we are all about to see something we will never forget.
This Week in MMA History
December 6, 2014: Featuring two title fights, UFC 181 allowed the UFC to end their PPV calendar year with a blast. Anthony Pettis landed some killer body shots to set up a guillotine choke against Gilbert (not Giblert) Melendez for his first title defense. The main event featured Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler squaring off for the second time in the year for the Welterweight Title with Lawler walking out with a controversial decision victory and the belt.
December 7, 1996: Looking to recover from his brutal loss at the hands of Mark Coleman, Don Frye emerged victorious at the second tournament of champions (Ultimate Ultimate 2), but not without controversy as his second fight of the night has endured years of a rumored fix against Mark Hall, something Hall has admitted to as Frye has long denied it. Despite that, Frye’s victory in the finals was high drama in the 82 seconds it lasted against Tank Abbott as Abbott knocked him down early only for Frye to recover for a RNC win.
December 10, 2011: Perhaps the night that represented the in-cage turning point for Jon Jones’ image, Jones scored a nasty standing RNC in the second round against Lyoto Machida, dropping the former light heavyweight champion to the ground following the choke out following the first losing round of his career. After the fight, Jones’ coach Greg Jackson could be heard saying to “Go win some fans,” imploring him to go check on Machda. Regardless of how fans felt about Jones, none can deny it was a signature performance for the revolutionary champion.
December 11, 2010: Proving just how much star power he possessed as the co-main event featured Sean McCorkle vs. Stefan Struve (I know, pathetic), Georges St. Pierre pulled in nearly 800,000 PPV buys for the fans to witness the conclusion of his rivalry with antagonistic Josh Koscheck following their stint on TUF 12. In what was perhaps the single best exhibition of the jab, GSP brutalized Koscheck the entirety of the five round affair, breaking Koscheck’s orbital bone early in the fight. GSP would continue his long reign while Koscheck would never be the same.