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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.

  • KTru says:

    Good article. Broken down as perfectly as possible. 2 of my favorite fighters and it will be a war. Hate to see one of them lose.

  • Grappo says:

    Good article, but did I miss something?

    “…I will offer a predicted winner at the conclusion of this article…”

    I’ve read over it a couple of times and didn’t see a prediction.

    BJ ftw.

  • Guy Gaduois says:

    The one weakness in the analysis is that Sherk never even tried a takedown on BJ. It’s amazing when a fighter ignores his dominant strength. It’s choice of might over might, or strength over risk. What ‘might’ happen if BJ is able to defend a takedown and transition to a strong submission move.
    I prefer to see fighters take their might, their strength, and see what might / may happen if they’re successful in doing what they’ve trained years and years to do.

    Penn’s standup against Sherk was incredibly impressive. We’ll never know what might have happened if Sean had tried to drive BJ through the cage and into the third row. Would it have thrown off BJ’s timing? Would it have given BJ another aspect to defend against?

    St-Pierre has incredible wrestling game and an incredible speed – and he always fights at this weight, always with guys this size. BJ has been very successful and in equanimity with the size of his opponents. St-Pierre is bigger and faster than he was three years ago. As much as BJs striking game has become so dominant, St-Pierre has grown dominant in all aspects of his game.
    St-Pierre’s fight planning has shown an incredible capacity for neutralizing his opponent’s strengths and captializing on his own. BJ’s success has really been highlighted by his opponents abandoning their own strengths and working around BJs.
    I believe St-Pierre’s ability to nullify his opponent’s strengths while highlighting his own will have him dictate the fight and BJ hasn’t seen that his last three fights. In those fights, BJ’s opponents didn’t take their best strength at BJ and they alll lost. That fight style is not a Jackson Camp game plan in general and it has not been a hallmark of St-Pierre’s last three fights.
    St-Pierre via TKO (stoppage due to strikes) Rd 3, 4th minute. It will not go on long enough to allow BJ to tap via strikes, and as an MMA fan, I never want to see that happen anyway. That’s why the ref is there, to protect the fighters.

  • Jeff L says:

    I didn’t see you pick a winner either. I’m sure you meant to say GSP though.

  • KTru says:

    I am pretty sure Sherk attempted 2 or 3 takedowns. Only to be stuffed by BJ. I am still holding to the last second to predict a winner.

  • BigDave says:

    Sam Are you serious? You cant possibly compare wins over Pulver,Stevenson, and Sherk in anyway to wins over Koscheck, Hughes, and Serra. Pulver (although one of my faves) is no longer a top 10 fighter, Stevenson is a one trick pony all he has is a rnc but has been destroyed of late, and sherk is a roid monkey. Koscheck and Hughes are arguably two of the best wrestlers in the game and serra has very heavy hands. All three where made to look like amatures against GSP. Penn’s conditioning is suspect and never even close to Pierre’s, GSP is a better wrestler by far proven in his win over hughes and koscheck. on there feet GSP’s kicks and Knees will negatite Penn’s supposed punching power, although georges hands are on par with Penns aswell. Penn may be a little better at jiu jitsu but the difference is marginal, and as for the size and strength advantage GSP has Penn beat there aswell. So after all this being said I predict GSP will beat Penn at his own game and RNC him inside the first round. then Penn can go back to 155 and get smashed by kenflo.

  • Noah says:

    GSP has excellent wrestling and top control. Unless BJ can hurt GSP early in the fight and get a KO, I see GSP grinding out the first few rounds with some conservative ground n’ pound. I’m sure BJ’s cardio has improved, but he will not be able to match the pace that will be set. I think GSP will get a TKO in the 4th.

    Whatever happens, both guys are awesome fighters and I enjoy watching both of them. Though they’re two of my favorite fighters, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see GSP take this one.

  • john says:

    Honestly the only way I see BJ winning this fight is with a KO and the only way I see GSP winning this fight is a decision. I just cant imagine Georges finishing the fight.

  • mmac says:

    BigDave, you seem a little anti-Penn. I don’t like the guy either, but I think they’re a bit more evenly matched than you’re saying above. Penn’s jits and flexibility alone are enough to really alter GSP’s strategy on the ground. I’d be amazed if he spends much time on the ground at all. As for standup, I still think getting Serra’d would be in the back of GSP’s mind. Penn really seems equipped for both a stand up or ground game.

    Purely skillwise, I’d lean towards Penn. Ultimately, I bet GSP pushes it into the later rounds, where his athleticism/cardio, which I think is waaay above Penn’s, rules the day. GSP by TKO in the fifth.

  • the myth says:

    GSP will dominate – 2nd round stopage due to strikes ( but hate to see either one of them get beat ) both have a great fighting spirit

  • Rich S. says:

    BJ definitely has some sick JJ, and he’s a good striker..
    But, GSP’s not going to get submitted..
    a TKO is possible, but i don’t think GSP will stand long enough for that to happen, and there’s no way BJ’s gonna be stopping takedowns all night..

    It really isn’t that hard of a pick..
    These guys are both GREAT fighters, two of the best really..
    but GSP takes this one… again.. just better this time..

    I’ve never liked the thought of BJ at WW..
    I wish he would just stay down at 155

  • Patrick says:

    I don’t understand how they act like BJ”s wins over Stevenson, and Pulver can even compare to GSP’s recent wins and Sherk has obviously had some help with steroids to enhance his ability. Don’t forget GSP also holds a crushing victory over Sherk.

  • Frank W says:

    Come on people.BJ’s real probability of of winning this fight is to hurt GSP with a hard punch. If he catches GSP then maybe he can finish him a la Serra or like he did to Sherk. But we all saw what GSP did to Sherk and Serra to nullify the punches.

    I suspect that repeated take downs at will from GSP will exhaust BJ. Takedowns, control and pressure will effectively nullify his striking and power until he gets tired. Once he is tired, how is he going to be quick enough to knock out GSP or for that matter not get knocked out himself? GSP is not going to box with him like Sherk and allow him to out jab while conserving energy.GSP will force BJ to expend energy by forcing him to defend against take downs, slams,hold downs,G&P.Anyone who has grappled knows how very exhasting an active defense is.

    How is BJ going to use his Jits if he has to actively defend against taking elbows, punches and knees to the face,body and thighs? No where on the body is off limits to GSP. Just watch the last few fights( see and hear Serra and Hughes and Sherk(way back) scream in pain). If BJ closes his guard, and hugs GSP the back of the head can be slammed on the canvas with the chest. We are talking constant pressure people.Only high-level athletes can keep up that kind of cardio pace. BJ’s camp claims he is a fighter and not an athlete
    GSP is going to control where the fight takes place with his wrestling and if BJ gets then winded will get G&Pd or submitted. I just cannot see the logic of a BJ penn win. I have never been wrong about a GSP or Rashad Evans fight.

  • Evadmils says:

    BigDave what does it smell like inside GSP’s underwear?

    Just wonderin’ because it seems like you may be wrapped around his nuts.

  • FrankW says: need for insults.In a persuasive piece one takes a position and presents reasons and examples for that position while acknowledging some of the strengths of a counter argument. That was what i did.
    I flew from the east coast to see BJ fight Matt Hughes in Anaheim and rooted for him although he lost. So i am not anti-Penn but was merely analyzing the way they match up and their distinct abilities.
    Your piece above favors Penn but i certainly don’t think you are physically attracted to are fight enthusiasts and my call is as good as yours although if we were betting you would lose your money.

  • JOe K. says:

    You forgot to mention GSP’s win over Jon Fitch.

    Fitch is a bad ass as well.

    If GSP doesn’t get rocked by some hard strikes BJ will not win. The only way BJ wins is by KO.

  • CMT says:

    Ditto – GSP!!

  • JOe K. says:

    Yes my gravatar works!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • glock says:

    i’m mostly w/ BigDave. I see GSP going out and testing his standup to see how it goes and get warm. If he get’s beat by BJ’s jab too much again, then I see him going for relentless take downs and as many embarrassing slams as he can get away with, to get into bj’s head a little.
    Actually, I think it’s BJ’s psyche that will be tested, if GSP is able to be impose his wrestling dominance and top game gnp .

    bj’s an emotional guy and the frustration of being owned and any chances for a big shot or sub nullified, by GSP’s superior athleticism and improved BJJ, could be the key to fight.

    That being said, it could go either way……;)

  • neijia says:

    this idea of “athleticism” – are they trying to sell jeans or a fight?

    Arlovski looked a lot more “athletic” than Fedor. We know how that went down. Still, I was hugely impressed with Arlovski’s boxing. If Roach thinks Penn is better at boxing, GSP’s slams may not be a forgone conclusion.

  • htown-chris says:

    this fight will be a barnburner. i think either some of forgot or u jst dont kno. bjs boxing is brutal. gsp is mor of a jack of all trades really only mastering his wrestling. if he tries to spend too much time on the ground with bj on his back he will get submitted. he definitely will b outboxed. he goin to hav to b very inventive wth his strikes if he has any plan on beating bj. and bjs cardio or lack there of will not come into play this go aronund.

  • lalo_g80 says:

    I dont know why people keep worrying over BJ’s cardio. He looked fresh against Sherk. All I know is that I like both fighters very much. Dana did an outstanding job this time.

    I don’t think it will go to a decision. I think GSP wins by stoppage in the 4th round. I dont think BJ will gas, but GSP just gets stronger as the rounds go.

    Good luck to both of them though.

    Can’t wait for Mir-Lesnar II

  • glock says:

    @ neijia,

    By athleticism I think you know what I mean…. it’s an ability not a “look”, It’s that x factor that some have and some don’t . Penn has different gifts.

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    BJ may have better boxing (and I emphasiz the word “may”) but GSP has brutal kicks and knees that give him a better over-all strking game.

    In their first fight GSP took Penn down repeatedly in the second and third rounds, and it was the takedowns in the third that got him the split decision, imo. Penn’s lack of conditioning probably helped GSP take him down as the fight progressed, so Penn’s harder work might help him. On the other hand, GSP’s wrestling is even better.

    Penn didn’t try very many submissions in the their first fight, and hasn’t needed his BJJ against smaller fighters at 155 like Sherk. I think BJ will need his BJJ to win this one, but he hasn’t used it too much lately, and his “default” is to strike. I gotta give the edge to GSP on this one.

  • Mikee says:

    I called you on a mis-print in YOUR article and you delete my message? Are you uncomfortable with other people pointing out a minor flaw in your work or embarassed? No need to be. I enjoy your articles and your work and my point was submitted with respect so again I ask…..What the crap?

    Oh and Penn will finish the fight. TKO third round by strikes on the ground.


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