The 80-100 pounds of brute mass Bob Sapp held over many of his opponents in MMA and kickboxing was been very, very good to him.
He crushed poor Kiyoshi Tamura like a can, took a few years off Antonio Nogueira’s life, and generally behaved like a pillaging, Godzilla-in-Tokyo presence. (Look closely enough and you can see the “Toho” logo stamped on his heel. Swear.)
The price tag for that size was a combination of talent (Sapp didn’t have much) and oxygen retention (not much there, either). It was not long before opponents peeked out from under their gloves, realized big, bad Bob was hyperventilating, and proceeded to carpet-bomb him. Those 80 pounds became an anchor.
Saturday at UFC 123, B.J. Penn intends to walk into a third bout with Matt Hughes flirting with the 165-pound mark (six pounds below the contracted non-title limit of 171). That’s the going scale read for many athletes competing at 155 pounds once they’ve rehydrated. It’s conceivable Hughes will be a healthy 20 pounds heavier than Penn by the time the things get started. Despite being a relatively minor size differential, those 20 pounds are going to be far more dangerous for Penn than Sapp’s 80 ever were for anyone else.
Several reasons why. Penn has problems when a heavier opponent -- St. Pierre, Hughes -- establishes top control on the ground. Getting there is traditionally a hard task, as Penn’s takedown defense is phenomenal; but if Hughes manages it, he has a barbell plate’s worth of weight to use. And Hughes knows how.
Two: Hughes’ improvement as a fighter. His speed failed him against both St. Pierre and Thiago Alves, which appeared to spell the end for his days as a top-shelf competitor, but he rattled off three solid wins in a row. His stand-up has gotten considerably better. His incorporation of skills has gotten better. He appears to be having a lot of fun kicking the snot out of people again.
Three: These are not a lumbering 20 pounds heavyweights can get away with giving up chunks of size because strength differences become minimal: a 230 pound man is not going to be considerably weaker than a 260-pound man -- not enough to make him feel like power made the difference. But under 200 pounds, five pounds is going to feel like twenty. It’s an upstream swim in a sport that’s hard enough as it is.
There’s some hypocrisy on my part in dismissing Penn’s chances here when I’m usually standing with my hat turned out, begging for a St. Pierre/Anderson Silva bout. That fight might result in an equally-lopsided weigh-in come fight time. But in that instance, the smaller man is able to dictate the fight with wrestling. And if he were on top, Silva is not likely to have the leverage that comes from corn-fed grappling to make it count.
Penn needs reinvention, just like any fighter who loses steam. But his future is probably in the 145-pound division. Hughes is going to tell him what he should already know: he’s going in the wrong direction.