Nick Diaz, on a 10-fight winning streak, has not fought in the UFC since 2006. | Photo: Dave Mandel
A show that has been through a rash of upheavals and main-event changes, UFC 137 kicks off Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas with Nick Diaz squaring off against B.J. Penn in the headliner. Originally slated to challenge welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, Diaz’s absence at consecutive media events to promote the event prompted the UFC to pull the former Strikeforce titleholder from the bout. It swapped in Carlos Condit, who was originally set to face Penn, with Diaz taking on the Hawaiian in his place.
However, St. Pierre’s knee injury last week scrapped the title bout against Condit, ironically thrusting Diaz back into the main event slot from which he had been demoted.
Whatever happens in the welterweight division, Diaz has a great opportunity on the big stage in his return to the UFC, where his original run saw him develop a reputation as a hard-nosed battler forever at odds with wrestlers who played the points game and refused to trade with him. Penn does not necessarily figure to do that, though the former two-division champion certainly could. Mentally, it is a fascinating matchup, as Penn continues his campaign at welterweight, facing the kind of fighter with the style to force him to battle -- an approach that often brings out the best in him. It is also a bout in which an impressive win by either guy could ostensibly nudge him higher up in the title shot queue against St. Pierre.
Elsewhere on the card, heavyweight Matt Mitrione takes on Cheick Kongo and Roy Nelson collides with Mirko Filipovic. Here is a closer look at the UFC 137 main card, with previews and picks.
B.J. Penn (16-7-2, 12-6-2 UFC) vs. Nick Diaz (25-7, 1 NC, 6-4 UFC)
The Matchup: There are two Penns. The lightweight incarnation -- he made a title run at 155 pounds and made three impressive defenses prior to being outpointed twice by current champion Frankie Edgar -- and the welterweight version. At 155, Penn’s combination of insanely good takedown defense, granite chin and brilliant boxing made him a terrible assignment for anyone looking to lock horns. The nimble and well-conditioned Edgar simply outworked and outpointed him with a strategy Penn did not find necessarily threatening, hence the two decision defeats.
At welterweight, however, Penn seems to relish the challenge of taking on bigger guys, and, as a result, he becomes more aggressive to prove from the jump that he can take them on. Witness the opening-moments takedown assault he launched on the much bigger Jon Fitch in their hard-nosed draw in February or the pair of impressive wins he scored on Matt Hughes in their trilogy. If Penn forced the standup and mixed in takedown attempts like that at lightweight, he would probably still be champion.
That said, Diaz’s steady work in recent years in Strikeforce have marked him as one of the best boxers in the sport. The resilient Californian uses a high-volume style to wear down opponents, often slipping punches and tossing in combinations that simply grind away at their resolve; he varies between arm punches and whopping shots in an effort to demoralize them. Diaz is also one of the most resilient fighters in the game. When drilled and hurt, he recovers almost instantly, and few opponents in Strikeforce tried to take him down out of respect for his excellent jiu-jitsu. They simply did not want to go there, which was a change from his rough streak in the UFC, where better wrestlers simply took him down and secured decisions with takedowns and by striking him while parked in his guard.
The wild card is whether or not Penn, one of the few people at welterweight with a better jiu-jitsu game than Diaz, will try and take it to the mat. If he does, it is a sign that Penn has moved his ego aside to implement the best game plan. If he does not and he simply wants to stand in the pocket and bang, that represents a moral win for Diaz and a tactical edge, as well. Penn’s ability to stand in front of opponents and nail them with his excellent hands could serve him well, but Diaz’s deep gas tank and constant shots are mentally and physically fatiguing. Penn may be tempted to slip and rip on his foe, but standing, Diaz should still get the better of it.
On the ground is where it gets interesting. Nobody can survive a Penn jiu-jitsu assault for too long, and he has enough takedown mojo to put Diaz on the mat. The longer the fight goes, the more it favors Diaz, especially in an extended standup war; if Penn does not score a huge early series of shots to cinch the first round or two, it is not going to get any better for him. Diaz’s conditioning and ability to force exchanges, along with his great chin, will simply wear down Penn. If Penn does not get it to the ground early, he will not win. Diaz is too resilient.
Another problem is Diaz’s ability to escape bad positions on the mat. Penn remains the best pure jiu-jitsu guy in the division, maybe the game, as he expertly improves position and passes guard with ease. However, Diaz knows every move and can counter wrestle himself out of disadvantageous spots; he should do so immediately if Penn looks to make it an extended ground fight.
Motivation and hunger are key factors in picking fights, and Diaz undoubtedly has a chip on his shoulder coming into this match. He did not get his title shot against St. Pierre, and Penn represents a much bigger opportunity to score a meaningful win for him than it does for the Hawaiian -- a living legend and has done pretty much everything a fighter could do.
That said, Diaz has just enough to land meaningful shots and win exchanges, all while steering clear of the dangerous Penn if and when it hits the mat. Ultimately, Diaz wore down opponents in Strikeforce with a combination of intensity and a willingness to trade shots, and it should be enough for him to take a close decision in a war where both guys are drilled and hurt on various occasions. The best way for Penn to win is to get an early takedown and wear down the durable Diaz with ground-and-pound and a play-it-safe strategy. However, Penn is not wired or conditioned to fight that way for three rounds against Diaz, who remains one of the most resilient guys in the game.
The Pick: Diaz by split decision in a classic.
Continue Reading » Next Fight: Cheick Kongo vs. Matt Mitrione