Josh Gross
Saturday December 12th, 2009

B.J. Penn and Diego Sanchez have kept the posturing to a minimum as Saturday's UFC lightweight title fight in Memphis approaches.

The same can't be said about the fighters' swarming camps, which opened up Thursday night about their fighters, their game plans and their thoughts on the other guy.

Asked for his opinion of Sanchez, the 27-year-old challenger, Penn's longtime trainer Rudy Valentino didn't bury the texted lede: "Diego will defeat himself mentally in this fight."

Sanchez's legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Saulo Ribeiro laughed.

"He's one of the strongest guys mentally I've ever met in my life," Ribeiro said over the phone. "He just refuses to give up. He refuses to quit."

So, why will Sanchez be the first fighter since Jens Pulver in 2001 to defeat Penn (14-5-1) at 155 pounds?

"I think B.J. has been a great champ for 10 years, but the sport is evolving so much that I think Diego is ready to take it to the next level," said Ribeiro, implying Penn, one of MMA's most complete fighters, still just 30, has gone the way of month-old organic milk.

Back and forth, not malicious but invested and full of faith, supporters talked up their man and downplayed the other. Standing out on both sides was a sense of inevitability, as if the main event at the FedExForum (UFC PPV, 10 p.m. ET) was mere formality. And that determination was going to be the difference.

"It's the natural order," said Ribeiro, who joined his brother Xande, cardio man Steve Maxwell, boxing trainer Tony Palafox, and Olympic silver medalist wrestler Steve Abas in San Diego to prepare Sanchez (21-2). "Nobody hunted B.J. That's what I want to see. How will the champ react? He's never been hunted at 155. And Diego really believes he'll be the aggressor and will take the fight wherever he wants."

Belief and execution aren't the same thing, countered Penn's boxing trainer Jason Parrilo, who ran camp in Costa Mesa, Calif., with conditioning gurus Marv and Gary Marinovich (of the Todd Marinovich Marinoviches), and the entertaining Rudy V.

"Diego hasn't shown my any type of threat but his intensity and his willingness to go for it," Parrilo said. "With B.J., he's going to fall into something he's not prepared for.

"In order to beat B.J. down and build up momentum you have to control B.J. for a good three rounds at least. You're not going to break B.J. down in two minutes. Georges St. Pierre sat on top of B.J. for four rounds. Regardless, this guy doesn't have the capability to hold B.J. down, break B.J. down, wear him out, do ground-and-pound, and push B.J. out of the fight in three or four rounds."

And what of the brass-tacks strategy?

Knowing Sanchez's aggression could blend poorly with the champion's keen eye, speed and accuracy, his team placed a great emphasis on avoiding what Ribeiro called Penn's "bread and butter" counter hook.

"With Clay Guida, Diego used too many uppercuts and was exposed for a counter," he said. "We saw that and we know B.J.'s camp saw that too. We have different angles and different strategies to be ready so we don't get surprised by B.J.'s hook."

Penn still could be good enough to pull it off even if Sanchez, a converted southpaw, moves correctly. And that appears to be the crux of the Hawaiian's early game plan.

"Diego's left hand is weak," Valentino said. "He relies on his right hooks. So look for B.J. to cut angles in that direction to neutralize his power. When Diego gets frustrated with the striking game he will try to take B.J. down. Yes the fight will end up there."

Ribeiro, a six-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, doesn't have a problem with that. Sure, Penn might have needed only three years to become a B.J.J world champion (the first non-Brazilian to claim the title), but, he said, Sanchez, a legitimate brown belt in the grappling art, would find an advantage on the canvas.

"It's not that his jiu-jitsu is better," he explained. "It's that his timing is way better. The jiu-jitsu he plays in MMA is better than the pure jiu-jitsu. That's what I mean when I say his jiu-jitsu is ahead. He's coming with bad intentions. If he has to use the ground to punish B.J., that is what's going to happen."

Not if Penn's camp has anything to say about it.

B.J. Penn vs. Diego Sanchez

As much as I think Sanchez can hang in there and give Penn a test, he won't have a real advantage on the floor no matter what Ribeiro says. At best, Sanchez can neutralize Penn's offense, but only if he manages to keep top position. In the guard, Sanchez has a chance to rough up Penn some, just not to the extent that St. Pierre did to start 2009. I like "The Prodigy" to retain his belt with a late stoppage or submission.

Frank Mir vs. Cheick Kongo

Mir (12-4) well step into the Octagon at or near the heavyweight limit of 265. That's a lot of weight for a man who traditionally fought his best at 245. If he can maintain his stamina and keep his speed, Mir should win. The former UFC heavyweight champion has distinct advantages on the canvas, and Kongo (14-5-1) appears ripe to get caught in a wrenching submission. So long as Mir doesn't struggle to keep the bout on the mat, he'll win. Otherwise Kongo is capable of pulling the upset.

Jon Fitch vs. Mike Pierce

This is about little more than guts for Pierce (9-1). If he can match intensity with Fitch (20-3, 1 NC) then perhaps he can take a points victory. But considering Fitch's level of wrestling and experience in big fights, the welterweight contender should have enough to continue on his march towards a rematch with Georges St. Pierre.

Kenny Florian vs. Clay Guida

A compelling fight at 155. Florian (11-4) is a tactician. He's smart. Guida, well the guy is a bruiser. The heavier the firefight, the happier he is. The feeling is this bout will play out in Guida's world. Florian can't jab and circle his way to victory against the anvil-chinned, relentless wrestler the way he did Roger Huerta. Guida (25-10) will do what he can to get in Florian's face and make a fight out of it, even if that means eating plenty of punches, which he probably will in a bout destined to go the distance. I'll take Florian.

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