Memorial Day weekend: time off, the chance to get away and, of course, the unavoidable high-cost of gasoline that has put a damper on travel plans. For UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn, reminders of the price to gas up have been just as pervasive.
Just two weeks after drubbing Joe Stevenson for the lightweight belt, the 29-year-old Penn (12-4-1) was back at his Hilo, Hawaii gym, a renovated cannery that reeks more of sweat than snapper. Once criticized as too lazy to capitalize on his talent, Penn is now often described as "mature" and "enthused." And the shift could not have come at a better time. On May 24, Penn has the chance to validate those words at UFC 84 in Las Vegas.
But if anyone could test the alleged new-and-improved Penn, Sean Sherk's the man. With more than just an upper hand in cardio, the 34-year-old Sherk holds advantages that even Penn admits would have troubled him not long ago. A dominant and relentless wrestler with short, thick arms that seem impossible to catch for a submission, Sherk (32-2-1) asserted himself in the lightweight division after a stellar career at 170 pounds. Two wins, including a title-grabbing performance against Kenny Florian, quickly placed Sherk among the best lightweights in the world. But all immediately changed after he tested positive for steroids after his first title defense against Hermes Franca last July. A win against Penn would be Sherk's ticket to move past that ill-fated victory and his ongoing legal battle with the California State Athletic Commission.
Despite standing with some of the best fighters in the world and showing a competent boxing game, few think Sherk should meddle with Penn on the feet. Logically, Sherk's potential success at UFC 84 would depend primarily on his ability to take Penn to canvas and work the champion over from the guard.
Sherk may want to avoid attempts at single-leg takedowns, though. The powerful double-leg remains Sherk's takedown of choice, but the Penn camp is prepared. While his extraordinary flexibility and impressive balance has allowed him to masterfully defend the single-leg shot throughout his career, Penn has enlisted the help of three NCAA champion wrestlers to help him respond to Sherk's specialty.
Another tool in Penn's shed: continuous pressure on the feet. Owner of a stiff right hand that put down Matt Hughes and tenderized Georges St. Pierre, Penn will need to call on that skill against the neck-less Sherk.
Perhaps the one guarantee from Penn, though, will be his early explosion. Known for his quick finishes, the Hawaiian has yet to show any evidence of his newly improved cardio, but if there's anytime to prove this supposed 91-octane rating, it's now. The more Penn is able to out-endure Sherk, who will likely try to control the tempo of the bout, the less the champ will gamble with the judges and their oft-awarded decisions from takedowns and top control. Let's be real: Testing the judges is not a risk Penn will want to take.
Sherk has been stopped only once (his final fight at welterweight against St. Pierre) and it seems he won't be a cakewalk for Penn. But if "The Prodigy" remains fresh, he'll be able to weather the low and fast attacks of the fighter many have anointed as the best takedown artist in the sport. If not, well, let's just say Penn may have a more difficult 15 minutes in the cage than he may have anticipated.
My take: I'm calling ready and rested -- Penn retains his belt by choke in the third round.
Two of the best light heavyweights of all time are in dire need of a victory on Saturday. Former Pride champion Wanderlei Silva must avoid his fourth consecutive loss if he's going to become any kind of factor in the deepest division promoted by the UFC. Facing Keith Jardine, who owns wins over Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, Silva must impose what comes naturally: pressure.
Forcing himself in Jardine's face will allow Silva (31-8-1, 1 NC) to work on the inside, where he's been one of the most effective fighters ever. Brutal with short hooks and knees inside a strong Thai clinch, Silva gives himself the best shot there.
For Jardine (13-3-1), dictating the distance will be key in avoiding Silva's aggression. From the outside, Jardine has some advantages. Though he's not much larger than "The Axe Murderer," Jardine's got some size on the 31-year-old Brazilian. Combining height with punishing leg kicks and stiff jabs will be needed to keep Silva away.
My take: Silva's pressure, in the end, is too much and he gets an incredibly important win.
It's been reiterated daily: Tito Ortiz claims this is his last bout in the Octagon. But if he wants to gain the kind of negotiating leverage for one more substantial contract, Ortiz, 33, must hand Lyoto Machida his first loss.
As with each of his 20 previous UFC contests, Ortiz (15-5-1) would be best served to slam away with elbows and heavy punches from the guard. But he's shown a desire to stand and trade with better strikers -- an obvious mistake for the middle-of-the-road puncher. Against Machida (12-0), Ortiz should be the bigger, stronger man. He may be the slower, less agile of the two, but if "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" can rough up Machida and show him the skills of a physical wrestler, Machida may not hold up -- even if he does have accurate strikes and an underrated defense. If Machida wins, though, he is sure to become Dana White's favorite. Until contract negotiation time, that is.
My take: Ortiz will rough up Machida with elbows and short punches for the win.
But talent-rich fights aside, pay attention for the post-fight happenings Saturday. If Ortiz speaks and White reacts, all hell may break loose. (Maybe I should've suggested a good daytime soap to help prepare you for the drama.)