B.J. Penn is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Nick Diaz is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Nick has fought professionally as a boxer and trained with world champion and Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward. B.J.'s standup skills have caught the eye of Manny Pacquiao's cream-of-the-crop trainer, Freddie Roach, who called Penn "by far the best striker in MMA."
Yes, the main event of Saturday night's UFC 137 in Las Vegas (9 p.m. ET, PPV) is a rare matchup in which both competitors are equally adapt and comfortable whether a fight is standing or on the ground. It makes for an intriguing rumble.
Does that make up for the fact that this is a third-fiddle top attraction? After Diaz initially was yanked from a welterweight title bout with Georges St-Pierre on this card because he failed to show up for a pair of promotional appearances, and his replacement, Carlos Condit, was deprived of a shot at the belt when GSP injured a knee in training, we were left with an event that's lost some luster.
For fans being asked to plunk down $54.99 for an evening of fighting, the
UFC president Dana White thinks so. (Of course, he's paid to think so.) He has pointed to the typically deep UFC 137 card as an example of how his fight company's matchmaking surpasses boxing's. And yes, it's true that a cancelled main event surely would collapse any sweet science fight card. But Dana might want to reconsider whether he ought to be stacking up his business model alongside -- or in any way associating it with -- the nonsense that goes on under the backward-thinking watch of promoters like Bob Arum.
And, really, despite all of Dana's hype about how his undercards pack a punch (and despite all of my bellyaching above), the UFC is pretty top-heavy, too. It's nowhere near as extreme as in boxing, but a superior main event is the biggest selling point for an MMA PPV. So what is going to sell you on UFC 137 -- or not sell you -- is Penn vs. Diaz.
What do we have on Saturday night, then? There is no belt on the line and there are no immediate title implications, although an impressive winner could very well jump to the head of the line at welterweight, leaving the patient Condit to helplessly and fruitlessly clutch his No. 1 deli ticket. More than anything else, though, there are two things that make Penn vs. Diaz a bout worth your time and money: Penn and Diaz.
These are two jiu-jitsu virtuosos whose ground games couldn't be more different. Penn grapples to gain a dominant position or escape a bad one; Diaz plays some of his best offense while calmly on his back. As a striker, Nick wears you down with an incessant pitter-patter that leaves no room for response, while B.J. can play that game or he can explode on you. Diaz lands twice as many strikes as Penn, according to FightMetric stats, but for the past five years he's been landing them against Strikeforce talent, not UFC. That last factor makes Penn's wrestling edge more eye-opening: He's been successful on nearly 60 percent of his takedown attempts, while Nick nails only a third of his. That means B.J. should be able to dictate where this fight is fought.
Diaz's biggest advantage is in conditioning. The guy trains like a triathlete moonlighting as a fighter. However, in a three-round bout, how much will cardio come into play?
In the end, the determining factor in this fight might be not so much physical as mental. Who's more motivated? When you're considering factors involving the mind, of course, you've got to look closely at the fragile, enigmatic Diaz. He was to be competing for a belt, but now he's not. He's fighting a friend, someone he once idolized and emulated. And this fighter who so often talks about money is not making as much of it as he would have in a GSP bout. Sure, Nick could enhance his earning power with a great performance this weekend, but to strategize that way would involve forward thinking, and Diaz seems to be more the type of guy who lives in the moment -- not necessarily the present moment, but surely not the future, or at least a fighting future.
"It could maybe come down to who wants it more," Diaz acknowledged in an interview with the HD Net show