UFC’s first show of the year on Sunday night, headlined by Hall of Famer B.J. Penn facing Yair Rodriguez ended up with a big question, and a big answer.
The answer, not the nickname of Penn’s major career rival Frankie Edgar, is that Penn’s career in the UFC should be over. Like every great champion who stayed too long, there comes a day when it’s obvious, painfully in his case, that the athletic gifts that got you to the top are gone. In the case of Penn, that time was in the summer of 2014 when he was not at all competitive with Edgar. But Penn wasn’t happy with the way he went out then. But his several-times delayed return only showed that time had marched on even more. The lighter weight classes are speed divisions, and those divisions aren’t as kind to 38-year-olds as the heavier power divisions.
If this is the end of Penn’s career, his 16-11-2 final record is hardly a fair portrayal of a career that saw him start out as a gym legend and turn into the first true 155-pound superstar in the UFC. When he debuted in 2001, he was given a $30,000 per-fight deal, a fortune in that era for someone who had never even had a pro fight. His reputation was from winning a Jiu Jitsu world championship and from talk in the gyms about this Hawaiian native who was going to be, without question, a superstar because of the way he rolled through people far larger than he was.
At times there was a feeling he wouldn’t quite live up to that billing. He had a contract issue with UFC and went to fight elsewhere. But in the end, he won championships in two weight classes and was fearless, once fighting Lyoto Machida, who weighed 225 pounds for the fight in unregulated Japan, and he went the distance with him. Penn, when he was younger, even made noises about wanting to fight UFC heavyweights. When Matt Hughes was the dominant welterweight in UFC, Penn bested him to win the title. Even when he lost, it was usually to someone significantly bigger and highly ranked, who in reality he never should have been fighting in the first place.
The questions revolve around Rodriguez (11-1), a 24-year-old, who won the first season of TUF Latin American in 2014. Rodriguez had major exposure in his native country since that season had a large weekly audience on Televisa, the country’s leading network.
Rodriguez seemed to connect with every flashy kick he threw before finishing Penn at 24 seconds of the second round. When the fight was made, the likely outcome was that this was Rodriguez’s opportunity to make himself a major star. He’s got an exciting style and the UFC, from its inception more than 20 years ago, was always looking for a Mexican superstar.
The unanswered question is if Rodriguez was that good, or if Penn at this point was just a punching bag who made him look good. Rodriguez is 6-0 in UFC competition, and looked spectacular against Andre Fili, but in a fight designed to showcase him. He also won, but hardly looked like a world beater, in his prior fight, a five-round main event decision win over Alex Caceres on an Aug. 6 show.
Penn’s last fight, and his ability to keep up with Rodriguez will be the overriding memory of the show. There were two other key talking points.
One was Joe Lauzon shaking his head after he had gotten a decision that even he thought was a gift, and Aleksei Oleinik finishing Viktor Pesta with the first Ezekiel choke that won a fight in UFC history, making Pesta tap while Pesta was in the mount position.
Lauzon (27-12) was won the semifinal over Marcin Held (22-6), and in his post-fight speech outright said that Held was robbed and that he didn’t deserve the win.
Lauzon’s body language showed outright disgust when he was announced a split-decision winner. Even with the numerous bad decisions that come every year, it’s probably been six years, ironically the night Penn had his last win, over Matt Hughes, where a fighter adamantly stated that he lost a bout when judges ruled them the winner, a Rampage Jackson split-decision win over Machida.
Judges Jeff Mullen and Marcos Rosales gave Lauzon the first two rounds, giving him the fight. Media scores on MMADecisions.com had 16 scoring it for Held and one having it as a draw.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for five of Sunday’s stars.
YAIR RODRIGUEZ – Rodriguez is a top-10 fighter, and one could go with Cub Swanson (24-7) as a next opponent. Such a bout would be a strong television main event. But I’d go with the winner of the Feb. 4 fight with the returning Chan Sung Jung (13-4) vs Dennis Bermudez (18-5). Jung hasn’t fought in more than three years, but was one of the most exciting fighters on the roster when he took time off to serve in the South Korean military
JOE LAUZON – Having been in the UFC for 10 years, Lauzon is a familiar face, also known for action fights. It’s best to use his name value against another fighter with tenure at the top. Gilbert Melendez (22-6), who has been a star even longer than Lauzon, would be a good opponent for Lauzon at this stage of both men’s careers. It’s a fight that has enough name value that it can help any show it’s booked on.
MARCIN HELD – Because Held has been a featured star in Bellator for so many years, people forget that he’s actually only 24 years old. He looked physically stronger than in the past. His wrestling, and in particular, his timing of is takedowns, showed real improvement. Held didn’t look good against Diego Sanchez, but Mexico City has humbled some of the best of them. His performance against Lauzon showed a completely different fighter, and he should be booked as if he had won his last fight.
A fight I’d like to see is Held against Charles Oliveira (21-7, 1 no-contest). Oliveira’s consistently missing weight at featherweight should move him up. Both fighters are fast moving and aggressively look for submissions when they are on the ground. It’s the right kind of style match-up that would seem to make for an entertaining fight.
BEN SAUNDERS – After being cut by UFC in both 2010 and 2016, Saunders (21-7-2) got his hand raised against Court McGee. The fight could have gone either way.
Saunders took straight 29-28 scores in a fight that came down to a close second round. Media scores had it 53 percent for Saunders and 47 percent for McGee, showing just how close the fight really was.
Albert Tumenov (17-4) would make for a good fight for Saunders. Tumenov was looking like a genuine contender until being submitted in his last two fights. Saunders is enough of a name for it to mean something if Tumenov would win, and should Saunders win, it would be a strong win for him at this stage of his career.
SERGIO PETTIS – Pettis (15-2) defeated former flyweight title contender John Moraga. At 23, he also came into this fight looking like he’s added some power to his frame to go along with already strong technique. An exciting fight for Pettis would be Tim Elliott (13-7-1), who made a name for himself in actually winning a round and giving an actual fight to Demetrious Johnson in a flyweight title bout coming off of winning the last season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Source:: mma fighting