By Zach Arnold | October 17, 2011
Since the odds opened up at the sportsbooks for this fight, I’ve noticed that there is a strong belief that Nick Diaz will beat BJ Penn in two weeks at UFC 137 in Las Vegas. I’ve yet to figure out a way, in my mind, in which Diaz beats Penn. There’s just too many variables in favor of Penn winning the fight and more paths for him to win outright than for Nick to win. However, a lot of money has been coming in on Nick to win the fight. The fight is now a virtual pick ‘em at the ‘books. This astounds me.
So, I set out to find someone who could articulate in a written article the way in which Nick beats BJ for this fight. For the most part, the responses I got were from people who think BJ is going to win but would be willing to put aside their feelings to make the argument for Nick. I wanted to find some true believers in Nick Diaz. David Castillo was gracious enough to send me this article in order to lay out the case as to why Nick Diaz should be as strongly favored as BJ Penn for their UFC 137 fight.
While fans may have felt something was lost when Nick Diaz fumbled his chance at the title with his antisocial behavior in playing the role of Dr. Richard Kimble at Cesar Gracie’s home, we’ve also collectively gained with one of the most intriguing matchups in all of MMA. Both Nick and BJ Penn are incredibly gifted fighters, and they bring as much attitude inside the cage as they do outside of it. I’m not sure Penn will be licking Nick’s blood off his gloves when all is said and done, or if Nick will be spouting vulgarities at Penn mid-fight, but I can’t wait to find out.
So who wins? With the numbers even on this match, do the oddsmakers know what the experts don’t? Part of why many people give Nick a good chance to win is psychological. Nick is on a ten fight winning streak. Regardless of competition (much of which was respectable enough), Nick simply has the “hot hand”. He hasn’t lost since 2007. Results like that go a long way with fans. Conversely, Penn is 1-2-1 in his last four, having dropped two fights to Edgar, and nearly became 1-3 against Fitch, who clowned him in the 3rd round of their fight.
However, for Nick, there are still questions about his competition “respectable enough” or not. He’s facing the same narrative many talented fighters outside of the UFC have always faced: the inexperience against top tier competition. Right now Jake Shields is dealing with his defeat: but not against GSP, but to Jake Ellenburger, a fighter who simply wasn’t high on many top 10 lists before his victory over Shields. Is Nick Diaz just a big fish in a small goldfish bag like so many other non-Zuffa fighters? Compounding the issue is that Nick Diaz already fought in the UFC with a 6-4 record. He wasn’t a washout, as is sometimes assumed: in fact, he was on a 2 fight winning streak before signing with Gracie Fighting Championship to leave the UFC.
But the blueprint had been written in his four losses: you beat Nick by holding him down. Or were they? Fans tend to be have short term memories. In Nick’s four losses in the UFC, two were lost in the grappling department; to Karo and Diego (this was especially true in Diego’s case, who nearly secured an armbar in the 3rd round of their fight). And the other 2 were essentially lost on the feet: to Riggs, and then to Sherk (who had trouble getting Diaz down, and resorted to boxing for significant portions of the fight). Nick has shown steady signs of improvement over the years, and if you want proof, compare him to his fights with Mike Aina and his first fight with KJ Noons all the way to the Noons rematch. Under normal circumstances I’d say the jump up in competition would too much, but Nick has been there before. Moreover, as Nick himself is all too eager to remind everyone, his losses were in hotly contested bouts.
Tag to that the fact that no one has ever run away with an easy victory over Nick, and given his improvement over the years, I think it’s fair to say that the jump up in competition won’t be a factor. Plus he’s motivated. Nick is nothing if not dedicated to the sport (despite the temper tantrums). He may seem irresponsible away from the cage, but inside he’s acutely aware of his duties, and that awareness tends to pay dividends.
I’m picking Nick, and in several hundred words I’ll explain why. Let me first say that I don’t think Nick is the better striker of the two. Penn is quicker, has more power, and has tremendous instincts as a counter puncher. For all of the praise fans and the media heap on Nick for his boxing ability, it’s only ever come in firefights against opponents all too willing to slug with him. Santos, Daley, Zaromskis, and Noons stood right there in the pocket and simply gave him too many opportunities to accumulate the kind of punishment Diaz needs in order to win the fight. He’s a “death by a thousand cuts” kind of puncher, and will never be mistaken as a bong worshiping welterweight version of Ernie Shavers.
For sure, Nick is neither fast (like Edgar), or physical (like Fitch). Penn has only ever lost this way, so if Nick can’t threaten in the way Edgar and Fitch did, why would Nick stand a chance? Well, I think the problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes Penn can only ever lose two ways.
Nick gives Penn a new look. Of all the strikers Penn has fought, he’s never encountered an opponent willing to get in his face. The guys that were, like Diego Sanchez, just weren’t very good on the feet. I’d never consider making the comparison of Nick Diaz with Frankie Edgar, but Edgar confounded Penn in the rematch. Yes due to superior speed, and agility, which Nick almost defiantly lacks, but it revealed that BJ can be flustered in fights.
Moreover, Penn can get caught reacting too much, making him at times inert. When you look at BJ’s losses, part of the problem stems from the fact that he’s too willing to let his opponents dictate the pace and rhythm of the fight. Even in his victory against Florian, Penn was content to let Kenny stall the fight against the cage. It wasn’t a big deal at UFC 101 because Florian was no GSP, but it’s how Fitch and GSP found success (despite the draw in Fitch’s case).
Of course, Fitch and GSP couldn’t be more different than Nick, but it illustrates BJ’s proclivity to react more than actively engage. And so it’s possible Penn, like the opponents Nick beat, does get caught in a firefight. But I just said Penn is the better boxer…
Well, I do believe that. Part of that believe stems from the fact that even in beating guys like Daley, Zaromskis, and Santos…Nick still had some trouble. For one, he’s pretty hittable. If a guy like Zaromskis can find the sweet spot, why not the much more brilliant Penn? I agree, but despite this, I think Nick’s ability to wade through the firepower of Paul Daley also illustrates what should be his ability to wade through Penn’s. Nick didn’t just get hurt, and win with a hail mary punch. He got hurt, got back up, and kept pressuring until his opponent broke. If Paul Daley’s left hand couldn’t discourage Nick, why would BJ’s? In a dogfight, you can’t ignore Nick’s resolve, and it’s a factor in this fight precisely because Penn will oblige Nick on the feet.
My argument more or less rests on the assumption that Penn won’t take the fight to the ground. Not because he respects Nick’s ground game (Penn is the one with a Mundials gold medal, not Nick), but because he himself loves to scrap. You can probably count on one hand the number of times Penn has actively sought to take the fight to the ground. Penn’s instinct to go for the takedown is usually motivated by a fighter that’s hurt (see Florian and Stevenson). But even where desperation requires it, as we saw against Frankie Edgar in the rematch, Penn doesn’t seem keen on doing so. In his fight against Jon Fitch, Penn was executing what felt like a fresh gameplan by initiating the wrestling, but he seemed to ditch it in the later rounds.
Even so, despite what I think is the advantage for Penn on the ground as well, it’s not as if Nick is chopped sativa on the ground. Diaz is comfortable on his back, and won’t be in any danger of being submitted so long as he has his faculties. But can Diaz actually submit Penn off his back? To torture the MMA cliche, ‘anything can happen’. Though I highly doubt it, if Rani Yahya, an ADCC veteran and winner of the 66kg division in 2007 could get submitted by Gesias Cavalcante, why not Penn by Diaz? Two different fighters, sure, but a medal isn’t submission proof and both have considerable experience, and know how to capitalize with a submission.
If we fast forwarded to a parallel universe where Nick wins by TKO victory, Nick’s path is on the feet. He takes a few like he always does, loses the first round, but keeps coming. Establishing distance to keep from being countered with regularity, Nick maintains a boxing pace Penn simply can’t keep up with. Penn doesn’t always fight to his strengths, and he seems confused when things don’t go his way.
On top of that, perhaps it’s fair to ask whether or not Penn is fully motivated? One of the most bizarre narratives going into this fight was the promo dispute involving Penn and the UFC where BJ made an issue out of making a prediction for the fight. He’s only ever not fought for the UFC in five bouts. It’s weird to think how the UFC constructs their pre-fight interviews would suddenly be an issue. Does he have too much respect for Nick? Could that be a factor? On top of everything, a Penn win means a third fight with GSP should Condit lose. Is Penn keenly aware of his place in the division? Few people are interested in a potential third fight. Though Zuffa could always sell it as a faux-trilogy given the first fight’s controversy. But BJ took a significant beating in the rematch. Was the beating enough to remind Penn that WW is not his true home? For all of Penn’s talents, and accomplishments, he’s been chased out of LW, and WW with both current champs having beaten him twice. To what degree does this affect BJ’s mindset?
Regardless of who loses, the fans win. While much has been made of the UFC 137 switcheroo, I think these should have been the proper matchups in the first place, with Nick earning himself a shot at the title with a much better win than what his opponents in Strikeforce could offer.