Can anyone stop B.J. Penn?

April 17, 2010

I interviewed Frankie Edgar for a piece I did for prior to UFC 111 that spotlighted New Jersey-based fighters competing on their turf. Edgar, a resident of Toms River, is right now the most famous MMA competitor from the Garden State. He’s 11-1 with wins over Tyson Griffin, Sean Sherk, Spencer Fisher, Hermes Franca and most recently HIT Squad prodigy Matt Veach.

Edgar’s resume is wholly impressive and his status as the UFC’s No. 1 lightweight contender absolute. I asked him about fighting B.J. Penn Saturday at UFC 112. He’s well aware of Penn’s invincible aura and psychotic tendencies that’s won many battles before they were fought.

“I don’t have fear of a person,” Edgar said. “That’s not something that crosses my mind. The fear of losing is definitely always there. The fear of getting embarrassed, that’s there, stronger than the fact of fear of a person or fear of getting hurt.”

Edgar is confident, has every right to be. He’s been an underdog for much of his UFC career, especially against Griffin and Sherk, and he’s comfortable in the role, so he has a chance to score an upset. Then again, Diego Sanchez said it was “his time.” Kenny Florian was equally confident. Sherk had the cred to hang with the Prodigy. All suffered the same fate, which leads to the question of whether anyone can stop him.

Penn is 15-5-1, but hasn’t lost as a lightweight since 2002. He responded from a humbling defeat in his rematch with welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre by hiring Marv Marinovich as strength and conditioning coach. The change in training and attitude produced a Baby Jay that’s carved up his last two opponents. Penn choked out Florian in Round 4, and that was nothing compared to his systematic destruction of Sanchez four months later.

The Prodigy is ranked by FIGHT!, MMA Worldwide, Sherdog and MMAWeekly as the No. 1 lightweight in the world. Few have given Edgar a chance despite his loaded track record. Those who train closely with him at Ricardo Almedia’s Academy know better. Unlike Sanchez, Edgar is coming with a game plan, and if Plan A fails he’ll attack with Plans B, C and D.

If you’re predicting Penn, fine. Just don’t dismiss Edgar. Otherwise I’ll have to remind you about a Long Island native named Matt Serra.

“Anything can happen – who knows?” said Jim Miller, Edgar’s training partner. “B.J. has a stone chin but he could get knocked out. Frankie is so unpredictable. It takes one good shot; that’s the way the game is.”

Who’s the next No. 1 contender? Probably Gray Maynard, the only one to defeat Edgar and undefeated in nine fights (with one no contest), the last two split decision wins over Roger Huerta and Nate Diaz. Florian made a strong case for a rematch with an impressive victory over Takanori Gomi. The division also features rising stars Kurt Pellegrino, George Sotiropoulos and Ross Pearson, so Penn hasn’t cleaned it out yet.

Alas, those who thought they were ready fell victim to Penn’s onslaught.

Joe Stevenson
Joe Daddy replaced Sherk, the suspended lightweight champion, to meet Penn at UFC 80 in what eventually became a fight for the vacant title. Penn knocked Stevenson down seconds into the first round with a right uppercut and for all intents and purposes the fight was over. Penn choked him out 4:02 into the second and celebrated by licking Stevenson’s blood off his gloves. The win made him the second man (Randy Couture) to win two UFC titles in different weight classes.

Sean Sherk
Promised a meeting with the Penn-Stevenson winner after being stripped of his title, Sherk traded punches and kicks for most of the fight. By the closing seconds of the third round, Sherk ate a flying left knee and a barrage of strikes, and was unable to continue for Round 4.

Kenny Florian
Penn’s work with Marinovich was noticeable. Faster and stronger, the Prodigy neutralized Florian’s takedown offense and secured a rear naked choke to end the bout at 3:45 of the fourth round.

Diego Sanchez
The Nightmare had the heart and the unquestioned belief that he could be the one to dethrone Penn, except his tools and Penn’s brute skill smashed him beginning with a knockdown in the first minute of the opening round. All 27 of Sanchez’s takedown attempts were nullified and he was beaten so badly before a right high kick opened an ugly gash on his forehead. The doctor mercifully ended it 2:47 of the fifth, marking the third time Penn successfully finished a fight in defense of his title.

What will be Edgar’s fate? He has the heart and tools to survive, but by no fault of his own that won’t be good enough. The Answer will rule the division before his career is over, but not until Penn decides he’s finished with lightweights. Penn unanimous decision.

Jon Lane covers MMA for, and Tapout and MMA Worldwide magazines. Follow him on Twitter @MMAJunkieJon.