I realize the headline has some of you worked up into a frenzy, but just give me a chance to explain. B.J. Penn is a wonderfully gifted fighter. Let’s start there. In fact, let’s go further. B.J. Penn is a truly great fighter, easily one of the best lightweights in the world. Most of the other guys in the lightweight top ten would stand little chance against him, and the same goes for a few of the guys in the welterweight top ten.
I don’t think Sean Sherk is objectively a better fighter than B.J. Penn. I do, however, think that Sean Sherk can beat B.J. Penn on Saturday night, and I’d like to explain why.
Styles make fights. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. So much in MMA is dependent on how one man’s style matches up against another’s, and Sherk is a bad match for Penn.
If there’s any type of fighter Penn has struggled against, it’s wrestlers. Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre were both bigger and stronger than Penn, but they are also both excellent wrestlers, and they both beat Penn by outworking and outlasting him. You can give him a pass for having a broken rib or bad cardio in those fights, but the blame for both of those problems rests with Penn.
A powerhouse of a wrestler is tough on a jiu-jitsu fighter because his takedown ability and takedown defense makes it difficult to gain top position on him, which means that if you can’t beat him on the feet and can’t sweep or submit him on the mat, your chances of winning a decision aren’t good.
I’m not saying Penn’s standup isn’t better than Sherk’s. It is. But here’s a fun quiz: who’s the last person Penn beat by TKO? The answer is Paul Creighton, and it was at UFC 37 in 2002.
You could argue that he beat Joe Stevenson with strikes before finishing him with a choke, but Sherk isn’t Stevenson. To beat him you have to either overpower him and be a better wrestler than he is, or you have to become the first person to knock him out or submit him.
Penn probably isn’t going to KO him, and a decision is unlikely unless he can nullify Sherk’s takedowns. His best chance is submission, and Sherk has never been submitted.
While we’re on the subject of things Sherk has never done, let’s look at something Penn has never done, which is win a five-round fight. He’s gone five rounds twice in his career. The first was a decision loss against Jens Pulver, and the second was a draw against Caol Uno, which was over five years ago.
That doesn’t mean Penn can’t win a five-round fight, or that Sherk can’t lose one. It just means that one of those men is used to it and has proven he can do it, while the other hasn’t. Unlike many people, I don’t believe Penn’s cardio will be a major factor in this fight. He seems to be training harder than ever before, taking his preparation and his career as seriously as many of us wished he would have from the start. He’ll be in shape for this fight.
But there’s a difference between being physically ready and being mentally ready. Penn is physically ready, but what will be going through his mind in round four if he hasn’t been able to dominate Sherk or put him away like he expected? What if Sherk keeps after the takedowns until he gets them, then puts Penn against the fence and grinds away at him? Will Penn start telling himself that it’s not fair for Sherk to win a decision this way? Will he begin to accept defeat little by little?
What we know about B.J. Penn is that “The Prodigy” is about as apt a nickname as one could imagine. He is uncommonly talented. He has gifts that surpass those of someone like Sean Sherk. In some capacity, I expect that Sherk knows this too. That’s why he won’t depend on simply being better. He’ll have to depend on being more resilient, more tenacious, and willing to do what Penn won’t.
Sean Sherk’s style is rarely pretty and sometimes monotonous, but unlike pure ability it is something that you can depend on. A victory for Penn would likely offer more finality and be more pleasing for the fans, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. Sometimes you win by being naturally better than your opponent, and sometimes you win by not going away. Sometimes.