This Saturday Nick Diaz makes his long awaited return to the UFC Octagon. Drama, of course, follows Diaz wherever he goes in this world. Dana White's soap opera for men is no different. Diaz was demoted from a main event title shot against Georges St. Pierre, relegated to a spot opposite B.J. Penn, then promoted back to the main event when St. Pierre went down with a knee injury.
It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for the Strikeforce welterweight champion. But it's officially fight week now. The media shenanigans are in the past. What matters now is what happens in the cage. Who has the advantage in the five crucial categories that decide who makes it to the top in this sport?
Wrestling: A distinct and significant advantage for Penn - if he chooses to use it. Penn has exceptional takedown defense and very good offensive wrestling. I've heard stories of him fending off takedowns in training sessions from some of the best fighters in the world, including former heavyweight champion Randy Couture. Suffice to say, if he doesn't want to go to the mat, it's unlikely Nick Diaz can force the issue without a major scramble or without knocking Penn down with punches first.
Grappling: I would love to see a grappling match break out here. Penn's jiu-jitsu is legendary. In 2000, with just three years of training, a 20-year old Penn not only received his black belt but actually won the jiu-jitsu world championships. He wasn't nicknamed The Prodigy for nothing.
Diaz, of course, is also a spectacular submission artist and a Cesar Gracie black belt. He's one of the sport's great finishers, with 21 of 25 victories ending decisively. Stopping Penn won't be easy - in a ten year career, Penn has never been finished by a submission, despite facing Matt Serra and two different men with the last name "Gracie."
Striking: Despite their respective grappling pedigrees, I think the fight will be decided on the feet. Penn told the media last week Diaz has the best boxing in the sport. Diaz, modest as always, agreed with that assessment. Both men, to tell the truth, have exceptional hands. Penn was one of the first MMA fighters to find success behind a stiff jab. Diaz prefers a swarming style, overwhelming with volume.
One thing is certain - they can take a punch. Neither has been knocked out with a standing punch in their long and outstanding careers. Both have been stopped once by ground and pound and once by doctor or corner stoppage. But when it comes to standing and trading, each man has the mettle to stand in the pocket and trade.
Clinch: Penn's strength in the clinch is defensive. He frustrates opponents, typically grapplers looking to take him down, by planting his back to the cage and refusing to go without a titanic struggle. His takedowns from the clinch are also underrated - but often forgotten in his own game planning.
Diaz's main strengths in the clinch are his strengths from every position. He works hard, trying to make up what he may lack in power with the pure force of numbers. He will throw punches and knees in the clinch and never come up for air.
Intangibles: Here's where things really get interesting. You never know which B.J. Penn you're going to get. At his best, Penn is as good as anyone. He's also been known to come in overweight and out of shape, incapable of going hard for 15 minutes.
If you understand nothing about Nick Diaz, understand this: he is coming to fight. Always. For 15 minutes he will go as hard as he can, never stopping until someone is down for the count. He's as predictable as sunshine in southern California.
Long time readers know Diaz is my favorite active fighter. But there comes a time when you have to remove fanboy blinders and look objectively at the fight. I love Diaz's spirit. I love the way he fights, the heart and pure, glorious anger he brings to every contest. You never forget you're watching a cage fight when Nick Diaz is competing.
But B.J. Penn is one of the best to ever compete in mixed martial arts. Taking him at his word, he's going to be ready for 15 minutes in the cage with an animal. A fit and ready Penn is just on a different level than Diaz.