Photo via UFC.com
You know what they say: if at first you don't succeed, gain 15 pounds.
"The Prodigy" exploded onto the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene, earning three wins in less time than it takes to cook a pizza. Even more impressive, Penn was shucking his grappling chops -- which were insanely impressive -- and opting to destroy his opponents in the stand up. When he was booked opposite Jens Pulver, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Hawaiian would walk away with the lightweight strap.
But in one of the gutsiest performances ever, Pulver weathered the early storm and dominated the latter three rounds to defeat Penn by decision. What unfolded in the next two years was unlikelihood after improbability after long shot and led to Penn taking on Hughes for a title in a weight class he had never competed in.
This Saturday (Oct. 29) Penn steps inside the Octagon against Nick Diaz in the new main event of UFC 137. In Diaz he faces a fighter much like himself. The former Strikeforce champion combines high level grappling with devastating boxing, a combination that has him undefeated in his last 10 fights.
But first, we'll take a look at Penn's shocking victory over Hughes. It was the fight which finally saw "The Prodigy" start to realize some of the potential everyone knew he always had.
After Pulver fended off Penn at UFC 35, the Miletich Fighting Systems product left the promotion and vacated the lightweight title. In response, a four-man tournament was set up to crown a new champion. At UFC 39, Penn dispatched of Matt Serra and Caol Uno defeated Din Thomas.
"The Prodigy" and Uno had faced one another before. In Penn's third fight, he demolished the Japanese legend in only 11 seconds. The second time around, Uno was able to avoid the same fate and battled Penn for the full 25 minutes. In a situation that the Hawaiian would become duly familiar with in his career, he would end up not winning the fight despite appearing like he had just woken up from a nap while his opponent looked like he had been beaten nearly to death.
The fight ended in a draw and pretty much killed the 155-pound division for a couple of years. Penn, who had squandered his second title shot, traveled back home to Hawaii and easily dismantled former Shooto champion Takanori Gomi. It took some of the sting out of his failure to beat Uno for a second time but it was no replacement for 12 pounds of gold.
That's when the UFC offered "The Prodigy" a unique opportunity. Matt Hughes had five straight welterweight title defenses on his résumé and had basically run out of challengers. Having found success in asking Randy Couture to switch weight classes, the promotion seemed willing to take a similar chance on Penn.
The contracts were signed and the fight was set for UFC 46. Let's take a look.
The two exchange jabs before clinching up. The champ tries to land some knees in the plum but Penn is able to break free and the two reset. Hughes seems content to stand with his opponent until a right counter hook cracks him on the jaw and drops him to a knee.
The champion's wrestling instincts take over and he dives in for a single-leg takedown but is flipped onto his back -- rather easily it seems like -- by Penn. They scramble on the mat and "The Prodigy" winds up in his opponent's guard.
From there, the strategies for each fighter seem clear: Penn is looking to pass while Hughes wants to completely neutralize any offense the Hawaiian throws at him. As the challenger tries to step into side mount, the wrestler takes the opportunity to threaten with a kimura. Having forgotten more about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) than most people will ever know, Penn easily avoids the submission and momentarily takes the champ's back.
90 seconds into the fight, "The Prodigy" once again ends up in Hughes' guard and begins dropping elbows. If you had asked anyone prior to the bout who they would have expected landing ground and pound from the top, their answer would have varied wildly from what actually ended up happening.
Hughes, for his part, is landing his own shots from the bottom while trying to shove the challenger off of him. The two battle to what amounts to a stalemate for the next two minutes but with a little over 60 seconds remaining in the round, Penn is able to advance into half-guard.
Hughes forces him back to guard and then to his feet. Penn -- holding his opponent's legs -- lands a left and then a huge right as he dives back on top of the champion. Perhaps dazed from the punch, Hughes seemingly allows Penn to take control at this point.
Penn slides across his opponent's body and takes his back. He begins raining down punches -- looping lefts and rights -- forcing the champion to cover up to protect himself. The same action that prevents a possible knockout also leads to a rear naked choke which forces Hughes to tap.
Ever a showman, Penn gives the now former champion a little sugar before being hoisted on the shoulders of a corner man and slapping himself over and over.
"The Prodigy" finally owned UFC gold. But perhaps feeling that the 170-pound division was the odd man out -- every other weight class except welterweight had its title vacated at least once at that time -- Penn signed with a Japanese fight promotion which forced the UFC to strip the Hawaiian of his recently won belt.
He eventually returned to the Octagon and has taken on Hughes twice more since that fateful night. The wrestler took the rematch, pounding "The Prodigy" out in the third round. The rubber match was all Penn as he scorched his longtime rival in less than half a minute.
His welterweight record stands at 3-3-1 with his most recent bout -- against Jon Fitch -- ending in a draw. Should Penn win on Saturday and Fitch win his bout at UFC 141, the two could meet once again to settle what was left unresolved in Australia.
With wins over Diaz and Fitch, would Penn earn a third bout with Georges St. Pierre? Or is that simply a fight you Maniacs don't care to see?