One of the most compelling mixed martial arts (MMA) match ups is that of the ascendant wunderkind-meets-aging-superstar. It gives both parties a chance to test their mettle, to serve diametrically opposed agendas.
For the young gun, it's an opportunity to show he can compete at a higher level of competition than he's likely faced. For the veteran, it's an opening in a window that is perceived as fast-closing, one he may not have the chance to climb through again.
For all of Penn's munificent skills, where at his peak he was probably the best lightweight in the history of the game, he's still looking to prove he belongs among the elite welterweight field, which has historically proved to be a difficult task for the Hawaiian despite his early -- albeit brief -- title reign.
MacDonald's impressive package of skills is underlied by the fact that fact that he's just 23 years old. Since bursting on to the scene with a brilliant performance against Carlos Condit several years ago, where "Ares" gave his man all he could handle only to fall short via technical knockout with seconds left in the bout, he's been nothing short of impressive.
Training alongside welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre has obviously had its benefits, as MacDonald's physical prowess and great transitions have simply been too much for recent opponents.
Meanwhile, Penn is Penn, and at his best, is an incredibly difficult foe to discourage.
Check out a complete breakdown of the UFC on FOX 5 televised main card fight between B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald below:
While Penn's three defenses as a lightweight were marked with a "Come and get me" approach, his approach to welterweight fights has always been different. It's as though he relishes fighting bigger guys, and feels the need to attack from the jump -- at lightweight he was often content to lay back, counter, pick spots and let opponents like Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian exhaust themselves running into his brilliant traps.
But against Jon Fitch, Penn came out roaring, giving Fitch fits in the opening round. Ditto for his first bout with St. Pierre, where his crisp stand up and stellar boxing bloodied the Canadian's nose, showcasing Penn's outstanding ability to counter in the pocket. Yet in those bouts, as well as his Oct. 2011 beat-down by Nick Diaz, Penn's penchant for tiring down the stretch has been a consistent problem. Whether he feels he needs to jump on MacDonald, or parcel out his energy in a longer tactical fight, will be a huge factor.
For MacDonald, the biggest decision is what to do if he doesn't feel comfortable in an extended stand up battle, which means trying to wrench Penn to the ground. It's a dangerous proposition because Penn can exhaust foes trying to take him down, and his defensive Brazilian jiu-jitsu is outstanding ... at least early in fights before he tires.
MacDonald showed some excellent sense of range and timing in decisioning Nate Diaz, whose smothering style was neatly defused by MacDonald's movement and sharp counters. MacDonald excels at stringing together mixed kickboxing combinations, and the willingness to go high-low with his limbs will be a definite advantage against Penn, who exclusively relies on boxing, rolling and bombing away as opponents step into his wheelhouse.
MacDonald's ability to switch from striking to grappling is a lightning-quick trait, and has a seamless understanding of deciding when to hold position, when to advance, and when to pound away. If he dominates the stand up portion early, it's likely to be a long night for Penn, who is in outstanding physical shape for the fight, displaying muscle tone rarely seen on his frame. MacDonald is also well-aware of Penn's tendency to start fast and fade, and it might be part of the gameplan to feel Penn out in the opening stanza, and then force a cardio-grinding type of fight, which paid off hugely for Diaz, Fitch and St. Pierre in his second bout with Penn.
MacDonald is one of the best fighters in the sport today, in a curious alternate-track of contendership because of the fact that he has stated he doesn't want to fight St. Pierre and vice-versa. It's no accident the UFC is therefore matching him with Penn, which is a kind of keep-busy, see-how-he-looks litmus test for a guy who has the mark of a future champion.
That being said, Penn's ability to counter, bust out big shots and his concrete chin will have to be virtually perfect to win this win. He's going to be giving up range and his striking arsenal simply won't be diverse enough to derail MacDonald, who will slip in and out of range, landing solid shots in the opening round.
Either way, Penn figures to fall victim to the "burn rate" strategy bigger men have used against him. Simply put, it's about making him use stamina while dictating the pace.
Penn will connect on his share, but MacDonald will wisely move away, or, to buy time, force clinches. Sometime in the second round, after a critical exchange, Penn will be badly hurt and fall to the canvas. MacDonald will pounce, delivering a brutal ground-and-pound finish to win via impressive technical knockout.
Prediction: MacDonald via technical knockout in round two
Be sure to join MMAmania.com later this evening for LIVE blow-by-blow, round-by-round coverage of UFC on FOX 5: "Henderson vs. Diaz," beginning with the "Prelims" bouts on Facebook scheduled for around 3:45 p.m. ET. In addition, we will also provide LIVE, real-time results of the main card action as it happens throughout the evening this upcoming Saturday, starting promptly at 8 p.m. ET.
See you later!
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst