Ultimate Submissions: Breaking down the grappling of BJ Penn and Nick Diaz


On October 29, 2011, the UFC will be flying its banner once again inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, as the injury and drama struck UFC 137 will leave the MMA world abuzz for the highly anticipated showdown between top contenders Nick Diaz and B.J. Penn.

In the months leading up to the event we saw the main event match-up featuring UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre and Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Diaz scrapped after the latter was a no show for the promotions pre-event press conference. The lack of professionalism and loss in trust forced the powers that be to call an audible and insert perennial contender Carlos Condit into the evening’s main event.

Condit, originally slated to be the co-main event, was scheduled to square off with Penn. "The Prodigy," now left without an opponent, was paired with the now former number one contender, Diaz. St. Pierre would go down with an injury weeks prior to the event and the Penn vs. Diaz match-up would be bumped to the headlining slot.

What a complete mess.

UFC 137 will now offer two former friends and teammates meeting up in what many believe to be a number one contender fight for the 170-pound title. What's still a mystery is whether Condit will get the next shot or if the winner of this fight leapfrogs into that position.

Either way, Saturday night we have quite a match-up for our viewing pleasure. Let's take a look at how the two stack up on the ground after the jump.

Both Diaz and Penn are Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts with elite level skills on the ground. Coming from Gracie jiu-jitsu backgrounds, they are two of the more talented and heralded grapplers in the entire sport.

Diaz, a black belt under Cesar Gracie, has competed in Gi and No-Gi competitions and has shown his grappling translates to mixed martial arts as evidenced by the fact that he hasn't been submitted in over 30 professional fights.

Penn, initially studying under Ralph Gracie, would receive his black belt from fifth-degree black belt André Pederneiras. Recognized as being the first non-Brazilian to win the World Championships, Penn’s ji-jitsu has always been held in high regard as being among the greatest in the world. He's never been submitted in his career. 

So who has the advantage?

The Guard:

Both fighters have very good guards but for different reasons. While Penn uses his flexibility to help him get back to the feet where he often holds an advantage in the striking, Diaz uses his closed guard to attack with submissions.

Let’s take a look at some gifs.


Penn isn’t a strictly traditional guard type of grappler. We often here criticism of Penn by fans asking when the last time is that Penn has submitted anyone from his back. Well, the truth is his bottom game focuses much more around escapes and scrambles and less on submissions.

Recognized as one of the more flexible fighters in the world, Penn often uses his dexterity to improve position or escape. In this clip, you can see Penn with one of the more grinding wrestlers in the game on top of him. Jon Fitch has taken Penn down and is ready to unleash the smothering and frustrating style of fighting that so many have succumbed to prior.

Instead, Penn uses his left leg to plant in the hip crevice on the left side of Fitch to keep him from being completely on top. While that leg keeps the space and weight off, Penn sneaks his right leg up and pushes into the opposite hip of Fitch causing Fitch to fall backwards and Penn to escape to his feet.

Aside from the rubber guard, Penn’s biggest strength from his back is his ability to use his legs in ways most grapplers simply can not. He is so flexible and quick with his lower half that it is almost as if he has two extra arms. Penn will want to use his escapes and sweeps such as his signature jailbreak and octopus sweep to gain top or standing position.

For More on Penn's jiu-jitsu skill, read my fanposts on his career grappling highlights herehere and here.5_medium

Sitting inside the closed guard, Diaz has "Cyborg" Santos broken down and keeping him from sitting up to drop bombs. Santos has his hands very high. Diaz shifts his hips and goes to a very high guard.

Diaz smartly reaches beneath the left leg/knee of Santos and hooks it. This keeps Santos from passing or rolling out of the arm bar attempt that is about to come. Nick throws the leg high while isolating the arm completes the attempt by putting the leg over the face and now he starts to fight with the wrist. He uses his hips and lower strength to throw Santos over capitalizing on the lack of base and balance finally prying the arm free and getting the submission.

The hips and lower body strength of Diaz are greatly undervalued. The argument that he has yet to defeat a wrestler is valid; however, there is no takeaway in how good Diaz's guard is. He's also very flexible which was seen when he Gogoplata’d Takanori Gomi very quickly.

The advantage here sways to Diaz. He has shown his ability to escape and submit from his back and his long legs present opportunities for arm bars, triangle chokes, omoplatas and gogoplatas alike and having more tools in the tool kit will often mean there are more ways to succeed.

The Top Game: 

Diaz has never been much of a top game grappler and I was unable to really locate a time when Diaz used superb top game grappling in his mixed martial arts career. If anyone has any further insight as to when he has or show us some examples, that would be great.

Penn, on the other hand, is one of the best guard passing grapplers in the entire sport, period. Every fighter he has taken down he has passed their guard and in most cases, earned the most dominant position in grappling by taking their back.

Simply stated, Penn has one of the most vicious and slick top games out there. Passing the guard of Renzo Gracie was just one of many highlight reel passes and displays of top game Penn has to his name.


From my fanpost on passing the guard:

Speaking of passing the guard, B.J. Penn shows one of the most impressive guard passes I personally have ever seen when he passes Brazilian Jiu Jitsu legend Renzo Gracie’s guard in their middleweight bout.

With seconds left in a bout that was favoring Penn, sitting in side control after a trip takedown, the smaller Penn decided it was not enough to ride out position. With little time left meant little risk to be swept and reversed.

Penn would underhook the right leg of the planted Gracie. Controlling that leg meant Gracie would have less to defend with if Penn were to pass, then Penn would snake his right leg through the slot made by his arm and Gracie’s leg. Flexibility played a huge part in the pass as well as the vast arsenal of grappling technique that Penn enjoys.

As he passes, Renzo bucks but with that leg controlled it makes it easier for Penn to sit down and get his weight planted to control Renzo. He completes the pass into mount and the round ends soon after.


Penn took the fight to Jon Fitch. Being the only person to really find success grappling against Fitch besides division king Georges St. Pierre, Penn took Fitch down and passed his guard all the way into back mount.

In the clip above you see Penn slip a punch and dive down for a double leg. Penn has always had great explosion both in his grappling and striking. He sinks down for the double leg and when he gets Fitch down he immediately sucks up Fitch’s legs between his own to trap them and limit mobility.

From there he waits and makes a swift movement to take Fitch’s back. He almost succeeds in using his flexible legs to trap the left arm which would have all but secured the rear naked choke victory. Penn traps Fitch with a body triangle and follows him as he attempts to roll out of the position.

Fitch would later escape, but the skill and execution shown exhibits just how great Penn can be in the top game department. He has better takedowns then Diaz and he is a deadly guard passer. Mix that in with his heavy hands, not to mention his ground and pound, and you have an absolute beast to deal with.

Look for Diaz to avoid being on the bottom too often and look for Penn to feel comfortable taking down the Gracie black belt to claim Diaz as another victim in Penn’s amazing list of guards he has passed.

What do you think, Maniacs? Do you agree that Penn has the better top game while Diaz has the more efficient guard? And who do you think wins if this fight hits the mats?  

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