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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 103’s BJ Penn resident fighter analyst -- and aspiring professional fighter -- Andrew Richardson breaks down the mixed martial arts (MMA) game of UFC Fight Night 103 headliner BJ Penn, who looks to make a success return from retirement this Sunday (Jan. 15, 2017) inside Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight strap-hanger, BJ Penn, will duel with dangerous kickboxer, Yair Rodriguez, in a Featherweight match up this Sunday (Jan. 15, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 103 inside Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.

Penn’s decision to return from retirement is an odd one. It may have been opposite elite competition, but Penn’s record since 2010 is an uninspiring 1-5-1, and his last comeback attempt produced one of the weirdest and most ineffectual fights ever.

Still, it would be wrong to fully count Penn out. Despite his decline, Penn surely has some world-class skills left and the experience to make them count. Given an opportunity, Penn could remind fight fans of his past dominance.

Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for both men.


For the record, this article is going to assume that Penn is not going to stick to the bizarre anti-Frankie Edgar strategy he employed last time out, which consisted of standing really tall and skipping about awkwardly. If Penn begins the bout in similar fashion on Sunday, Penn fans would be well-advised to change the channel.

Outside of his late fight high kick opposite Diego Sanchez and the occasional flying knee, almost all of Penn’s effect work striking came thanks to his boxing. Penn’s boxing became the reason he held the title, as he largely abandoned his grappling in order to pick foes apart.

Overall, Penn did his best work as a counter puncher. His prime was more than a few years back now, and Penn was arguably the first to consistently make use of effective head movement at a high level. It wasn’t anything overly complicated, but Penn did an excellent job of slipping down to his right as his opponent pursued him.

Often, Penn would snap his foe’s head back with a long jab after dipping outside. This dipping jab is precisely what allowed Penn to bloody up St. Pierre in the first battle. At the time, rushing forward on a straight line was even more prevalent than it is now, and that leaves a wide opening for this technique.

Even when he was the smaller man inside the Octagon, Penn’s jab still pierced his opponents.

Alternatively, Penn would also slip inside, usually with a big right hand. Now commonly referred to as a cross counter, Penn would again look to capitalize on his opponent’s lack of head movement (GIF). In this situation, Penn’s aggressiveness and natural instinct really shined, as he would often follow up with more equally devastating punches immediately after countering.

While Penn may have landed his best shots at opponents coming towards him, Penn was pretty comfortable pursuing foes as well. He’d still look to draw them into counters, but Penn could put together strong combinations when leading. In that situation, it wasn’t uncommon for Penn to punch himself into the clinch.

The clinch is an area where Penn’s talents are often forgotten, perhaps because he was out-muscled by larger fighters a couple times from there. However, Penn was really excellent at using the collar ties to prevent his opponent from swinging before sneaking in hard punches and elbows. He was able to do this regardless of whether he was the one jammed into the fence or pressing, and it really helped prevent his opponents from finding a place to rest on the feet.

While the recent losses definitely have to do with Penn slowing down, a part of those defeats has also been that he’s been figured out a bit. The Frankie Edgar trilogy showed that Penn struggled with lateral movement, while those fights and Rory MacDonald’s bout really reminded fans that Penn doesn’t have much of a kicking game and can be out-worked at range.


Penn’s wrestling is certainly an interesting case. He doesn’t actually shoot all that often, but he is usually able to drag his opponent down when he actually commits to the attempt.

For the most part, Penn relies on the double leg. He can transition into the takedown from the clinch or at the end of a chasing combination of hooks, but his best entries into the shot usually come after slipping a punch. The concept is largely the same as his counter punching, as Penn simply waits for his opponent to come forward before slipping to the side and exploding into a shot.

Perhaps the most impressive wrestling performance of Penn’s career came opposite Jon Fitch. Fitch may have been the bigger and more credentialed wrestler, but Penn was able to hold his own and set up the double leg (GIF). Once in on the shot, Penn had little difficulty finishing and controlling his foe on the mat.

At least while he was fresh.

Defensively, Penn is likely still a damn difficult man to takedown. Much like current Featherweight kingpin and fellow Nova Uniao-trained athlete Jose Aldo, Penn will turn away from the shot and allow his opponent to snatch the single leg. From that position, Penn’s flexibility allows him to bounce all over the place with ease, and he can run to the fence before defending. Along the fence, Penn is incredibly difficult to take down thanks to both his skill and frame, as Penn’s lower center of gravity and strength also aid him greatly in these exchanges.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Penn’s nickname “The Prodigy” is often applied to his MMA career or boxing skill, but it’s original meaning came from how quickly he was able to become a jiu-jitsu master. A black belt under Andre Pederneiras in less than four years, the Hawaiian is one of the most decorated American grapplers in history.

Penn’s specialty is the top game, which may sound odd considering his incredible flexibility. However, once Penn tackled his opponent to the mat, he was able to pass the guard and eventually attack the back with remarkable success.

Years before it become hugely popular in jiu-jitsu, Penn was employing the smash pass inside the cage. After breaking his opponent’s guard into the open position — often with the help of a few punches — Penn would begin working to pass. From that open guard, his opponent would usually look to use butterfly hooks or push at his hips, and the smash pass counters both.

To use the smash pass, Penn secures the far side underhook, meaning the side he will not be passing towards. He also drives his forehead into his opponent’s jaw, flattening him out. From there, Penn stays on his feet and looks to get his knee outside of his opponent’s leg before driving it across. This stacks his opponent’s hips on top of each other and shuts down movement. From there, Penn can pressure heavily until he slides into mount.

Once mounted, it wasn’t long before Penn’s punches had his foe turning to escape, giving up the back. Penn is a master of this position, and I highlighted some of his techniques from there in this week’s technique video.

From his back, Penn is not much of an offensive submission threat. However, he is excellent at using his guard to create space and scramble. His hip flexibility is a great advantage here, as it makes Penn’s guard immensely difficult to pass and helps him get his feet back into position (GIF).

Penn does a lot of work from the butterfly guard when looking to stand. Usually, he’ll elevate the hips and use that space to get his feet underneath him. However, he’s also shown other techniques, such as hooking the leg of his opponent in a position similar to X-guard. From there, he can more easily stand, as his opponent cannot keep his weight on Penn. Plus, it’s an easy entry into the takedown or possible reversal.


Penn is a legendary fighter with multiple championship straps to his name. At 38 years old, there’s nothing left for the pioneer to prove. That’s what make his return to competition so confusing, as fighters are only getting more skilled. If he can take out Yair Rodriguez, then perhaps Penn has some gas left in the tank, but it’s more likely that he’s confounded by the Mexican athlete’s wild style and takes some abuse in the process.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.

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