UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz goes down tomorrow night from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Also, don’t forget to check back at FightLine.com Saturday afternoon for our live, ongoing coverage of UFC 137: Penn vs. Diaz.
BJ Penn vs. Nick Diaz
Though you would be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t disappointed by the injury-forced postponement of UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre’s scheduled title defense against Carlos Condit, the new main-event-by-default between Penn and Diaz promises to be a suitable and supremely entertaining replacement.
A two-time, dual-division champ, there are few more talented competitors in all of MMA than BJ “The Prodigy” Penn. The Hawaiian warrior possesses one of the most threatening ground games in the sport, with fight-ending submissions and an underrated wrestling ability at his disposal. Add to that the fact that he has what famed boxing coach Freddie Roach once described as the best boxing in MMA and you have a fighter with the ability to finish an opponent from most any position, standing or on the mat. The one knock on Penn has always been his propensity to fade in later rounds, which may very well come into play against Diaz.
Perhaps it’s because Penn is one of his longtime idols in the sport or because they share similar origins with the Cesar/Ralph Gracie jiu-jitsu teams, but the fiery Diaz owns a very similar skilset to his Hawaiian counterpart – mentality, too. Diaz also favors a hands-heavy striking game, only throwing kicks occasionally. The difference here is the Stockton native’s high-volume attack, which comes behind an incessantly probing jab. On the ground, Diaz has shown an equal ability to put opponents away with submissions, but perhaps works better off of his back than the top-control oriented Penn. The biggest differences between the two are Diaz’s unending, unquestionable conditioning and Penn’s more formidable wrestling skills.
Both men fight like dogs, bringing an aggressiveness and tenacity that often leave their opponents dazed and beaten. Though they’ve both expressed a deep respect for the other, don’t expect those feelings to last long when the cage door shuts on Saturday night.
Mark: This is a tough fight to pick, and it’s easy to see scenarios in which either man walks away the victor. The biggest thing going for Penn here is the fact that this fight is only three rounds long, as a fighter with the reach and constant output of Diaz has been shown to give The Prodigy problems down the stretch. For Diaz, he’s facing a fighter who’s pretty much always been made or broken by his mindset and it’s hard to say whether or not Penn will show up this weekend focused and fired up. Though Diaz uses his reach well, he usually still takes shots from his opponents during exchanges and Paul Daley proved that he can still be touched by hard shots. I think Penn has the wrestling to dictate where the fight takes place, the grappling prowess to avoid being subbed and the powerful, precise kind of striking that should give Diaz trouble. Penn via unanimous decision (29-28 x 3)
Dana: Both fighters will have plenty of pressure on them in this one, but I feel like BJ Penn’s history will prevail. “The Prodigy” has been inside the Octagon before against some of the biggest names in MMA. He knows what it takes to compete in the main event of the UFC, and that will make the difference. Nick Diaz just hasn’t fought against the same level of skilled fighters that Penn has, and that is no dishonor to him. Diaz just needs to compete against better opponents before he can finish off fighters like Penn and Georges St-Pierre. Penn via unanimous decision
Raj: I agree with Mark, this one is tough to predict. However, I do feel that Diaz’s youth and boxing skills give him the upper hand. I see Diaz keeping the fight standing and peppering Penn with punches for three rounds before eventually taking home a unanimous decision. Diaz via unanimous decision
Cheick Kongo vs. Matt Mitrione
By virtue of the rollercoaster ride that’s been UFC 137, five-fight veteran Matt Mitrione finds himself in the co-main event of the evening fighting the biggest fight of his young career against seasoned competitor Cheick Kongo.
A contestant on the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Mitrione has arguably raised his stock the highest out of any of his TUF 10 castmates still employed by the UFC. The former pro football player got something of a late start in the sport, but has parlayed his impressive athleticism and high coachability into an undefeated 5-0 record. Working under the likes of Ray Sefo, Neil Melanson and occasionally Randy Couture, among others, Mitirone improves greatly from fight to fight and is beginning to look like a real threat at heavyweight.
French kickboxer Cheick Kongo has been a member of the UFC’s heavyweight stable since 2006, amassing a promotional record of 9-4-1 during his tenure. He is durable, strong and gritty, with powerful, precise strikes and a solid awareness of the ground game. He arguably gave current champion Cain Velasquez the toughest fight of his career and is coming off of a Fight of the Year candidate against Pat Barry, which saw him come back from the brink of defeat and score a knockout.
Mark: I’m going to go with Mitrione in this fight, though it’s hardly a given considering Kongo’s vast edge in experience and proven abilities as a competitor. However, as we saw in Jones vs. Rampage, Rua, Vera and Matyushenko, experience isn’t always enough to overcome athleticism and the kind of new-school approach to MMA that Mitrione has adopted. I think we’ll see another vastly improved version of Matt Mitrione, who will take out Kongo within the distance. Mitrione via second-round TKO
Dana: Matt Mitrione is an up-and-coming star for the UFC. His personality makes him an easy guy to root for. “Meathead” will also be smarter inside the Octagon than Pat Barry was against Cheick Kongo. Mitrione knows this is a great showcase for him to excel and pushed himself up the ladder in terms of heavyweight contenders. Kongo won’t be able to avoid Mitrione’s takedowns and will also lose the stand-up game. Mitrione via second round TKO
Raj: I think the bottom line in this fight is that Mitrione improves every time we see him, while Kongo has been at the same level for some time. It Mitrione can avoid Kongo’s big shots, he should be able to take this one. Mitrione via third round TKO
Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic vs. Roy Nelson
This is a heavyweight supporting feature between two fighters who have their backs against the wall and who may very well be fighting for their jobs. In addition, this may be Cro Cop’s final fight ever, win or lose.
Once one of the most feared heavyweights in the game, known for his show-stopping head kicks and crushingly powerful punches, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic has largely been on the decline since leaving Pride in 2006. He’s gone back and forth since then, usually faltering against the higher-tier heavyweights. The 37-year-old promises that he’s trained harder than ever to make one last stand, but even he says his best days are behind him.
Also a contestant from the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Roy “Big Country” Nelson has gone 2-4 in his last six, sandwiching impressive wins over Brendan Schaub and Stefan Struve between losses to Andrei Arlovski, Jeff Monson, Junior dos Santos and Frank Mir. Riding a two-fight losing streak, the well-rounded 35-year-old could be on the chopping block with a loss, despite his colorful personality and promising skills.
Mark: As awesome as it would be to see Cro Cop pull out an epic, late-career win via left head kick, it’s hard to actually see it happening. Certainly, he is the more technical fighter of the two and does have the skills to beat Nelson, but his heart, mind and chin don’t seem strong enough anymore to get the job done. Nelson via second-round TKO
Dana: Roy Nelson is looking good heading into this fight. He seems to have his weight under control and is acting like he really worked hard during his training camp. Nelson will need to avoid those dangerous Mirko “CroCop” kicks, but I think his wrestling background will allow him to do just that. Both fighters badly need this one. Nelson via first round TKO
Raj: Cro Cop knows that this fight is do or die for his career, as has been evident by his comments this week. Nelson desperately needs a win here as well, after dropping an uninspiring unanimous decision to Frank Mir earlier this year. I think at this stage of the game, Nelson has more tools to beat the PRIDE legend. I see Nelson taking Cro Cop to the mat early and finishing on the ground. Nelson via first round submission