MEMPHIS, Tenn. – There are a lot of good lightweight fighters in the world. There is, however, only one great one.
And while B.J. Penn proved his greatness yet again with a dominant fifth-round stoppage of Diego Sanchez in their lightweight title bout Saturday at UFC 107 in the FedEx Forum, he created something of a problem for Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva:
Whom do you match with Penn at 155 who can even remotely give him a close fight?
There doesn't appear to be anyone on the horizon. Gray Maynard is likely next up, and Frankie Edgar is on a roll. Neither, though, seem to have the all-around game that Penn possesses and that they'll need to survive 25 minutes in the cage with him, much less win.
Jose Aldo, the featherweight champion in World Extreme Cagefighting, has the frame and the ability, but he's probably at least a year, if not more, away from being ready to move up and fight at lightweight. By that time, Penn will likely be butting heads with the welterweights with the goal of securing another bout with welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre.
"It's hard to pick out any weaknesses in B.J.," said heavyweight Frank Mir, who was exceptionally impressive in his own right Saturday in a first-round stoppage of Cheick Kongo. "First and foremost, he's a great athlete, which is a phenomenal foundation to start off with. But like Dana said, that's kind of what he coasted on before. He's a great technician when it comes to submissions and also striking."
Sanchez's face was grotesquely beaten. The fight was stopped after a head kick from Penn, a knee and then a series of uppercuts.
One of those blows – likely the head kick – opened a massive gash on Sanchez's head. Both of his eyes were swollen and nearly shut. It appeared his nose was broken. His lip was split in two places. He was bleeding from his right ear.
You don't have to be squeamish to have gotten a bit nauseous looking at the destruction on his face.
"In 10 years of being in this business, I don't know if I've ever seen anybody more busted up than Diego is right now," White said. "His whole lip is split open in half, in two different places. When I say split open, it's torn down to this stuff down here [indicating a point on his chin]. His forehead is as open as [Marvin Eastman], the kid that Vitor Belfort kneed [at UFC 43]. They pulled that thing wide open. His face? I think his nose is broken. I don't even know how Diego kept coming forward. He's a tough kid, man. I'm almost positive his nose was broken by the third round. That Tony Robbins [expletive] works."
Nothing Sanchez did in the cage worked, though that's probably not as much an indictment of him as it is a sign of Penn's greatness.
Penn knocked him down with a crushing punch early in the fight and nearly finished him on the ground. And though Sanchez tried to make it a fight, he didn't have the kinds of weapons he needed.
Penn's hands were much faster and his boxing was much more technically proficient. He repeatedly raked Sanchez with counter right hands and punishing left hooks. Sanchez, a former high school wrestling state champion, couldn't get Penn off his feet so he was never able to work his ground-and-pound.
He had nothing else to resort to offensively and wound up repeatedly attempting kicks to the head in a futile attempt to gain some momentum.
Penn watched the Nov. 14 boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto while he was in his training camp and decided to try to emulate Pacquiao's style on Saturday.
"I just like watching Pacquiao and how he throws punches in bunches," Penn said. "He's so fast. You might get away from the first two or three, but the two or three that come behind that are going to hit you. I kind of figured that out."
The problem for Penn's coaches are going to be keeping him motivated. In his last three lightweight title defenses, he dominated Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Sanchez, taking little abuse from any of them and doling out enormous amounts of punishment.
There isn't anybody markedly better than Florian – others may be as good – and yet no one has come close to Penn.
"What B.J. really wants is to fight Georges St. Pierre," Penn's coach, Rudy Valentino, said.
White said Penn may be two fights away from cleaning out the lightweight division, but said even if Penn does that, he's not arbitrarily going to get an automatic title shot against St. Pierre.
White said Penn would have to face whoever the No. 1 contender is at welterweight when it's time to move up before getting a shot at St. Pierre.
In the past three years, he's lost three times, but all have been at welterweight. He was beaten twice by St. Pierre and once by Matt Hughes. Each is a much bigger man naturally and in the Hughes fight and the second St. Pierre fight, their size and physical strength was an issue. Mir suggested the only way a lightweight might be able to match that feat is to use wrestling, which both Maynard and Edgar have.
"At this point, at 155 it's hard to see who could really have a definitive shot at taking him out," Mir said. "Maybe if you can wrestle him to death and keep a great position, but that's hard to say with a guy who, if you go five rounds with, [it's hard to make sure he doesn't] knock you out or submit you."
Penn has so many weapons and so few weaknesses that unless you can overcome some of those advantages with size and strength, you're likely going to need to find a good plastic surgeon, because Penn will rearrange your face.
Sanchez entered the fight with a 23-2 record, with his only losses coming at welterweight in back-to-back bouts to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. He dropped to lightweight this year and got his title shot by defeating Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida.
Despite his many credentials, though, Sanchez looked like a beginner against Penn.
"This is my sixth fight with him and he's been dominant in pretty much all of them [except the St. Pierre fight]," Penn coach Jason Parillo said. "Some people thought the last fight with Kenny Florian was kind of close. I do not. I thought B.J. was dominating that fight, also.
"He completely dominated tonight and I don't think Diego belonged in the cage with him. That was my sense. You could see that from the opening bell. The first minute of the fight, B.J. had him on queer street and almost had him out of there. That was different class of fighters there."
It was. The same thing could be said, though, of the entire lightweight division.
When Penn is in shape, which he's been since hiring conditioning guru Marv Marinovich, and when he's highly motivated, which he's been since getting stopped by St. Pierre at UFC 94, he's all but unbeatable at lightweight.
The man to beat B.J. Penn at 155 pounds is going to be one special fighter.
Penn, himself, is as good at that weight as any man ever has been.
- Diego Sanchez