Welp, as far as the first fight card of the year goes, the UFC’s latest offering doesn’t exactly set the heart aflame with excitement. With the NFL playoffs in full swing, it would be easy for this particular UFC Fight Night card to fall beneath the radar, particularly since it falls on a Sunday night, which is when the NFL typically shines brightest.
Alas, even a main event featuring UFC Hall of Famer B.J. Penn may not be enough to salvage the UFC Fight Night 103 card, but the UFC will try its best. Penn is inexplicably coming back for yet another go around in the Octagon. This will be his first fight since suffering a knockout loss to Frankie Edgar in 2014. Penn has routinely tried to get another fight in the UFC, but for a variety of reasons, it just wasn’t able to come together until one of the bright young stars agreed to step into the cage with the legend.
Yair Rodriguez is undefeated in his UFC career, beginning with winning the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. His highlight reel also includes an epic flying-knee knockout of Andre Fili at UFC 197 last year, and he is coming off a split decision victory over Alex Caceres. Even in Penn’s clearly diminished state, he still likely represents Rodriguez’s toughest test to date. Will “The Prodigy” show he still has something left in the tank? Or will Rodriguez yank that nickname for himself and show Penn that retirement was a wise choice?
In the co-headliner, Marcin Held seeks redemption following his loss to Diego Sanchez. He faces yet another exciting fighter in Joe Lauzon. “J-Lau” racks up “Performance of the Night” bonuses like Star Wars racks up the dollars at the box office. So does Held fall victim to another one of the UFC’s more enjoyable fighters to watch? Or does he finally begin to live up to the hype that may have followed him over from Bellator MMA?
The preliminary card for UFC Fight Night 103 begins at 6 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass and continues at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. The main card begins at 10 p.m. ET, also on Fox Sports 1. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama are here to get you ready for all the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
After a two-plus year layoff, B.J. Penn is back. “The Prodigy” remains a star, but he hasn’t won a fight since 2011. Is he just here to play the headlining draw while putting over Yair Rodriguez?
Huntemann: I’m not sure what Penn’s role is in this fight, to be honest. Is he even really a headlining act anymore? Are the fans who rooted for him when he faced the likes of Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre still even watching UFC? I’m not terribly optimistic of that, frankly. Just like I’m not terribly optimistic (read: extremely pessimistic) about Penn’s chances of being a relevant force in the UFC going forward.
As has already been said, Penn hasn’t won a fight since 2011. The win came against the aforementioned Hughes, a fighter whose best days were way behind him. Before that, Penn was thoroughly outclassed by Frankie Edgar. He was also dominated by Rory MacDonald and Nick Diaz. He embarked on some bizarre beef with Nik Lentz for some unknown reason — seriously, does anyone know why Penn had it in for Lentz? — for a fight that never materialized because Lentz realized he had nothing to gain by beating someone who’s clearly washed up, even if that someone was B.J. Penn.
Now, Penn is reduced to headlining a Sunday night Fox Sports 1 card against Rodriguez. That’s no slight to Rodriguez, though. This is his biggest fight to date. Rodriguez is a fighter on the rise in the featherweight division. Even if Penn isn’t the fighter he once was, a victory over him should catapult Rodriguez into the top six or seven in his division, and he should garner consideration as a possible title contender. For the purposes of this question, I don’t think Rodriguez knocks Penn out, but he will dominate the fight from start to finish.
I just really have no idea why Penn is still fighting. Does he really have nothing else better to do? Is he not as wealthy as we have been led to believe? Has he lost most or all of the money he made fighting? Is his ego so fragile that he still thinks he’s relevant? I don’t like to say whether or not an athlete has “tarnished” his or her legacy, because I don’t know how an athlete’s mind works, but I will say that we are a long, long, long ways away from the days when Penn was considered one of the best fighters in the world. All I see now is a guy who just doesn’t know when to call it quits.
Aittama: As my colleague laid out in his sobering account of the UFC Hall of Famer’s roller-coaster career, there are plenty of question marks leading into Penn’s return after a year and a half away from the sport. However, there is no questioning if he is making the right choices leading up to his five-round headliner with Rodriguez.
Unlike the unsuccessful return of Ronda Rousey just two weeks ago at UFC 207, Penn has sought out the best trainers in the world for his comeback. He has aligned himself with former coach Jason Parillo, who worked with Penn during his years as the lightweight champion, and trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn at one of the world’s top gyms, Jackson-Wink MMA, in Albuquerque, N.M. The decision to surround himself with world-class athletes and coaches is a much-needed change from his underwhelming, makeshift training camp in Hawaii leading up to his fight with Edgar in 2014.
Parillo has taken over the news waves in 2016 with his success training all-time women’s MMA great Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and the defending UFC middleweight champion, Michael Bisping. Parillo made major improvements in the boxing of Bisping, the Combat Press 2016 Fighter of the Year. Bisping shocked many when he knocked out defending champion Luke Rockhold in the first round on just two weeks’ notice at UFC 199. Penn is hoping for similar success on Sunday night after rekindling the relationship that led him to become only the second man to become a two-division champion in UFC history. Penn will be in a similar position to Bisping heading into the bout with talented top-10 featherweight “El Pantera.” Penn is a more than 5-to-1 underdog in some places, and almost everyone from the media and analysts to the fans have already counted him out of this fight with the Mexican-born striking dynamo, including my colleague.
Leading into this fight, “The Prodigy” hasn’t shied away from acknowledging his doubters and the perceptions that he is well past his prime. The UFC officially inducted Penn into the modern era wing of the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015. During his acceptance speech, Penn talked about what his initial desires for the sport were. The then 23-year-old American, who won a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championship after only four years of training, wanted to run through the UFC lightweight division and retire with UFC gold in hand at an early age. Jens Pulver had other plans, making a comeback in their close five-round title fight at UFC 35 to defend his lightweight belt. Penn fell short in his second attempt for the lightweight title when his fight with Japanese MMA standout Caol Uno ended in a draw at UFC 41. Penn finally captured his first championship when he went up to welterweight and took the title away from fellow UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes at UFC 46. That’s the moment when Penn said he was hooked on fighting. His desire to fight for a short time turned into an obsession that put him through tremendous ups and downs in his incredible career that will span nearly 16 years when he steps into the Octagon on Sunday night.
It seems Penn’s passion for fighting has been re-invigorated after finding the support he needs in training. That doesn’t erase the questions and doubts my colleague brought up. There is no doubt Penn is facing a far superior athlete and a dangerous foe in Rodriguez. The high-flying striker has shown off his offensive creativity and acrobatic kicks in his five Octagon wins. Rodriguez won the first season of the TUF Latin America with a dominant victory over Leonardo Morales in the UFC’s inaugural adventure into Mexico at UFC 180. Rodriguez furthered his potential star power with another exciting victory, this time over skilled veteran Charles Rosa in his return to Mexico City. He started off 2016 with a “Knockout of the Year” contender over Andre Fili at UFC 197 in April and finished the year headlining his first show and five-round main event opposite Alex Caceres at UFC Fight Night 92 in August. Rodriguez returns to the cage against his toughest opponent to date and with the biggest opportunity of his career in front of him. Say what you will about where you believe Penn’s career is headed, but a win over a legend of the sport should catapult his career trajectory.
The match-up is an intriguing one even outside the question marks revolving around Penn’s return. Rodriguez closes distance better than most in the featherweight division, and his diverse offensive attacks always keep his opponents guessing. Rodriguez is an aggressive fighter who always hunts for the finish no matter where the fight takes place. Rodriguez credits the life-altering experience of joining his first MMA gym in his home town of Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, with where he is today. Rodriguez has a story similar to Penn’s. He was thrust into the limelight at the beginning of his career, at a very young age. The talented prospect has only fought 10 times in his professional career, but he is already facing one of the greatest lightweights in the sport’s history.
Despite Penn’s most recent performances against Edgar, MacDonald and Diaz, he’s never been knocked down or submitted in his 28 professional bouts. Even in his heavyweight showdown with former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, Penn was never in danger of hitting the floor despite fighting nearly 50 pounds above his optimal weight division.
In terms of who is more likely to finish the fight, Penn is the far more reliable to put a stop to his opponent. Penn has finished 13 of his 16 wins with a nearly equal split of knockouts and submissions. Rodriguez is confident in his grappling ability, but make no bones about it, he does not want to be on his back with Penn on top of him. Rodriguez came out this week to show his confidence in his submission skills when he told Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour that, “if he takes me down and thinks he’s gonna submit me, well, I will submit him.” While I applaud his confidence in his abilities, his best chances to topple the legend are on the feet.
This brings us back to Penn. He’s brought in Parillo to get back to what made him successful in his prime. Parillo morphed Penn into a feared striker in his heyday, and all signs point to Penn returning to his most effective striking stance and style. No matter how much work Penn put in during his training camp, the questions of whether his performance in the third fight against Edgar was his new measure or a career outlier are at the forefront of discussions for a good reason. It’s hard to imagine Penn making a successful return after three one-sided defeats in the past five years and having not won a fight since 2011.
Call it a gut feeling, a hunch, or maybe it’s the return of the mythical “Motivated B.J.,” but I’m starting to believe Penn has some legs in this fight. As dangerous and talented as Rodriguez is, I just have this inkling that Penn is going to finish Rodriguez with a rear-naked choke in the latter rounds. I’ll be the first to say that I got it wrong if Rodriguez dominates Penn from pillar to post. However, I still have faith that one of the legends of the sport is still a champion at heart.
Marcin Held has yet to have his hand raised inside the Octagon. He’s now set to meet Joe Lauzon in the evening’s co-headliner. Lauzon has a habit of winning one fight and losing the next. Based on this pattern, Lauzon is due for a win. Can Held break Lauzon’s pattern and secure a win of his own? Will this be a “Fight of the Night” contender?
Huntemann: Both of these guys are submission specialists, but Held was surprisingly beaten at his own game by Diego Sanchez in his UFC debut last year. Everyone and their father thought Sanchez would try to embark on his usual mindless slugfest, but he was surprisingly disciplined and showed off his excellent ground game to smother Held.
Unfortunately, I see much of the same fate awaiting Held in this fight against Lauzon. “J-Lau” is one of the elite grapplers in all of MMA, and he’s even racked up some TKO wins recently against the aforementioned Sanchez and Takanori Gomi. So it’s possible Lauzon can mix it up against Held and keep him guessing and off-balance. Held has no desire to strike and hasn’t won a fight by knockout in more than three years.
Lauzon is a smart fighter, so if Held just flops onto his back, Lauzon won’t indulge him. Unfortunately, this also means there’s a high probability of a boring fight taking place. That’s too bad, since Lauzon is one of the most exciting fighters to watch in MMA. Coming off his split decision loss to Jim Miller last year, Lauzon is hungry to win and hungry to put on a great performance. He’ll do just that and find a way to finish Held.
Aittama: I wouldn’t say Held has no desire to strike. Held was arguably winning the exchanges on the feet in his UFC debut against Sanchez. It wasn’t until the grizzled veteran Sanchez took the fight down that he was able to take control of the grappling advantages. Held is a submission specialist, but his game could be seen as one-dimensional on the mat. If he doesn’t lock up the submission, he will tend to give up position and give away the decision on the scorecards.
However, there is a reason the UFC signed Held in 2016. He was one of the better lightweights in the Bellator stable. He was involved in some exciting back-and-forth affairs over the course of his five years in the promotion. He defeated Patricky “Pitbull” Freire to win the Bellator lightweight tournament in 2014 and finished second to Dave Jansen in the 2013 tournament. At just 24 years old, the Polish prospect still has plenty of fight left in him.
Lauzon is a fighter through and through, but he is so much more than that. Lauzon is a skilled grappler who has continued to grow with his boxing on the feet. He burst onto the scene as a relative unknown after knocking out former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver in his Octagon debut. Lauzon has continuously delivered exciting fight after exciting fight, finishing opponent after opponent and winning bonus after bonus. In fact, Lauzon is currently tied with Nate Diaz for the most performance bonuses, which includes a UFC record six “Submission of the Night’ awards and being tied for second in all-time “Fight of the Night” bonuses. Lauzon is also tied for third with 12 finishes in his 13 UFC wins.
Even with all of Lauzon’s accomplishments in the UFC, he won’t have an easy time putting Held away. The Polish prospect has only been stopped once — a quick submission loss to current Bellator champion and consensus top-10 lightweight Michael Chandler — in his 27-fight career. Lauzon is looking to get back in the win column and usually does after a lost, but so is Held. There can only be one winner, though. Lauzon is a slight favorite heading into the bout, but it won’t be all cake for him. Expect some heated exchanges and a potential finish from these two exciting lightweights.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: There are a couple fights I really like on this undercard. The match-up of fight finishers Tony Martin and Alex White could get the fans out of their seats; the middleweight showdown between ever-exciting Court McGee and Ben “Killa B” Saunders encapsulates the division; and women’s strawweights Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger and Nina Ansaroff are raring to slug it out. However, the sleeper fight on this card is the bantamweight bout between former top-15 fighter Frankie Saenz and multiple-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Augusto Mendes.
“Tanquinho” made his UFC debut against the newly crowned bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt on just six days’ notice. The bout obviously didn’t go as expected for Mendes. He had to cut 21 pounds in less than 24 hours to hit the 136-pound limit. The fight was changed to a 142-pound catchweight bout, but the size advantage couldn’t help Mendes against the hard-hitting Garbrandt. Mendes suffered a left knee injury following the bout, but he is expected to walk to the cage at 100 percent on Sunday night. Mendes is a highly touted grappler looking for his first UFC win against another tough opponent.
Saenz put himself on the map with a huge upset win over former top-10 bantamweight Iuri Alcantara in 2015. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that success in his most recent outings, where he has suffered losses to recently retired former WEC champion Urijah Faber and top-10 bantamweight Eddie Wineland. Saenz has an opportunity to win his fourth career UFC fight when he welcomes Mendes back to the Octagon.
Huntemann: I’m not uber-enthused about this card overall — could you tell? — but the preliminary bout between John Moraga and Sergio Pettis may have a chance to really entertain.
Moraga has lost two in a row, but he’s also a danger to lock in a submission. He should be hungry to keep his UFC career alive, too.
Pettis has won his last two fights and four out of five fights overall, so he may finally be ready to live up to the potential that accompanies being the little brother of a marquee UFC fighter like Anthony “Showtime” Pettis.
If the younger Pettis emerges victorious here, particularly by finishing a former title contender, it might be time for Pettis to be considered as a possible contender himself. After all, there isn’t much else for UFC flyweight kingpin Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson to do right now.
Pair this card with…
Huntemann: Bed. That’s where I’ll be while this card is on, and I’ll be sleeping instead of watching it. Look, I’m not telling you not to watch this card. If there are fighter(s) on here you enjoy watching, or if you’re really just that big of an MMA fan, then by all means, enjoy yourself. I sincerely mean that. However, I can’t think of a fight card I was less interested in watching than this one. OK, maybe the one where Rodriguez faced “Bruce Leroy.” Needless to say, I find sleep to be a much more alluring prospect than watching B.J. Penn get thoroughly outclassed again.
Aittama: Now that my colleague has sent all of us into a deep depression, I would pair this card with an open mind. I take issue with the matchmakers on putting together some of these fights for a card in Arizona, but there are definitely some action fights in the lineup, even if the hometown fighters aren’t well represented. It is a short fight card, but we all know the horrendous FS1 pacing will drag this one on for a few hours. If you really can’t stand to stay up and watch this card, at least set your DVR or catch a replay. I have a feeling one of these fights will get 2017 started off with a bang.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
FW: Yair Rodriguez vs. B.J. Penn
LW: Joe Lauzon vs. Marcin Held
WW: Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders
FlyW: Sergio Pettis vs. John Moraga
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Frankie Saenz vs. Augusto Mendes
HW: Oleksiy Oliynyk vs. Viktor Pešta
LW: Tony Martin vs. Alex White
LW: Devin Powell vs. Drakkar Klose
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger vs. Nina Ansaroff
HW: Walt Harris vs. Chase Sherman
LHW: Joachim Christensen vs. Bojan Mihajlović
HW: Cyril Asker vs. Dmitry Smolyakov
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