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Previewing UFC 107: B.J. Penn vs. Diego Sanchez

Penn serious about defending his belt, but longterm goal is still beating Georges St. Pierre

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Alejandro A. Alvarez / Philadelphia Daily News

BJ Penn clocks opponent Kenny Florian during their main event bout Aug. 8, 2009, at the Wachovia Center. Penn went on to win, retaining his championship belt.

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the weeks leading up to his UFC lightweight championship fight with B.J. Penn on Saturday at FedEx Forum, Diego Sanchez believed he could win because he wanted the belt more.

Truth is, he's probably right.

The significance of a championship belt has worn off for Penn over the last few years, as he's held both the welterweight and lightweight world titles. With so many achievements in the sport already, Penn constantly is asked what motivates him to continue defending a championship belt in a fight like Saturday night's.

The answer is a simple three words: Georges St. Pierre.

"At first it was about the belt, but I guess every champion after holding the belt for a long time starts looking for other goals," Penn said. "I'm out there for the challenge. I have an obligation to defend the lightweight title, but I want another crack at Georges St. Pierre."

Penn holds an impressive 14-5-1 professional mixed martial arts record but is a glaring 0-2 against St. Pierre.

He fought the welterweight champion to a close split-decision loss in 2006 and then a disappointing TKO loss in January where his corner stopped the fight during the fourth round.

Penn's reputation took a hit following that fight. Not only because his lackluster performance — in which many perceived him to be out of shape — but also when he later accused St. Pierre of illegally applying Vaseline to his body in between rounds.

Since the accusations, though, Penn has done well to re-establish himself as a dominant figure in the sport.

In August, Penn claimed he was in the best shape of his life leading up to a lightweight championship fight with Kenny Florian in Philadelphia. He backed up those claims by dominating Florian through three rounds before winning by submission in the fourth.

To Penn, defending his title has become more than just assuring a UFC championship belt stays around his waist.

In his mind, it's his ticket back to St. Pierre.

"I've got to get some big fights, like this one right here with Diego," Penn said. "I can't focus on what I have to do to make it happen, I have to just keep winning. It guess it comes down to what fans want to see. Would you rather see me fight St. Pierre or the winner of a Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard fight?

"I'm not looking for a belt in the welterweight division. It's more of a personal thing with Georges St. Pierre."

After the way things went in January, it seems unlikely that Penn would earn the right at a rematch with St. Pierre in the near future.

However, if he continues to dominate the 155-pound division there eventually will be no other fighters who present a legitimate threat to his belt, and Penn is going to go searching for a challenge.

"I always used to talk to B.J. about cleaning out a division," UFC President Dana White said. "When he was jumping back and forth between lightweight and welterweight, I told him to settle into a division and clean it out.

"Should he beat Diego, B.J. is a couple fights from cleaning this thing out. If he wins, we'll have to look and see what's next."

Quick Hits:

Sanchez lately has built a reputation for himself as a fighter who beats his opponent to the middle of the Octagon and cuts off his angles of escape.

Penn has built a career of doing the same thing.

During the UFC Countdown show, Sanchez asked Penn through the cameras to please meet him in the middle at the start of the fight. At the pre-fight press conference on Thursday, Penn agreed.

"Diego had some words saying I was going to run and begging me to meet in the middle," said Penn, with Sanchez sitting next to him. "I just want you to know, Diego, that you're not fighting Joe Stevenson, you're not fighting Kenny Florian — You're fighting B.J. Penn. I'm not going to be hard to find, and I'll see you in the middle."

Sanchez's best shot at defeating Penn probably would be if he could take the champion down and get top position. It's a strategy that didn't work out well for Florian at UFC 101, but Sanchez is a bigger fighter with better takedowns.

Although it could be a back-and-forth battle on the feet, Penn seems to hold a slight advantage in hand speed and is the third most accurate striker in UFC history.

"I think striking is going to play a big part in this fight," Penn said. "I think after I shutdown his takedowns and I've defended myself, he's going to realize he doesn't have that to go to. Then I think he's going to see a lot of punches coming quick at him and that's something I don't think he's prepared for."

Even if Penn wins the standup war, however, it may take a lot to finish Sanchez, who has never even been so much as knocked down in his UFC career according to official UFC stats.

"No one has ever really hurt me in this sport," Sanchez said. "I've fought 25 times and no one has ever hurt me. That's just a blessing. I have a good chin, good jaw and I'm in the right place at the right time."

Last Time Out:

Penn: Fourth-round win by submission over Kenny Florian at UFC 101.

Sanchez: Split decision win over Clay Guida at TUF 9 Finale: Team US vs. Team UK

The Lines: Penn, minus-360; Sanchez, plus-280

Final Words:

Penn: On Sanchez's intense spiritual rituals: "That's his thing. I'm not here to criticize him or anything but when I see that kind of stuff, I don't think much of it. He wants to portray himself as the crazy one, but I think he's just portraying himself as the weird one."

Sanchez: On whether it was hard to not overtrain: "I have good mentors and good coaches around me. If they need to pull the chain on the pitbull, they pull the chain on the pitbull. They say, 'No, Diego, you've got to take a night off.' And that's the night I do my yoga, relax, stretch, Zen and do my prayer."

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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