MEMPHIS, Tenn. - B.J. (The Prodigy) Penn started the year with a demoralizing loss to Canadian Georges St. Pierre. But the UFC lightweight champion finishes it with a dominant performance that helps propel him a step closer to a third fight with St. Pierre.
Penn put a beating on Diego Sanchez at UFC 107 on Saturday night in a bout that sent the challenger to hospital with a giant gash on his forehead, possible broken nose, lip torn apart in two places and the rest of his face battered and swollen.
"In 10 years in this business, I don't know if I've ever seen anyone more busted up than Diego is right now," said UFC president Dana White.
Sanchez (23-3) was outgunned and outmatched. He did not complain when the one-sided mixed martial arts fight before 13,896 at the FedExForum was finally halted, on the advice of the cageside doctor, due to the cut on his forehead.
Penn (15-5-1) won the striking exchanges and used his agility and balance to fight off Sanchez' takedown attempts, punishing the challenger every time he grabbed a leg and tried to put him on the ground. Penn, who turned 31 Sunday, was faster, stronger and smarter.
"It's hard to pick any weaknesses out of B.J.," said heavyweight Frank Mir, who submitted Cheick Kongo in the first round in the co-main event. "First and foremost, he's a really great athlete, which is a phenomenal foundation to start off with. ... He's a great technician when it comes to submissions. Also striking, he's a great boxer.
"Really at this point, at 155 (pounds), it's hard to see who could really have a definite shot at taking him out."
The Hawaiian champion, who has not lost as a lightweight since January 2002, has now beaten 155-pounders Kenny Florian and Sanchez since losing to St. Pierre in a fight contested at 170 pounds in January at UFC 94. Frankie (The Answer) Edgar and Gray Maynard are probably next in the 155-pound queue, with Penn ready to have another go at St. Pierre afterwards.
"He's looking forward to fighting Georges St. Pierre again," said coach Rudy Valentino, who considers Edgar and Maynard more as up-and-comers than elite championship contenders. "And I think that's the inspiration of what Dana White wants B.J. to do - clean out the lightweight division and eventually fight Georges St. Pierre. If he (GSP) has the title or not, B.J. wants to fight him."
Said White: "I told him that's how you do it. You want to be become great, you clean out a division, then you move up to 170 (pounds)."
White says should that happen, Penn will have to prove his credentials at welterweight again before facing St. Pierre. "He should probably fight the No. 1 contender, then get a shot at GSP if he beats him. GSP has proven himself (against Penn) twice."
Firas Zahabi, a key member of St. Pierre's coaching team, was impressed by what he saw in Penn.
"I thought he looked phenomenal. He looked great," said Zahabi, who coached Florian to a submission win over Clay Guida on the card. "He beat Diego on every level and that's what a champion should do. . . B.J. Penn is a great fighter."
Zahabi believed Penn-St. Pierre III is in the cards.
"I think so. I don't think he's going to lay down for anyone and I think he wants to fight GSP again. He seems very motivated. I'm sure it will happen again, but I think he'll probably have to fight a few welterweights first."
While Penn looked good Saturday night, St. Pierre remains a tall order. The bigger Montreal fighter was a comprehensive winner at UFC 94, with the Penn camp calling it quits after the fourth round. The Canadian has since said he's not sure if there is much of an appetite for a third fight, but Penn's performance against Sanchez and the lack of lightweight challengers is changing that.
Penn, who talked openly earlier in the week of his desire to fight GSP again, declined comment on a possible move back to 170 pounds, saying "I just want to enjoy tonight. I don't want to think about that right now."
There will undoubtedly be bad blood if the two meet again. Penn thought the St. Pierre camp cheated in the second fight by illegally greasing their fighter. St. Pierre denies the charges, which were never proved, and remains irate that his character was called into question.
St. Pierre believes Penn should have looked inwardly at why he lost, rather than blaming it on him.
Earlier in his career, Penn was seen as a fighter who coasted on his natural talent and resisted hard work in the gym. But he looked fit and fresh against Sanchez, standing between rounds while the exhausted challenger sat on a stool.
In the co-main event, Mir dropped the six-foot-four, 239-pound Kongo with a looping left before putting him to sleep with a guillotine choke at 1:12 of the first round.
Local favourite Alan (The Talent) Belcher stopped Wilson Gouveia in the first round, staggering the Brazilian with an uppercut and then finishing him off as he fell at the fence. The two fighters, who met at a catchweight of 195 pounds after both came in well over the 185-pound middleweight limit, collected US$65,000 apiece for fight of the night honours.
Canadian welterweight T.J. Grant stopped Kevin (The Fire) Burns by TKO at 4:57 of the first round to pick up the $65,000 KO of the night bonus.
The 25-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., felled Burns with a right to the head and then pounced on him, delivering a half-dozen hammer-fists and punches before referee Greg Franklin stepped in at 4:57.
"He was hurt early on in a back-and-forth tough fight and then ends up pulling it off with seconds left in the round," said White.
Welterweight DaMarques Johnson won $65,000 for submission of the night after stopping Edgar Garcia via triangle choke at 4:03 in the first round of a great action fight.