May 2008, Marvels Iron Man 2 was fresh on the box office, Joe Rogan still wore blue jeans with a chain on the pocket to his octagon interviews and B.J. Penn was the lightweight champion of the UFC.
The Lightweight Title
The Lightweight title in the UFC was only brought about in 2001, Jens Pulver the first ever Lightweight champion defended twice and then promptly left the UFC. The lightweight title had a bit of a rocky road with the tournament for the vacant title ending in a draw, it wasn’t until UFC 64 in 2006 that a new champion was crowned.
The Muscle Shark Sean Sherk
In 2006 there was one feared wrestler from Minnesota in the UFC, and his name wasn’t Brock Lesner, it was the Muscle Shark, Sean Sherk. His cardio and conditioning were off the scale, he was so strong and so physical, especially at lightweight.
Sherk’s only 2 losses at that point were at welterweight to Hughes and GSP. Sherk was for all intents and purposes the man to beat at lightweight.
The lightweight title was however about to get dealt yet more controversy when Sherk failed drug test, the UFC stripped Sherk of the title and he took some forced time off. It should be noted that Sherk has always denied any wrongdoing, he passed a few lie detectors to that effect but only Sean Sherk knows the truth as those tests are unreliable at best.
The Prodigy B.J. Penn
The UFC put the lightweight title up for grabs in Newcastle, England, in January 2008 at UFC80, it would be B.J. Penn vs Joe Stevenson. BJ Penn was known as the Prodigy; the name was apt at the time as we are talking about a man who won the Brazilian Jujitsu World Championships after training for only 3 years.
Penn had dropped a fight here and there most notably at welterweight against Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre. Penn alleged that he was not training seriously at that time and those losses were a wake-up call. Once he choked out Joe Daddy Stevenson in just the second round to capture the vacant lightweight title it seemed that maybe there was some truth to that.
Penn vs Sherk – the grudge match
Sitting cage side at that fight was the man who was stripped, Sean Sherk found it hard to accept that he was watching someone win a belt that he felt he hadn’t lost. BJ Penn then proceeded to talk some trash after the fight and the grudge match was on.
The build up to this fight was fantastic, at the time I was a fan of the Muscle Shark, whether he was on steroids or not (at that time I just assumed they were all on something). But he was just a physical specimen, cardio for days, great wresting and a left hook that could separate you from your consciousness real quick.
Then there was the Prodigy BJ Penn, world class BJJ fighter with underrated striking and some of the best takedown defense ever seen at that time. I couldn’t wait for this fight, was Sherk going to be able to take Penn down at will? Would Penn use his flexibility and submission prowess to make the Muscle Shark quit?
On top of the physical nature of this fight there was the genuine grudge that these two had, mainly from Sherk. He felt that Penn had disrespected him and even noted that he had never fought someone he hated, until now.
The fight did not disappoint, Sherk clearly wanted to get the fight to the ground initially shooting in for some takedowns that were defended by Penn. Much of the fight then played out on the feet with Sherk trying to land his big left hook.
BJ Penn was clearly having the better time in the striking, however Sherk just had a level of power that kept you thinking he could end it any second. His left hooks especially were just inches away, but that is what made Penn so good, he could make you miss by a millimetre and then punish you.
And punish he did, after the end of the second round Sherk was wearing a lot of damage caused by the jab and various right crosses from Penn. It did seem like Sherk hurt his right hand in the second round as he kept shaking it out and didn’t really throw it with any conviction.
Round 3 was much the same, while Sherks corner men tidied up his face a bit Penn was just relentless in his attack. Jabs, uppercuts and crosses all added up, Penn threw a combination with just seconds left in round 3 landing a huge flying knee.
The knee crumpled the tough Minnesota wrestler to the mat and Penn landed more strikes on the ground as the referee separated them at the end of the round. Penn walked off declaring that Sherk was done and the officials agreed calling the fight as Penn licked the blood off the back of his gloves in what would become a well-known UFC trailer feature for years to come.
I enjoy this fight because it reminds me of why BJ Penn was considered one of the best to ever set foot in the octagon. It is a shame that in recent years he has not been able to replicate that form but for those that didn’t know why BJ Penn was once one of the most feared lightweights on the planet, watch this fight and you will see why.