Dream Matchup: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. BJ Penn

“I think the impersonation of the lightweight division was BJ Penn for a long timeI can explain… Despite many defeats (towards the end of his career), he won the lightweight title, defended it, and also moved up to welterweight and won the belt there. Then he had lost to one of the best fighters ever, George St-Pierre. So for me, BJ Penn, I think we can put him there.”Khabib Nurmagomedov

The great Khabib Nurmagomedov came out recently saying he felt BJ Penn was the best lightweight fighter of all time alongside him, which has caused a bit of a stir in the MMA community to debate who truly was the greatest at 155 pounds. Even BJ Penn himself weighed in on the debate and gave his thoughts, which got me thinking who would have won if Khabib ever fought a prime BJ Penn in a fantasy matchup between the two of the consensus greatest lightweights of all time.

Most people would say that Nurmagomedov is the greatest lightweight fighter, and some would say that he is the greatest of all time regardless of weight categories considering the fact that the man never lost a professional fight, better yet hardly lost a round in his career. He became the undisputed lightweight champion and defended his belt three times with an iron fist that made people wonder if he really was invincible.

Khabib still carries an untouchable aura around him even after retirement just because of how dominant he was throughout his career. And he was getting better. Everyone knew what he was going to do, yet no one could stop it, like an inevitable freight train coming at you at 100mph. But how would he have fared against a prime BJ Penn?

Khabib Ground And Pound
Khabib Nurmagomedov was virtually unstoppable once the fight hit the mat.

Now some of you newer generation of MMA fans that came into the sport during the Rousey-McGregor era may be wondering how BJ Penn could ever possibly stack up to the likes of Khabib in a fight or even be compared to the Dagestani native. After all, isn’t BJ Penn the guy who couldn’t win and made it seven straight losses in a row?

Sure enough, towards the end of his career, it was sad to see a legend not only lose but get beat up every fight. But by that time, he had already achieved everything and more. His accomplishments up until his fights with Frankie Edgar were unmatched at the time: multiple title defenses as well as being a world champion in two different weight classes, fighting against the best of the best.

Well, my fellow MMA fans, don’t let recency bias get the best of you, something I see time and time again in this day and age amongst the MMA community.

BJ Penn
BJ Penn licking the taste of victory.

I’m talking about the BJ Penn when he was tearing through the lightweight division, destroying his opponents, and then licking their blood afterward. The 25-year-old BJ Penn that went up a weight class and choked out, at the time the most dominant welterweight champion in Matt Hughes, who was seen as invincible at the time. The BJ Penn that went on to become a two-weight division champion and reign over the lightweight division with an aura of violence that absolutely devastated his opponents.

If you haven’t seen how he demolished his fellow lightweight adversaries, then you should really go back and check out some of his fights with the likes of Joe Stevensen, Sean Sherk, or Diego Sanchez. If you lost to BJ Penn, you didn’t just lose, you lost a part of your soul in there and that’s what he did to these guys. He left them a shell of themselves after the fight. It was truly breathtaking.

Joe Stevensen, BJ Penn
Joe Stevenson dripping in blood and tears after his title fight loss to BJ Penn at UFC 80

The picture of Joe Stevensen crying after his loss painted in a crimson mask is still one of the most iconic MMA photos of all time. It still gives me the chills. BJ Penn just wanted to scrap and he didn’t care who he fought against. His fight against Lyoto Machida at heavyweight despite being a natural lightweight is a good example. He simply didn’t care.

One could say that it makes BJ Penn’s resume arguably better than Khabib’s because he was willing to take risks, going up to 170, 185, or even heavyweight. Something we can’t say Khabib did, which was to take the biggest and most risky fights. I think a good number of fans would have liked Khabib to go up to 170 pounds and fight Kamaru Usman or Tyron Woodley at the time of their championship reign.

Fight Breakdown

We all know what Khabib’s going to do. He’s going to take you down, drown you, and beat you down. At some point, you’re going to be tired from defending all the grappling positions and either get submitted or the referee will step in and save you from getting any more prolonged beating.

BJ Penn in his prime was known for his legendary takedown defense. And even when you took him down, it was difficult to keep him there. He would happily hop around on one leg whilst punching you in the face until you gave up on it because of the strength and dexterity he had in his legs. Randy Couture once talked about how he had difficulty in taking BJ down, and he was a heavyweight who was a decorated wrestler!

This was a man who earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in just three years when it takes most people over 10 years to reach that level which only goes to show how naturally gifted he was. His crazy flexibility with his legs was what made him stand out on the ground as some described his legs to be like another set of arms. You wouldn’t want BJ Penn on top of you on the ground, his top game was nasty. His level of top control was very strong and it was almost certain that once BJ got on top, it was only a matter of time before he would get your neck.

However, as we’ve seen, there’s not many in the world that can thwart Khabib’s world-class wrestling, even for the likes of BJ’s jiu-jitsu credentials. The Dagestani wrestled competitively since a young age even wrestling bears as a kid. His knowledge of balance and weight placement in grappling exchanges was levels above everyone in a fight. Even his opponents gave up after a while on the ground and give off the thousand-yard stare as if to think, “What on Earth is this?”

Every time Khabib mauled his opponents on the ground, it reminded me of a lion slowly tearing up its carcass alive whilst the prey slowly accepted its fate with a blank, lifeless stare that had given up its will to live. Khabib really made his opponents think that they had no business being in the cage with him after their loss, similarly to BJ Penn in some ways.

Image Credit: Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Would Khabib have been able to take Penn down as he has done with every other opponent? We’ve seen throughout his career that no one has really been able to withstand the immense pressure Khabib puts on his opponents. However, it’s interesting whether a prime BJ Penn could have repelled Khabib and kept the fight on the feet.

BJ was always praised for his quick reaction speed to counter with his boxing, which could have caused problems to Khabib’s fairly rudimentary striking skills. BJ had great punching power. The man was deceptively strong, and his punches made his opponents break no matter who you were. Ask Georges St-Pierre after the first round of their first fight or Sean Sherk.

The Prodigy was an animal back in his prime. Would Khabib have been able to contain this animal? Both are considered two of the greatest lightweights in history and rightly so. It’s really a toss-up between the two in my opinion, so it’s fun to imagine who would have got the upper hand in the octagon.

Prediction

I’ll admit right now. I’m a massive BJ Penn fan. He’s inspired me to follow the sport and gave me some of the best MMA moments I can remember. Despite that, I have to be honest and be impartial in my prediction.

I do believe Khabib Nurmagomedov would take BJ Penn down in a fight and proceed to ground n’ pound him. Despite BJ Penn’s amazing takedown defense, Khabib is on another level when it comes to takedowns. The feints into a takedown and his high-level chain wrestling would be too much for the Hawaiian native.

BJ Penn always had a quick reaction time in his prime but a poor reset time, meaning he would become victim to feints and different looks, which would make him tense as if he was ready to counter. This would tire out BJ Penn quickly, who is not known for having the best cardio in the business. Khabib, on the other hand, has cardio for days, and I believe that would be a major difference in the fight.

BJ Penn may be able to defend a few takedowns when he has a full gas tank at the start of the fight; however, once the energy levels start to dip, then I believe Khabib would take over. The Dagestani is known for drowning his opponents and then finishing them off once they could no longer have the energy or willpower to defend themselves, and that is exactly what I think would happen to BJ Penn, as much as I personally like him.

Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov via Round 3 TKO (Ground N’ Pound)

Who do you think would have won between a prime BJ Penn and Khabib Nurmagomedov in a dream matchup?

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