One of the oddest contests of the year in every way, BJ Penn vs. Ryan Hall could easily end up being an interesting fight or a tremendously saddening one.
The calls for Penn to retire aren’t new, as he’s gone on a 1-7-1 stretch since 2010 and has looked horrific in his last three, but he looks to turn back the clock at UFC 232. His opponent, Ryan Hall, hasn’t fought since his memorable 2016 showing that was the closest to a metagame-shifting performance in a very long time. This fight isn’t immediately relevant to a deep and young division, but it is a curious contest that could be worth watching.
Given the fight against Dennis Siver, BJ Penn is 100% done; while prime Penn was flawed, he would’ve been capped as a fairly heavy favorite against Siver for very good reason. A pioneer of the MMA guard (“sweep, submit, stand up”), a truly frightening offensive grappler, and a capable boxer with excellent takedown defense, BJ Penn was a legitimately elite fighter in his prime, but the showing against Siver was, to put it lightly, incredibly unfortunate. He couldn’t do much with top position off a knockdown, and Siver was perilously close to a TKO via spinning kicks as Penn jogged from one spot to another in response, seemingly with no offensive ideas in mind. Penn, arguably the GOAT at lightweight, isn’t an especially threatening quantity at this point.
The possible exception could be on the ground, and Ryan Hall is as imposing as Penn as a grappler (if not more imposing, considering that he actually has some athleticism). Hall’s stratagem in the fight against Gray Maynard was total genius, and it relied on his opponent rightly fearing his grappling pedigree. Against the wrestle-boxer, Hall put together a craftily absurd performance that hinged on ranged kicking and pulling guard liberally as a world-class grappler. As Maynard looked to close distance, he got slapped in the face by a kick, and if he was on the verge of corralling Hall into a corner, Hall just rolled for a leg lock or fell to his back and Maynard was forced to step away.
Is there a path to victory for 2018 Penn in this fight? Not an immediately recognizable one.
Hall is a worse boxer than prime Penn, but even if Penn can bring some of that craft into the cage at UFC 232, it’s hard to see him finding it easy to close distance. Hall should be able to keep Penn on the outside with his kicking game, and Penn doesn’t have the athleticism at this stage to really blitz Hall. Even if Penn can find a way to thwart the distance that Hall prefers keeping, Hall could just threaten a leg entanglement and Penn would be wise to step away. Penn has plenty of experience and skill passing a guard, but Hall is far more experienced in the current grappling meta (leg locks included), so the nature of Hall’s ground threat could be the difference maker on whether we see Penn go to the ground or be a bit more skittish. Either way, there isn’t a sustained advantage for Penn to be found.
Prediction: Hall via unanimous decision. This writer caps it: -400 Hall.