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Diaz, Penn reunite to highlight UFC 137

By Greg Beacham
Associated Press / October 28, 2011

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Nick Diaz might give a spectacular performance against B.J. Penn at UFC 137. He’s among the most talented welterweights in mixed martial arts, and his rare combination of versatility and toughness has resulted in many dramatic stoppages.

Or maybe Diaz won’t even show up for the fight.

Neither scenario would be much of a surprise from the mercurial Diaz, who misbehaved his way out of a title shot against Georges St. Pierre last month, only to regain the Vegas spotlight when St. Pierre injured his knee last week. Just a few weeks after the UFC nearly dropped Diaz entirely, the Strikeforce welterweight champion is back in the main event for his first UFC fight in a half-decade.

Penn (16-7-2), the respected former two-division champion from Hawaii, has watched the drama around his friend Diaz (26-7-1) with bemusement.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride,’’ Penn said. “I keep wondering, when do we hit the ‘Stop’ button and go to work?’’

That would be tomorrow night in Las Vegas, where Diaz will face the most daunting challenge of his MMA career. Although Penn lost his lightweight title to Frankie Edgar last year, Diaz could establish himself as an elite contender with a win - even if it’s not the title shot he craves.

“I’m not happy about it at all,’’ Diaz said. “I’m fighting a guy who’s my friend, or was my friend. This definitely doesn’t make anything easier for me. I don’t like fighting people I already know or I’ve already met or trained with or have video on me.’’

Diaz had a poster of Penn on his wall early in his MMA career around his native Stockton, Calif., and the fighters have clearly similar strengths in boxing and jiu-jitsu. Penn believes Diaz is the best boxer in MMA, a reasonable assumption given that Diaz was considered to fight boxers Jeff Lacy and Roy Jones Jr. in recent years.

Yet Diaz is even better known for his shenanigans outside the cage, many verging on the brink of pro wrestling nonsense. He threw a punch at Jason “Mayhem’’ Miller that started a brawl in the cage after a CBS-televised Strikeforce event last year, and his general edginess hasn’t abated in his return to the UFC after a five-year absence.

“I actually enjoy watching the stuff that Nick Diaz does,’’ Penn said. “He doesn’t change. He’s just always himself, and that has nothing to do with me. He does always show up to the fight, and fight. I don’t think we have to worry about that.’’

St. Pierre’s long-awaited matchup with Diaz was the centerpiece when the UFC announced this card several weeks ago. Fans of Strikeforce, the rival promotion purchased by UFC, were eager to see how their champion would do against the Canadian superstar.

But when Diaz didn’t attend promotional news conferences in Toronto and Las Vegas last month, giving no explanation and refusing to answer his phone, UFC president Dana White pulled him from the show and gave his title shot to Carlos Condit, who had been scheduled to fight Penn.

White appeared ready to cut Diaz entirely, likely ending his big-time MMA career and sending him back to boxing. Diaz didn’t seem to care, dismissing the news conference as a “beauty pageant,’’ but after White talked with Diaz’s camp and listened to clamoring fans, he decided to match Diaz with Penn.

Penn is hoping he’s back to the steady reliability that defined his career before back-to-back losses to Edgar last year, eventually working his way back to another title shot.

After he tired in the third round of a draw with Jon Fitch in his last bout, Penn moved his training camp from Hawaii to Costa Mesa, Calif., with an emphasis on conditioning. Penn also trained in Illinois with Matt Hughes, his longtime rival.

“It would be great to get another title shot, but I just want to keep moving forward, making money and feeding myself,’’ Penn said.

UFC 137 also features an intriguing heavyweight bout between France’s Cheick Kongo and undefeated former NFL player Matt Mitrione. Kongo delivered one of the most stunning first-round knockouts in UFC history against Pat Barry in June, barely surviving two early knockdowns before abruptly rendering Barry unconscious with two perfect punches.

Veteran kickboxer Mirko “Cro Cop’’ Filipovic likely will be done in the UFC if he doesn’t beat Roy Nelson, the portly Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist. Lightweight contender Donald “Cowboy’’ Cerrone also meets Germany’s Dennis Siver.