As is always the case when the time comes to put a ribbon around a calendar year in mixed martial arts, there are a great selection of finishes that deserve attention. The candidates for Sherdog.com’s 2018 “Submission of the Year” are no exception. Aljamain Sterling and Zabit Magomedsharipov gave us a double helping of the Suloev Stretch; Alexey Oleinik executed yet another Ezekiel choke; and Kazuyuki Miyata demonstrated an amazing hammerlock just before the page turned to 2019. However, it is hard to top making a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu player tap out, so the late entry of Ryan Hall heel hooking the legendary B.J. Penn gets the nod.
There were obviously doubts and concerns when it was announced that Penn would be making a return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. With five losses in as many fights and only a majority decision defeat to Dennis Siver looking competitive, there was plenty to not like about this fight. At least when Hall was announced as his dance partner, some of those fears were alleviated.
Hall is not a towering welterweight like Rory MacDonald or Nick Diaz. He is not an ultra-fast boxer-wrestler like Frankie Edgar. He is not an overwhelmingly dynamic and diverse striker in his mid-20s like Yair Rodriguez. Hall is a heavily decorated submission grappler with medals coming from competitions like the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships and the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. When combined with Hall’s two-year-long layoff since his decision win over Gray Maynard, it looked like as favorable a situation as Penn could ask for.
A conspicuously inactive fighter with no finishes on his official UFC record not known for heavy-handed strikes or youthful athleticism looked like the perfect way to welcome Penn back in the cage, with the chance that he could walk away with his first victory since 2010. Maybe we would see a return of “The Prodigy,” who earned his nickname by obtaining his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in an insanely short three-year window. A challenge against a fellow world-class grappler could give us a ground battle that we had not seen from the Hawaiian since his last submission win in 2009.
By the time both fighters made their way to the Octagon at UFC 232 on Dec. 29, there was an air of nervous energy inside The Forum in Inglewood, California. The iconic Penn was ready to compete and looked to be in his best shape in years. Wisely passing up another cut to featherweight, Penn was back in the lightweight division that saw him at his peak as a dominant champion. He left the comfort and distractions of his home island to immerse himself in the discipline of Andre Pederneiras’ Nova Uniao team in Brazil. He stared across the cage at a man many believed could either give him a fun fight on the ground or be nullified and highlight the striking arsenal that dominated the highlight reel of Penn’s prime.
When the bell rang, Penn wasted no time trying to close the distance and pressure Hall. After a brief and uneventful clinch, the fighters separated. Hall threw a high side kick and appeared to flop to the mat in an attempt to lure Penn into his guard. The former champion was rightfully cautious in his approach. While Hall kept fishing for an ankle to grab, Penn stayed mobile enough to avoid committing to the ground. He tried to control the Virginia native’s feet and launch leg kicks whenever possible but was always careful about getting too close as Hall tried his best to fight from his back.
With both men stubbornly refusing to give in to one another, the fight stalled and referee Edward Collantes made Hall stand. Hall assumed a karate stance and began spamming kicks. Side kicks, spin kicks and roundhouse kicks were all in the bunch and appeared to be thrown wildly, with little regard for their accuracy. With a sudden change in rhythm from the bounce steps of his stance, Hall changed levels, dove in for a leg and Imanari rolled into a heel hook setup.
Penn was powerless to muscle out of it, and the speed with which the maneuver was executed prevented him from effectively countering it. As he fell to the ground with his limbs tangled by his opponent, it was not long before the man who previously had never been submitted was tapping furiously on Hall’s left thigh. A quick submission is always a good way to get on the radar for year-end awards discussions. However, one thing that separates this from the rest is the style of the setup. The volume of kicks, especially to the head, appeared quite random at first glance. In hindsight, this was highly strategic. To change levels so suddenly and pull off the Imanari roll that MacDonald dreams about every night was nothing short of spectacular. Successfully finishing a legend like Penn after over two years out of the cage makes it even more impressive.
Another plus to this moment is that it could have been so much worse. The MMA world has witnessed Penn take beating after beating in repeated attempts to revitalize his career. At 40 years old and with almost 18 years of professional fights under his belt, it just is not necessary for such a well-accomplished and revered luminary as Penn. A quick finish that does little long-term damage and allows both Penn and the UFC know exactly where he stands in today’s game was probably the best possible outcome. In a sport so brutal, we can be happy enough about the ending.