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UFC Fight Night 103 Observer Panel Picks: BJ Penn vs. Yair Rodriguez

Another year of UFC kicks off with tonight’s FS1 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Former lightweight and welterweight champion BJ Penn returns to the Octagon for the first time in over two years as he fights at featherweight for the second time against rising contender Yair Rodriguez.

Penn is a huge underdog in this fight, but anything can happen in MMA. One thing that’s almost certain to happen is an excellent fight in tonight’s semi-main event. Joe Lauzon has more post-show award bonuses (15) than UFC wins (13). and his opponent, Marcin Held, should be desperate for his first UFC win.

With the FOX NFL lead-in promoting the UFC, this type of show has traditionally done tremendous ratings the last couple of years, and with a bona fide legend and sure-fire Hall of Famer on the top of the card, this could be another big show in terms of a television audience.

Our panel is intact for the new year and we’ll look at those two fights as well as three others. Former Ultimate Fighter winner takes on the returning Ben Saunders in a welterweight fight. A key flyweight matchup could determine a future title contender for Demetrious Johnson as Sergio Pettis goes up against John Morago. And in the featured Fight Pass prelim, strawweight Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger meets Nina Ansaroff.

After John Pollock scored a victory in our 2016 game with it going right down to the last week, the standings are reset for this year. Fight odds are courtesy of bestfightodds.com and rankings are from Tapology.com.

Here’s our panel with the 2016 records in parenthesis. Also included are the panel consensus picks and the betting favorites, along with how they did.

  • John Pollock (79-49; .617) -- Fight Network analyst, Live Audio Wrestling co-host, MMA Report co-host
  • Josh Nason (78-50; .609) -- Host of Josh Nason’s Punch Out, writer/editor WrestlingObserver.com, WON Twitter guy
  • David Bixenspan (78-50; .609) -- MMANews.com editor, Sherdog.com contributor, podcast host
  • Favorites (76-52; .594)
  • Dave Meltzer (74-54; .578) -- Wrestling Observer founder
  • Mike Sawyer (73-55; .570) -- Tough Talk MMA
  • Mike Sempervive (72-56; .563) -- Wrestling Observer Live and Big Audio Nightmare co-host
  • Front Row Brian (72-56; .563) -- MMA newsbreaker, Beloved internet personality, Podcast host
  • Steve Juon (71-57; .555) -- MMA Mania/Wrestling Observer writer. Angry Marks founder
  • Ryan Frederick (70-58; .547) -- WrestlingObserver.com UFC reporter, WON Twitter guy
  • Paul Fontaine (66-62; .516) -- MMADraws.com founder, WrestlingObserver.com writer

Main Event --

Yair Rodriguez (9-1) vs. BJ Penn (16-10-2)

FEATHERWEIGHTS

Rodriguez will be main eventing a show for the second time after scoring a five-round decision win over Alex Caceres last August. Rodriguez is 5-0 in the UFC and it’s interesting to note that when BJ Penn last fought in July 2014, Rodriguez had yet to make his UFC debut. In fact, when Penn made his UFC debut in May 2001, Rodriguez was just 8 years old.

Another interesting contrast between these two is that Rodriguez has won four of his five UFC fights by decision whereas Penn has only one decision win in 23 UFC fights. Also, Penn has more UFC main events than Rodriguez has career pro fights. Can Penn turn back time and score a huge upset? Our panel doesn’t think so.

  • Rodriguez #11; -360 betting favorite : FRB, Juon, Sawyer, Frederick, Pollock, Sempervive, Nason, Meltzer, Bix, Fontaine
  • Penn #63; +350 betting underdog

Joe Lauzon (26-12) vs. Marcin Held (22-5)

LIGHTWEIGHTS

Similar to BJ Penn, if Lauzon wins, it’s likely going to be by stoppage. He has just one decision win in 22 UFC fights. Held is fighting for the second time in the UFC after a long Bellator career, and after a loss in his debut he really needs a W here.

It’s hard to remember that Held is only 24 years old, though, and a win over the veteran Lauzon could vault him into the top 15 and we could be looking at a future title contender.

These two are very closely matched in both the worldwide rankings and the betting odds, and this one could steal the show and earn Lauzon his 16th performance bonus if it takes Fight of the Night.

  • Lauzon #20; -111 betting favorite: Sawyer, Frederick, Pollock, Meltzer, Sempervive, Nason, Bix
  • Held #36; +110 betting underdog: FRB, Juon, Fontaine

Court McGee (18-5) vs. Ben Saunders (20-7-2)

WELTERWEIGHTS

McGee won season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter at middleweight and holds a 2013 win over top five contender Robert Whittaker. He’s had a .500 record since dropping to 170, though. Saunders makes his UFC return after letting his contract expire following a loss to Patrick Cote one year ago.

Saunders picked up a win over tough vet Jacob Volkmann on the regional scene and hopes to pick up his fifth win in six fights here. Both of these guys are finishers so it could be an exciting fight.

  • McGee #49; -111 betting favorite: Frederick, Nason
  • Saunders #44; +110 betting underdog: FRB, Juon, Sawyer, Pollock, Sempervive, Meltzer, Bix, Fontaine

Sergio Pettis (14-2) vs John Moraga (16-5)

FLYWEIGHTS

Moraga is a former title challenger who always seems to be right on the fringe of the division’s elite. With two straight losses, though, he could be fighting for his job tonight.

Pettis is still one of the younger fighters on the roster at just 23 years old. With wins in four of his last five fights, Pettis could vault into title contention with an impressive win here as he’s one of the only top contenders who Demetrious Johnson has yet to face.

While Moraga is the higher ranked fighter, Pettis is a significant favorite with both the bettors as well as our panel.

  • Pettis #17; -136 betting favorite: FRB, Juon, Sawyer, Frederick, Pollock, Meltzer, Bix, Fontaine
  • Moraga #10; +135 betting underdog: Sempervive, Nason

Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (6-3) vs. Nina Ansaroff (6-5)

STRAWWEIGHTS

Despite four UFC fights between them, neither of these fighters have scored a win inside the Octagon. In fact the last time Ansaroff scored a victory it was a year before the UFC even had a strawweight division.

This is almost certainly a loser leaves town match as, in a thin strawweight division, the winner could move into the top 15 while the loser could end up in Invicta FC. Ansaroff does have finishing ability as none of her five career victories have gone the distance.

Jones-Lybarger has yet to be finished in her career, though, and in fact eight of her nine career fights have went to the judges.

  • Jones-Lybarger #37; +150 betting underdog: FRB, Juon, Pollock
  • Ansaroff #41; -145 betting favorite: Sawyer, Frederick, Sempervive, Nason, Meltzer, Bix, Fontaine

Action begins with the Fight Pass Prelims at 6 p.m. ET and moves over to FS1 for that portion of the prelims at 8 p.m. The main card is also on FS1 and starts at 10. I'll have ongoing coverage of the show tonight. While you’re waiting, check out the following content, also related to the show: