When Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn fought for the first time in February 2006, it had the distinct likeness of watching a young Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier.When Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn fought for the first time in February 2006, it had the distinct likeness of watching a young Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. You knew you were seeing something special and that they were going to meet again. What you were witnessing were two young fighters a cut above the rest, not just in the 170-pound weight class, but arguably the entire sport.
At the time of their first bout, Anderson Silva had not taken the UFC by storm. Many other top fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko were still fighting overseas and America did not have that one truly well rounded MMA superstar that could out-wrestle a wrestler, submit a jiu-jitsu black belt, or knock out a polished striker.
The most dominant force on the American MMA scene was Matt Hughes, who will be a first ballot UFC Hall of Famer and will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest welterweights of all time. However, Hughes in all his greatness got to his level of dominance by heavily relying on his wrestling background and incredible power. He would overwhelm his opponents and break them down to the point he could submit or punish them en route to victory. Hughes would put this to the test against St-Pierre and Penn a combined 5 times in his career and emerged with a respectable 2 victories. However, his 3 losses to St-Pierre and Penn (2 via submission and 1 via TKO) would usher in this new era of MMA that the sport desperately needs to evolve.
It started out where you could excel in one area and expose your lesser adversaries, the way Zorro would to the captain of your high school fencing team. Royce Gracie used jiu-jitsu (submissions), Mark Coleman used wrestling (ground and pound), and Maurice Smith used kickboxing (sprawl and brawl) to garner their success in the 1990’s. This brought us to the 2000’s where the next crop of champions such as Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, and Rich Franklin could do everything well, but would struggle against opponents who could do certain things better. Where all three are great fighters, they were beaten badly by Cung Le, Chuck Liddell, and Anderson Silva respectively, when one area of their game (striking) wasn’t on par with their strengths (grappling).
It’s now been almost 3 years to the day when we first saw St-Pierre battle Penn. A fight that saw Penn batter St-Pierre to the point he was hospitalized after his Split Decision victory. A fight that later coupled with a loss to Hughes, would motivate Penn to reinvent himself in the lightweight division, which saw him run through the likes of two former UFC lightweight champions in Jens Pulver and Sean Sherk and the TUF 2 welterweight champion in Joe Stevenson. He choked out Pulver to erase a decision loss from early in his career, he bloodied Stevenson badly before choking him out to gain the UFC lightweight title, and he TKO’d Sherk in one of the biggest grudge matches of 2008. Penn would leave no doubt in finishing all 3 opponents convincingly, displaying both world-class grappling and striking along the way.
After his recent success, B.J. Penn now has a new hunger that he needs to satisfy. Much like in Hollywood’s “Freddy vs. Jason”, when Freddy Krueger scoured the bowels of hell searching for an equally dangerous and worthy partner in crime in Jason Voorhees, Penn returns to the welterweight division to face one of the most dominant forces in the world of professional sports in Georges St-Pierre. Like Penn, after suffering a brief setback loss to Serra (Penn’s was to Hughes), St-Pierre reinvented himself as well. Where people questioned Penn’s cardio, the same people questions St-Pierre’s psyche. Where Penn quieted doubters with his impressive run, St-Pierre did the same by out-wrestling former NCAA Division 1 champion Josh Koscheck, armbarring Matt Hughes (the same manner Hughes beat him), TKO’ing Serra (the same manner Serra beat him), and out-wrestling the former Purdue University wrestling captain in Jon Fitch.
Penn and St-Pierre’s winning streaks are more than just a string of wins over world-class opponents. Like Freddy and Jason, they were making statements at who is the best, who is the most skilled, and who is the scariest. Those statements have been written, signed, and delivered. The world has been put on notice, MMA has been put on notice, and most importantly… they have put each other on notice. The winner of this fight will be the “pound for pound” greatest fighter in the history of the entire sport. They will cement their place in history, as the man who led the movement on what a true Mixed Martial Artist is all about. Someone with personality and charisma, someone that can beat you at your own game, and someone who redefined an entire generation of fighters to come.