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By defeating BJ Penn for a second time, Georges St. Pierre cements his status as one of the best MMA fighters in history
“I’m going to try and kill you, Georges…and I am not even joking.”
When BJ 'The Prodigy' Penn made that jaw-dropping claim at the beginning of the first episode of UFC Primetime — a slick, three-part series that aired on Spike TV and Rogers Sportsnet the weeks leading up to UFC 94 — you knew something was different about his much anticipated rematch against Georges 'Rush' St. Pierre. It’s one thing to talk trash before a big fight — even the unfortunately tattooed tomato cans who lurk the lower echelons of MMA do it for their meaningless contests — but to come out and make a statement like Penn did for one of the biggest fights ever all but guaranteed there would be fireworks in the octagon on January 31 at the MGM Garden Arena. The legacies of two legendary fighters were already at stake. Throw some bad blood into the mix and you’ve got the recipe for an instant classic.
Both Penn, the UFC’s lightweight champion, and St. Pierre, the reigning welterweight king, are among the world’s best mixed martial artists. UFC fans had been salivating over this battle since St. Pierre bested Penn in a highly controversial split-decision in 2006, and much of the MMA community was predicting it would be the fight of the decade. “You only get a chance to see three or four fights like this in your life,” UFC president Dana White would say on national Canadian radio three weeks before the fight. Casual sports fans were getting sucked in. (I even advance-order the fight for my wife, who’s not into MMA at all and is used to getting her dose of fisticuffs from watching brawls at The Rovers Return pub on Coronation Street.)
Penn made threats and disrespected the French Canadian and his trainers before heading out to the desert in search of his just desserts. St. Pierre, arguably the most humble fighter in the sport’s history, is equally proud; and although he never showed outward anger toward Penn’s comments, when he finally climbed inside the octagon it was clear something bad was burning inside of him.
Two champions. One shot at glory. Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend. For fight fans, Christmas was coming early this year.
For St. Pierre, the long journey to UFC 94 was a little like traversing the desert on horseback with the entire Navajo nation on your tail. How many sacrifices did the St. Isadore, Que. native make along the way? How many gruelling hours spent training in the gym, how many sparring partners, and how many tough fights? To reach the apex of the UFC, you have to earn it in blood, sweat and tears.
St. Pierre did whatever it took to reach the top, only to lose his belt immediately when he got there, in a huge upset to Matt Serra. But he worked even harder to regain it, and once he had finally clawed his way back, obliterating Serra in their rematch, someone else was now standing in his way. “It’s not going to be an easy fight,” St. Pierre says a week before his bout with Penn. “It’s going to be very hard. It’s going to cost me a lot. But in the end I’ll be the victor…and my goal is to finish him.”
The day of the fight the Vegas strip is crawling with UFC fans. Sure, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals gear is everywhere, but tonight it blends into the Vegas landscape like palm trees and hookers. Inside the MGM Grand, thousands of Penn supporters have descended onto the casino floor, walking around with a quiet confidence, wearing ‘Hawaiian Pride’ tees. It’s nearly impossible to navigate the masses, as the crush of bodies advances slowly like a mountain glacier toward the arena in the hotel’s bowels. “BJ is a genius inside the octagon,” one Hawaiian kid boasts outside the entrance. “There’s no way he’s losing this fight.”
Suddenly, boos ring out from the hordes of Penn fans, but there’s no pre-fight melee to gawk at — a group of ten guys in hockey jerseys, smiling with beers in hand, are just heading outside for a smoke. God bless Canada.
Inside the arena it’s finally clear where the rest of the St. Pierre contingent has been hiding — the crazy bastards were already seated three hours before the main event began. Hawaiian and Canadian flags are everywhere. Every few minutes throughout the under-card, Penn and St. Pierre fans chant for their heroes, paying scant attention to the action in the octagon below. The atmosphere is so intense it’s almost like the moment before a World Cup soccer match kicks off.
Sports stars and celebrities trickle in — half the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys, poker player Johnny Chan, actor Wilmer Valderrama, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ singer Anthony Keidis, and UFC legend Chuck Liddell, who gets the biggest cheer of all. When a preview of the new UFC video game is shown on the giant screens, a roar erupts from both factions as they proceed to cheer the digital brawl between St. Pierre and Penn. Bloodlust is in the air.
When the show goes live, the energy hits new heights, and it’s sustained throughout the action-packed main card. Clay Guida beats Nate Diaz in a close contest. Karo Parisian decisions Dong Hyun Kim in a battle of crafty judokus. In just his second UFC fight, 21-year-old MMA neophyte Jon Jones unleashes the fury on a very game Stephan Bonnar, launching himself into the consciousness of MMA fans everywhere. And in a battle of undefeated Brazilian fighters, the much maligned Lyoto Machida inadvertently kicks Thiago Silva in the nuts before knocking him down three times with huge punches, the final devastating blow coming with less than a second remaining in the first round.
The past is prologue
So why did Penn come out guns blazing on UFC Primetime? Having already cleaned out the lightweight division by defeating the likes of Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk, he was more than willing to move up in weight-class from 155 to 170 pounds for a rematch with St. Pierre. But while a victory would cement his legacy — making him the only UFC fighter to ever hold belts in two different weight-classes at the same time — it would also exact vengeance for what he saw was an unjust decision at UFC 58.
In their initial welterweight clash, Penn demolished St. Pierre in the opening round of the three-round fight, pounding his face with heavy-handed pinpoint strikes. St. Pierre sported a bruised and bloodied visage within seconds. He took a deep thumb-poke in the eye that would blur his vision for the final two rounds. A young, fast-rising star at the time, St. Pierre had yet to earn his stripes in a long, brutal fight, and Penn smelled blood in the water as he came out for round two. But instead of wilting, St. Pierre dug deep and won the final two rounds, dominating Penn in the clinch, and scoring a series of takedowns, including one big slam in the final round that may have earned him the decision.
After the fight, when St. Pierre’s hand was raised victorious even though his face looked like it had been worked over by a pair of brass knuckles, Penn was stunned. “I didn’t know they called this the Ultimate Takedown Championships,” he quipped. Later, he would boast that after the fight, while GSP went immediately to the hospital, he went straight to the bar.
What happened next surprised no one. Penn went back down to 155 and won the belt. St. Pierre earned his own title by avenging an earlier loss against Matt Hughes, only to suffer a colossal set-back against Serra, but that loss would prove to be a turning point in his career. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” St. Pierre claimed of the harsh lesson. He regained his belt the following year in Montreal, and when White announced the two would meet again in a historic bout, the stage was set. Penn talked junk, St. Pierre trained harder than ever, and here they were, standing across from each other inside the octagon for a second time.
St. Pierre, who looks absolutely shredded, dominates the contest from the opening bell. He spends most of the round in the clinch, trying to take Penn to the mat, and is largely unsuccessful, but it seems like Penn is too focused on defending takedowns. He shows virtually no aggression toward St. Pierre, whose strategy is to get in tight and wear the smaller opponent down, mixing in lightning-quick strikes. In the second round, St. Pierre finally gets the takedown, and immediately smokes Penn with a huge right, stunning the lightweight champ. Penn attempts to lock-up St. Pierre from his butterfly, using incredible hip flexibility to crank his legs almost over his opponents head, but the Canadian is too strong to be controlled. He weighed about 187 pounds before the fight — at the pre-fight weigh-ins on Friday, he was 170. Somehow he put on 17 pounds in just over a day, giving him nearly a 20-pound advantage over Penn once the bell rang.
In round two, St. Pierre fully maximizes the extra weight, dominating Penn from the top and delivering a series of huge blows as half the crowd chants “GSP, GSP” while the seconds tick down. Penn’s cheek is cut as he staggers back to the corner — and as has been the case in many of his biggest fights, he looks completely gassed.
The third round brings more of the same. St. Pierre scores an easy takedown and hammers Penn from the top for over three minutes. In this battle of jiu jitsu black-belts, St. Pierre passes Penn’s guard so easily it’s like he’s grappling a practice dummy. Miraculously, Penn works his way back to his feet, prompting chants of “BJ, BJ” for the first time since the opening bell, but he’s unable to sustain anything. St. Pierre takes him down again and finishes the round strong with a continued ground ’n pound assault. Penn almost doesn’t make it back to his corner. He’s bloody and beaten, and it looks like referee Herb Dean might call the fight.
He doesn’t — giving Penn one last chance to rally back. Instead, he just absorbs another 30 more elbows and fists from a mounted St. Pierre, who’s just getting stronger with each round. The man is like a panther — the perfect combination of quickness and strength. Put a goofy sword tattoo on his chest and he might as well be Brock Lesnar. He enforces his will on Penn, and once the round ends, Dean mercifully stops the fight, giving St. Pierre the TKO victory and a well-deserved place in the MMA pantheon of great fighters.
Two men entered, one man left…in an ambulance
“BJ got beat up, so we took him to the hospital,” White deadpans at the post-fight presser. “Georges said all along he was going to run right through him, and he did it…What’s scary is he keeps getting better every time out.”
“My strategy was to make the early fight a clinch and a wrestling match, to make him carry my extra weight", St. Pierre adds after the shockingly easy win. Who says MMA fighters know nothing about strategy? St. Pierre executed his to perfection in possibly the biggest fight in UFC history, impressing White with his all-around game.
“He’s right there in the pound-for-pound rankings with [middleweight champ] Anderson Silva, except he lost that fight to Serra", says White. “But if he beats Thiago Alves [his next opponent], he’s well on his way to number 1." When asked if Silva and St. Pierre might square off, possibly on Super Bowl weekend in 2010, White doesn’t close the door completely. “I’m a fan of super-fights, but weight-classes must be cleaned out first. Only when you empty a division, are you ready for the next challenge.”
Vegas might implode if that super-fight ever happens. UFC fans can only wait, and pray that it does.
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