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Will it be history in the making or déjà vu?

Michael DiSanto, UFC - One has long been anointed the future of the sport.

The other is simply known as ‘The Prodigy.’

Both are reigning UFC champions.

On Saturday night, Georges St-Pierre will defend his 170-lb title against current 155-lb champion B.J. Penn in a fight that appeals to fans across the mixed martial arts spectrum.
By Michael DiSanto

One has long been anointed the future of the sport.

The other is simply known as ‘The Prodigy.’

Both are reigning UFC champions.

On Saturday night, Georges St-Pierre will defend his 170-lb title against current 155-lb champion B.J. Penn in a fight that appeals to fans across the mixed martial arts spectrum. For hardcore fans of the sport, the bout features a must-see rematch of a hotly contested 2006 split decision between two warriors who were then, and remain to this day, two of the very best in the game, pound for pound. For casual fans or those new to the sport, it is likely to be a back-and-forth bout with nonstop action for as long as it lasts.

Of course, there is much more to the fans than just an entertaining matchup. It is potentially the most significant bout in UFC history.

If Penn is able to pull out a victory, he will make history by becoming the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two different UFC weight divisions. Dan Henderson performed a similar feat two years ago in the now-defunct PRIDE Fighting Championships when, as the reigning PRIDE 183-lb champion, he knocked out Wanderlei Silva to win the PRIDE 205-lb title. But no man has been able to accomplish that feat inside the Octagon.

Toss in a spirited pre-fight war of words and this bout has the entire fight world fully lathered with anticipation.

Suffices to say, the stage is set for the biggest rematch since Chuck Liddell stepped into the Octagon to face Randy Couture for the second time.

The question, however, is whether the result this time around will be any different than the first time the two tangoed.

The date was March 4, 2006. The venue was the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. GSP and Penn squared off for the No. 1 contender spot, with the winner guaranteed a shot against then-champion Matt Hughes, after Hughes handled a little business against living legend Royce Gracie.

Penn came out strong at the start of the bout, quickly taking the center of the cage in an attempt to send a message to his naturally larger foe. Penn stood confidently in the pocket and fired power shots laced with bad intentions for the majority of the round. Few missed their mark. GSP, who was bleeding profusely from his nose and a cut under his right eye, looked like a man on his way to a brutal loss as the opening round came to a close.

But GSP wasn’t widely viewed as the future of the sport for nothing, and he showed his true mettle by coming back strong in the second stanza. GSP started the round with a flurry of kicks and punches off of a very good, straight jab that appeared to surprise his opponent. The strikes opened the door for the first takedown of the bout—a move that, at least in this writer’s opinion, made it possible for GSP to ultimately secure victory.

Penn was less than active from his guard, despite holding a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu resume that is second to none among American mixed martial artists. He defended expertly, completely nullifying any ground-and-pound attacks that GSP mustered. The action resumed on the feet a short time later. Penn continued to land the much heavier shots, but GSP was busier and also used his size advantage to clinch and bully Penn to the cage. A second takedown late in the round undoubtedly secured a 10-9 advantage for the Canadian on two of the three judges’ cards.

The third round was all GSP, who took full advantage of Penn’s questionable conditioning to out strike him on the feet, score multiple takedowns (including a huge, crowd-pleasing slam) and control him in the clinch. Penn has his moments in the round, landing a few big right hands and working for a submission as the fight closed. But it was an easy round to score, and GSP locked up a split decision victory.

If Penn wants make history on Saturday night rather than repeating it, he absolutely must show up with a completely full gas tank. It is undeniable that the Hawaiian’s biggest enemy is his own cardiovascular conditioning. His immense talent and uber confidence often causes him to disregard road work and other cardio-building exercises. If hubris entered into his training for this bout, he will not win if it lasts beyond the second round.

Nevertheless, if Penn shows up in great shape, this is a very winnable fight for him.

Penn knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has heavier hands than GSP. His game plan will likely be to jump on GSP right from the opening bell with big right hands and left hooks, just like he did in their first fight. But Penn needs to make sure that he uses good head movement while closing the distance so that he can get past GSP’s jab and position himself inside the pocket, where he can score big points with his fists.

GSP, by contrast, needs to use his jab and powerful kicks to keep Penn at bay while striking. Though Penn is the bigger puncher, GSP is the cleaner, more diverse striker. He will mix double jabs with one-two combinations and jab-kicks in an attempt to make Penn back up, but he doesn’t want to engage in a slugfest, if he can avoid it.

If he cannot force Penn to back up, GSP will likely look to clinch and use his superior clinch game to both control his foe and score with knees, elbows and dirty boxing. GSP was extremely effective in the clinch in their first fight, and there is no reason to believe that he will be any less so in the rematch.

GSP will also look to use the clinch to take the fight to the ground. He is a vastly superior wrestler compared to Penn, but that doesn’t change the fact that Penn ranks among the best in the sport with his takedown defense. Penn is so flexible in his knees and hips that he is able to contort his body in ways that are well outside of the norm, which makes it exceedingly difficult to put him on his back, if he doesn’t want to be taken down.

His crazy flexibility also allows Penn to look for submissions, particularly during takedown transitions and from his guard, that other fighters cannot dream of attempting. And that makes him almost impossible to prepare for because situations may arise that GSP’s training partners just cannot replicate in the gym.

That will not stop GSP from looking for takedowns. GSP is extremely confident in his submission defense from the top position, and he remembers from the first bout that Penn had a tendency to rest on his back, rather than looking for submissions. Plus, he knows that in the annals of UFC history, very few fighters have lost on the judges’ cards if they spend the majority of a round in the top position—guys like Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz earned championships (and tremendous sums of money) on that judging truism. GSP will not shy away from trying to use takedowns to tire out and defeat Penn.

If Penn finds himself on his back, he absolutely must stay aggressive, both with submission attempts and scrambles. The lightweight champion’s flexibility in his lower limbs allows him to masterfully use the butterfly guard to execute sweeps or scramble back to the feet, and the rubber guard to control his opponent or lock in submissions.

GSP will need to defend both, though the rubber guard will present more danger in terms of submissions, as it is an excellent set up for a variety of fight-ending holds, including armbars, triangle chokes, omoplatas and the much maligned gogoplata. Penn has the skill to pull any of those off at any time, even against a seasoned veteran like GSP. But sweat will begin to work against him as the fight wears on, so Penn should not willingly succumb to takedowns, particularly in the second half of the fight, or he runs the risk of losing to GSP on the cards for a second time.

That brings us to the ultimate question of who is going to win this fight. This bout is too close to call with any certainty, but it is never fun to sit on the fence, so it’s time to jump off—well, sort of.

If the bout ends inside of four rounds, then I’m all over Penn as the winner. Penn is so far superior both offensively and defensively that the odds of him losing by submission in the first three rounds are similar to the odds of being bitten by a great white shark—in a community swimming pool. And Penn’s superior punching power and solid chin suggests that, barring a cut or a Matt Serra-like strike, he will be the winner if an early knockout occurs.

By contrast, if the bout lasts beyond the third round, then I like GSP. He looked tremendous in his five-round destruction of the ultra-dangerous Jon Fitch in his last bout, erasing any doubt whether he could fight effectively for five hard rounds. GSP will have plenty of gas to drag Penn into the deep waters and then drown him, assuming the 170-lb champion can last beyond three rounds. A GSP win by submission or TKO after Penn’s gas tank hits empty is a very probable outcome of the bout. Moreover, if he is able to spend long periods of time in the clinch and repeatedly take down Penn, then the bout has ‘decision’ written all over it, and there is no doubt in my mind that GSP will win in that scenario.

Force me to choose one, and I’ll take Penn. Why? The better question is why not? The stars seem to be aligning for Penn to finally fulfill his longtime dream of holding multiple titles in multiple weight classes. And I’m still not convinced that Penn lost the first bout, but I am convinced that he learned his lesson that night. I’m convinced that the split decision loss to GSP means that he will show up highly motivated and in tremendous shape on Saturday night. And a highly motivated, in-shape Penn is the best in the world, pound for pound.

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