The Fight of Our Era

By Luke Thomas Jan 29, 2009
The rematch of UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn and UFC welterweight Georges St. Pierre has been much ballyhooed by fans of both men and promoter Dana White alike.

Claims of greatness are attached to this bout, much of them right in spirit but inaccurate in specifics. One often hears this contest is ostensibly supposed to be one of the “biggest” in the sport’s history. But this fight is more than the “biggest fight in history,” whatever such a clumsy phrase is intended to mean. While there can be no doubt that this is something of a vanity project for Penn, there can also be no questioning just how meaningful Saturday’s clash is not just for the participants but for the sport as well.

First, this fight is a rematch. However, simply identifying it as such doesn’t properly convey the essence of the clash. While the rematch is certainly a staple of fight sport, the appeal of having formal rivals clash a second time is often tarnished. In the modern age of MMA where popular fighters can generate significant live-gate receipts and pay-per-view purchases, promoters will find less than creative ways to employ iconic figures against old foes even when those fighters are long past their primes or the fight itself is of little significance to any division or the sport.

Fortunately, this fight suffers from neither problem. Not only did the first three-round affair leave fans wanting more (which makes this five-round contest the second time around a perfect upgrade), but both fighters have all of their capability and faculty to offer the sternest test possible. They are neither too weathered nor too inchoate. And because both have upped the physical and talent ante, the requirements to achieve a victory are even more elevated.

Which leads to the second point: BJ vs. GSP 2 is a title fight. Certainly not every title fight is the most regal affair, but the title challenge does confer relevance upon this matchup beyond hyperbolic promoter hype. The welterweight division is notorious for being a shark tank where the crossroads of talent, the ideal body type for MMA and an influx of more than suitable challengers meet for what is arguably the toughest divisional fights in all of the sport.

Moreover, this is the first time in UFC history that modern divisional champions are facing each other, though it bears repeating that Penn’s title is not at stake as this is solely a welterweight clash. Still, Penn has the potential to become only the second person in MMA behind Dan Henderson and the first person in UFC history to potentially hold two belts in two different weight classes simultaneously. If Penn is able to replicate Henderson’s tremendous accomplishment, his workload will quite literally double, but the accolade alone is enough to cement the Hawaiian as an all-time great in the history of the sport.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Will the rematch be a
different story for B.J. Penn?
Another notable feature beyond the contest being for the welterweight strap is that both fighters are widely regarded as two of the top five pound-for-pound best fighters in the sport. In short, BJ vs. GSP 2 is the equivalent of the MMA All-Star Game. However, in most sports the all-star game lowers the stakes as the game exists simply for consequence-free entertainment. Not so in MMA. Rather than the best going through the motions in an exhibition contest, the fact that the elite are squaring off against the elite actually magnifies the challenge, the bounty of the win and the failure in defeat. Nothing less than historical positioning rides on this fight.

Another stakeholder in this welterweight contest is the image of mixed martial arts and the fighters who compete in this brutal affair. Typically a fight of real magnitude that is capable of pulling in real mainstream media interest generally involves the heavyweight monster appearances of Kimbo Slice or Brock Lesnar. While Lesnar’s legitimate achievements cannot be overlooked, his skills are still in development and part of his appeal is his frightening physical stature.

With Penn and St. Pierre, however, we not only have smaller fighters not typically associated with “big fight” intrigue that heavyweights garner, but we have two of the most technical fighters in any weight class. St. Pierre, in fact, is widely regarded as the most “complete” fighter in the entire sport. Combined with a five-round fight, MMA initiates either witnessing the fight live or through the prism of mainstream reporting will likely be treated to the most high-end MMA available anywhere. The fight, then, offers the one-two punch combination of potentially readjusting perceptions of who actually competes in MMA while also redefining what activity constitutes an actual MMA fight. Goodbye scary toughman, hello intriguing technicalman.

What is truly noteworthy about this contest, however, is not any one particular element to fight sport, although each of those components certainly matters. What should be underscored here, though, is that this fight is more than the sum of its parts. What truly defines this contest is that it represents not just where we are with MMA but how well MMA is doing it. In other words, the special features of the fight not only turn the contest into a historical MMA bookmark, but the fight acts as the quintessential historical benchmark of this unprecedented era in MMA.

The growth and evolution of MMA is well documented, but heretofore the sport has lacked a capstone or bookend to encapsulate what this period signifies. There has yet to be a fight that perfectly represents this era and the best it offers. Enter: Penn vs. St. Pierre 2.

Our era is where true athletes emerged, infrastructure was created, sanctioning was achieved, organizations grew, titles gained significance, rivalries were spawned, fans were attracted and machinery developed. Whatever one wants to call this stage in the sport’s evolution, there can be no denying that what truly marks the present period and makes it unique is the development of a real sport and the machinery that moves the sport forward.

There have been setbacks in the course of progress up until now, but most of the MMA story to be told from this period is of positive advancement. With this second Penn-St. Pierre bout, we not only get the best the physical sport has to offer, but we get to utilize this new machinery to document and enjoy the entire matter.

And more than any other bout, this fight brings the pieces of MMA machinery to bear. While the UFC deserves more than the lion’s share of the credit for making mixed martial arts and this bout a reality, there are other stakeholders and contributors that make this fight what it is.

Mixed martial arts now has bloggers blogging, journalists reporting, managers tending to clients, promoters putting fights together, fans roaring in delight, radio hosts discussing results and making predictions, sponsors financing careers, television crews broadcasting, vendors selling merchandise, public relations teams changing or promoting images, athletic commissions reviewing and sanctioning, and, most importantly, truly outstanding mixed martial artists offering all they can muster for a chance at true athletic glory. All of these factors working collaboratively produce startling results and make hype possible, but only one fight can catalyze the MMA machinery while simultaneously offering the highest quality, diverse pugilism available; namely, the sort of pugilism that has defined this generation of MMA.

The sport will undoubtedly grow and alter in ways no one can forecast at this juncture. There will be peaks. There will be troughs. Twists and turns await us all. Welcome developments and lamentable moments are all but inevitable. But as each new corner is turned, a fight will emerge that will represent the best of what that era represents and signifies in the long and undulating historical narrative woven each day.

Each of those new days and new eras will have their fight. But on Saturday, this era of MMA will get its own to enjoy. The Penn-St. Pierre rematch is the sport of mixed martial arts reaching its absolute zenith in this present era. It is the best the sport can offer and, unequivocally, the best that can be imagined.

Luke Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of the MMA blog BloodyElbow.com.
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