St. Pierre ready for his biggest challenge

In the fight game, you get used to hype: The biggest this. The biggest that. After a while, it rolls off your back.

But Saturday night is different. You can make a good case that the Georges St. Pierre vs. B.J. Penn battle for the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight championship is, from an all-around standpoint, one of the true epic matches in the history of the sport.

It is the first time in UFC history that, not just champions, but dominant champions who are on that night in their physical primes and the best in the world in their respective weight classes, will face off.

The winner is basically guaranteed a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame. The loser, well, there’s a good chance he’s ending up there as well, but may have to take a longer road to get there.

UFC president Dana White is predicting the most pay-per-view buys for any event in the sport’s history. The company is coming off, bad economy and all, two of its three biggest pay–per-view events in history with the Nov. 15 Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture fight, and the Dec. 27 show which featured three main events, so momentum appears on their side.

As such, the UFC has spent more money marketing this fight than any in its history, including $1.7 million for the three-episode UFC Primetime seroes on Spike TV. The show focused on the training and lives of the fighters leading up to the match at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

The show has been based around selling a contrast. Lightweight champion Penn, 30, from an affluent family, grew up and was training at his own gym in the tropic paradise of Hilo, Hawaii. Welterweight kingpin St. Pierre, 27, grew up poor, in Saint-Isidore, Quebec, just outside a snowy Montreal, where he every day, drives from gym to gym to train different aspects of his game.

But there are many similarities. St. Pierre (17-2) is ranked No. 3 in the world in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings. Penn (13-4-1), is ranked No. 4.

With all due respect to Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko, neither have beaten a fighter with the all-around skill level that the victor here will be able to claim

“I train with the best guys in every discipline,” said St. Pierre. “I box with world champions and former world champions. I train with the best wrestlers (members of Canada’s Olympic team). In every aspect, I train with people better in that aspect than B.J. Penn so there’s no position he’s going to put me in that I haven’t seen.”

“That’s the disrespectful stuff,” said Penn, who was particularly upset with comments made on the TV show by people in St. Pierre’s camp.

“They’re disrespecting my skills saying they’re going to walk through me. That’s how I’m going to beat him, because I’m going to get through his skills. He’s tough, but he’s going to be empty on the inside and I’m going to finish him.”

St. Pierre has been in heavy training for the fight since September, which has included trips to Brazil to train with top jiu-jitsu players, and to Albuquerque, N.M. to train with Greg Jackson’s camp.

Physically, the keys to the fight appear to be Penn’s takedown defense, how much danger he can put St. Pierre if caught on his back, and ultimately, conditioning, in a five-round fight where St. Pierre is likely to set as fast a pace as possible.

Finding a physical weakness in St. Pierre’s game isn’t easy. In his last four fights, his strategy was to take his opponents down and unleash an attack of punches and knees while there. To make it more impressive, he did so by beating his last four opponents at their strongest position. He outwrestled Matt Hughes, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, three of the best wrestlers in the upper echelon of the MMA world. Only Koscheck managed to even get a takedown, and none of the three were able to stop St. Pierre’s takedowns.

His other win, where he regained the welterweight title from Matt Serra, saw him have no fear of going to the ground with a highly-regarded Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Serra, who, like Penn, is considered strong in fighting from his back, mustered no offense from what was supposed to be his strongest position.

Penn has great takedown defense, and was never in trouble of being put on his back by Sean Sherk in his last fight, a powerhouse wrestler, who he put on a boxing clinic against to beat on May 24. Boxing is where, on paper, Penn looks to have his biggest advantage, based on what happened in their first fight.

That bout, a split decision win by St. Pierre on March 4, 2006, saw Penn dominate the first round with his boxing, but St. Pierre win rounds two and three due to superior wrestling and conditioning.

St. Pierre has the size advantage, but even though his best division is lightweight, Penn beat Hughes five years ago to win the welterweight title.

“I think I’ll be around 185-187 pounds,” St. Pierre said of his weight going into the cage, after making 170 the day before.

Penn, at 170 and holding for the past week, said that’s the weight he’s going into the cage at.

“I don’t have to cut weight,” he said. “I’m going to be carbo loaded, with plenty of food and plenty of water, and I think this is going to be to my advantage.”

But both men are considered significantly better than their three-years-ago version. Penn sees improvements in boxing, takedown defense and above all, his conditioning. But by the same token, St.

Pierre is a considerably better wrestler than he was three years ago. But Penn’s incredible flexibility and world championship pedigree in Brazilian jiu-jitsu makes him more dangerous from his back than the last four opponents St. Pierre has grounded and ran through.

Conditioning is St. Pierre’s forte, which becomes more important in a five-round fight. Penn’s four career losses have all been due largely to his opponent being in better shape. He’s told the story often, of waking up on December 13, 2006, his 28th birthday, 11 weeks after losing to Hughes in a match he had dominating before a rib injury caused him to tire out. At the time, Penn used to talk about loving life, training three days per week while his opponents did double the workload. He recognized he had talents few in the sport had.

Eight years ago, he was signed to what was at the time a lucrative contract before he had ever had a fight, based on gym lore of this 155-pound guy who was eating alive big name light heavyweights and heavyweights. But he was only 9-4-1 on that birthday, and was heading down a track of being regarded as one of the game’s great underachievers.

Penn admits he hasn’t been doing the strength and conditioning drills St. Pierre has been doing, but is getting ready by hours of fighting.

“To prepare, I’ve been doing six rounds as much as possible,” he said.

“I’m in the gym every day sparring with people, grappling with people, a new guy every minute. I haven’t been doing the things strength and conditioning-wise people want you to do. Every day, I’ve been hanging hard and I feel this is the best I’ve been and the best I’m going to be.”

But it’s pretty clear Penn sees, or at least outwardly is trying to exploit, what he sees as a mental advantage.

Penn has called St. Pierre a quitter, noting that he tapped from strikes in his title loss to Serra on April 7, 2007, in one of the biggest upsets in MMA history. Penn’s talk has been laced with the idea he will fight to the death, that’s he’s a real down-and-dirty street fighter while St. Pierre is a genetically gifted athlete who fights, and won’t be willing to dig down anywhere near as deep.

At a press conference call last week, out of nowhere, Penn started in that direction, taunting St. Pierre about seeing a sports psychologist, which St. Pierre has credited with part of the reason for his rebounding so much stronger after the Serra loss.

“We are two different people,” said Penn. “You’ve got psychological problems. I don’t have any psychological problems.”

“It’s not nice to hear,” said St. Pierre. “But I’m not going for fight with anger. I’m going to fight with my heart. It’s not the first time somebody said a not nice thing about me. The promotion is part of the game. I’ve been training too hard to let myself go and to ruin everything. I’ve trained to fight an army, so one guy won’t be able to break me.”

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 26, 2009