When B.J. Penn and Georges St. Pierre squared off at UFC 58, it was expected to lead to a mega-fight rematch.
But not the one that's happening this Saturday.
Their first battle, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on March 4, 2006, was supposed to presage a welterweight title rematch between Penn and then-champion Matt Hughes.
Penn had stepped up from lightweight and upset Hughes for the welterweight title with a rear naked choke at UFC 46 on Jan. 31, 2004. It was Hughes' only loss during a remarkable run of 19 victories in 20 matches.
Penn then left the promotion as champion for two years in a contract dispute. His match against St. Pierre marked his UFC return.
St. Pierre was the up-and-coming hotshot from Montreal with an 11-1 record when the match with Penn was made. St. Pierre fought Hughes and lost in October 2004 in a match to fill the title vacancy left in Penn's absence. GSP then tore through Dave Strasser, Jason Miller, Frank Trigg and Sean Sherk before challenging Penn.
The winner of the match, which was billed beneath Rich Franklin's successful middleweight title defense against David Loiseau on the card, was promised the next shot at Hughes' title. Penn largely ignored St. Pierre in his prefight interview and talked mainly about Hughes. He also came out to the octagon with the welterweight title belt he hadn't returned to the UFC.
Penn was on fire in the first minute, using his boxing to keep St. Pierre on the run. Penn opened a cut under St. Pierre's left eye about 45 seconds in. Ten seconds later, a left jab hit the bull's-eye, giving St. Pierre a horrendous bloody nose. St. Pierre managed to fend off the onslaught by creating distance with various kicks. At the two-minute mark, St. Pierre initiated a clinch and bulled Penn into the fence, where they remained for about a minute, largely checking each other's attempted knees. GSP attempted a single-leg takedown, but Penn used his legendary balance and stayed on his feet. St. Pierre elbowed Penn and took the fight back to the middle of the octagon, where they both carefully picked their spots the rest of the round. Penn connected with a solid right to the ribs with about 25 seconds left.
At the end of the round, Penn was unscathed, and St. Pierre looked like he had been shot in the face. Because of this, the round is remembered as being more lopsided than it actually was. Penn did more damage and won the round, but St. Pierre held his own after a terrible opening minute.
Judges Nelson "Doc" Hamilton, Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales all scored the round 10-9, Penn.
Penn came out looking to work on St. Pierre's wounds, but GSP used leg kicks to keep Penn honest. The two clinched about 30 seconds in, and St. Pierre scored a takedown on a second effort with a single-leg after Penn thwarted the initial attempt. Penn largely held off St. Pierre on the ground, but St. Pierre did connect with several right hands to the body through Penn's open guard. The fight went back standing, and they clinched again at the round's midpoint. St. Pierre connected with a knee to the body along the fence and then took the fight back to the middle, where he began to connect with his jab. He also connected with a head kick, though it didn't seem to faze Penn. Penn noticeably tired in the final minute of the round, and St. Pierre scored a second takedown with 16 seconds left, which likely sealed the round in his favor.
Hamilton and Rosales scored the round 10-9, St. Pierre; Peoples scored it 10-9, Penn.
The first 30 seconds were uneventful, but then St. Pierre engaged Penn in the clinch and muscled him back toward the fence. GSP hit a series of right hands to Penn's left rib cage at the same time Penn threw short heel kicks directly into Penn's left calf. St. Pierre single-legged Penn and scooped him up for a big slam about 1:30 into the round and hit a solid elbow about 15 seconds later. Penn tried to maneuver into a couple submissions but instead wriggled free and went back to his feet. They clinched, and Penn appeared winded by the round's midpoint. Penn shot in for his only takedown attempt of the fight and managed to get St. Pierre on his knees along the fence, but GSP broke free and reversed position on Penn. Both fighters sucked wind as they clinched along the fence with about a minute and a half left. The fight came back out to the middle with a minute left, and St. Pierre scored another takedown. Penn attempted an omoplata with about 35 seconds left but couldn't quite lock it down, as the fight ended on the ground.
All three judges scored the third round 10-9 for St. Pierre. Final scores: Hamilton and Rosales, 29-28 St. Pierre; Peoples, 29-28 Penn.
As it turned out, Penn got the next crack at Hughes despite the loss. St. Pierre suffered a groin injury in training for his title shot and had to pull out of the UFC 63 main event in Anaheim, Calif. The fill-in Penn dominated Hughes for two rounds, then gassed badly in the third and lost via stoppage.
Hughes stubbornly agreed to face St. Pierre eight weeks later at UFC 65 in Sacramento, Calif., where St. Pierre won the title in a lopsided match via second-round TKO. St. Pierre was upset by Matt Serra in his first title defense but has been utterly dominant in four fights since then, including last April's title win over Serra in the rematch at UFC 83.
Penn, taking to heart criticism that he didn't dedicate himself fully to training and simply coasted on his considerable natural ability, cut down to lightweight and has been magnificent since. He beat Jens Pulver, dominated Joe Stevenson to take the 155-pound crown at UFC 80 and gave Sean Sherk the worst beating of his career at UFC 84 last May in a third-round stoppage.
All along, Penn made no secret of his desire for a rematch with St. Pierre. UFC president Dana White resisted the call as long as he could, but White finally caved in late last year and gave Penn and the fans the rematch they've long awaited.