Commentary

First St. Pierre, then the world for mighty Penn

BJ Penn isn't satisfied with being just the UFC lightweight champion of the world. He's out to exact revenge, make history and capture the welterweight title by upending Georges St. Pierre as well, writes Neil Davidson.

Originally Published: December 9, 2008
By Neil Davidson | Special to ESPN.com

BJ PennJon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesGeorges St. Pierre-BJ Penn 2 is considered by many as the first superfight of '09.
It's history in the making -- not to mention a potentially huge headache for UFC president Dana White.

If lightweight champion B.J. Penn defeats welterweight counterpart Georges St. Pierre on Jan. 31 at UFC 94, the Hawaiian fighter will have to juggle title defenses in two weight classes. Nobody's ever done that in the UFC and it could lead to a major league logjam on White's schedule.

Look at Penn and St. Pierre's recent activity.

Since returning to the UFC, Penn fought twice in 2006 (including a split-decision loss to GSP at UFC 58), once in 2007 and twice in 2008 -- with a stint as coach on "The Ultimate Fighter" interrupting his schedule before the mid-2007 fight with Jens Pulver.

St. Pierre fought three times in 2007 and twice in 2008.

White acknowledges the "one fighter, two title" scenario has its downside. A healthy fighter defending two titles can only do so much. Not to mention the traffic jam that would occur if a double-champion got injured. No one wants the UFC to get bogged down with any more interim titles.

But the UFC boss says damn the torpedoes.

[+] EnlargeBJ Penn
sherdog.comBJ Penn, left, dropped a hotly disputed decision in his first fight with Georges St. Pierre.
"There are fights that people want to see," White said. "GSP-B.J. Penn 2 is a fight that people want to see … why not do it?"

Whatever happens, White acknowledges welterweight contender Thiago Alves and lightweight challenger Kenny Florian are likely facing a longer-than-usual lineup if Penn wins.

"Thiago and Kenny are going to get their shots," White said. "They're going to have to wait a little while longer but I actually think it's better for them too, in the long run. This is a fight that has to be done … this is one of those legendary fights that people will talk about 10, 15, 20 years from now."

Credit to White, Penn and St. Pierre (17-2) for ignoring such possible pitfalls to put on the first of what could be several superfights in 2009. White has already said a St. Pierre win at UFC 94 will set the stage for a showdown with middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Plus there are rumblings of Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell meeting for a fourth time.

Like Brock Lesnar versus Couture, Penn-St. Pierre 2 seems a heavyweight toss-up -- with fans on both sides of the fence. That makes for huge interest.

The UFC thinks enough of the matchup that is spending $1.7 million on a three-part TV preview called "UFC Primetime."

For St. Pierre, whose quest for MMA learning takes him from Montreal to New Mexico to New York to Brazil, the Penn rematch is a chance to test himself against the best.

"When you're a UFC world champion, you have to fix your goal even higher," St. Pierre said. "I don't fight to be champion any more because I'm already the champion. I want to fight to become a legend in the sport. And that's what this fight will give me."

White is doing all he can, however, to keep the 5-foot-9 Penn from setting his sights above 170 pounds, shooting down any talk that a Penn win could mean another step up to middleweight and his own date with Silva.

"Is he tough enough to do it? Absolutely. Is he talented enough to go up there and do it? Absolutely. Does that mean he should do it? Absolutely not," White said. "He doesn't have the frame to carry that kind of weight and it just makes no sense."

Still, for Penn, a bigger challenge is nothing new.

Penn (14-4-1) has moved across the MMA landscape, taking on fighters ranging from Jens Pulver and Matt Hughes to Renzo Gracie and Lyoto Machida. Size has never really mattered for the Hawaiian jiu-jitsu ace.

"Jiu-jitsu is created where the small man can beat the big man," Penn said. "I've been doing jiu-jitsu since I was 17 years old and that has always stuck in my head, throughout all the time and all the way until now. I just think it's just that basic ideology of martial arts and jiu-jitsu that's ingrained in me.

"That's my lifestyle, that I believe I have a chance. I know something's going to happen, the guy's going to make a mistake and I'm going to get that armlock, I'm going to get that choke and it will be done."

But Penn acknowledges that it took a September 2006 loss in a UFC 63 rematch with Hughes -- whom Penn defeated for the 170-pound title at UFC 46 in January 2004 -- to refocus. It meant Penn was 0-2 in 2006.

B.J. Penn
Sherdog.comAfter losing to Matt Hughes in 2006, BJ Penn, above, rededicated himself to fighting.
Always a natural talent -- he picked up jiu-jitsu at warp speed and became the first non-Brazilian to win the world championships at the black belt level -- he did not always apply himself as diligently as he could have when it came to training or diet. Knocking out opponents like Caol Uno in 11 seconds will do that to you.

When Penn was submitted by Hughes for the first stoppage loss of his career, he began thinking. Some 2½ months after that loss, the penny dropped on his 28th birthday -- Dec. 13, 2006.

"What am I doing? Why am I wasting my time?" Penn recalled thinking. "I've got more fans than I ever had after losing to Matt Hughes than I had after beating Matt Hughes … I'm like 'I'm still in a great position, why not get up and try?' I don't want to be the guy who said 'I could have did this, and I could have did that.' I want to be the guy to know if I could have or I couldn't do it.

"I'll find out on Jan. 31."

White played his part in helping Penn find his drive again. He got Penn to return to 155 pounds via a stint on "The Ultimate Fighter" as a coach and a rematch with Pulver. Penn scored a second-round submission in June 2007 and was back to the races.

The fire was back and so was the conditioning. In November 2007, Penn's six-pack abdomen was hard to miss in a question-and-answer session with fans before UFC 78 in Newark. The baby fat was gone.

Penn has since stopped Joe Stevenson to claim the 155-pound crown. Most recently he stopped Sean Sherk, showing stand-up skills in the process.

Penn's excitement for the GSP challenge was plain to see on a recent publicity tour that took the fighters and White from Las Vegas to Toronto to Hawaii.

Asked by a fan in Canada which title would keep him busier, Penn was stumped.

"It's a toss-up man; I can't even believe I'm in this position, answering what one I would defend more. I never even thought I would be in the UFC. I'm just happy to be here. For you to even ask a question like that is amazing how life goes and how this whole thing works."

But it's clear the lightweight challengers out there are not making his mouth water. Penn has been focusing on GSP almost exclusively while other 155-pounders jockey for position.

"I'll tell you right now, I don't think Florian or Stevenson would step in the ring with Georges St. Pierre," Penn said prior to Florian's win over Stevenson at UFC 91.

The Prodigy is happy to face GSP. There's a legacy to be left.

"I want to leave a mark in this sport. When I was 22 years old, I wanted to become the lightweight champion of the world. I'm going to be 30 years old next month and I want to become the best ever and this is my chance.''

Neil Davidson is general sports editor of The Canadian Press.