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UFC 94:

Hype is fervent ahead of rematch

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Steve Marcus

UFC lightweight champ B.J. Penn shadow boxes before an event last year in Las Vegas. Penn will contend next week for the UFC welterweight title against Georges St. Pierre in a sold-out event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He says he’s rededicated himself to fighting since losing to St. Pierre in 2006. “It’s time to move forward,” he says.

UFC

Alex and Andy Samuelson recap UFC 93.

Click to enlarge photo

St. Pierre, shown in 2007, was voted Canadian Athlete of the Year in 2008. St. Pierre: I want to be thought of at the end of my career as the best pound-for-pound fighter that ever fought in MMA history.

UFC 94

Main event: Georges St. Pierre vs. B.J. Penn, UFC welterweight title

When: Jan. 31

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena

Tickets: Sold out

Pay-per-view: $54.95

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Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, typically likes to highlight the differences between his organization (innovative, forward-thinking) and the boxing business (hopelessly stuck in the past).

Yet White invoked a pantheon of champion boxers, standard by now in the fight-promotion game, in hyping next Saturday’s UFC 94 show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena featuring Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn in the headliner.

It was a roll call familiar to anyone who pays attention to the buildup to a big fight, whether it’s scheduled to take place in a traditional ring or a futuristic octagon.

Hagler.

Hearns.

Leonard.

Even Tyson this time, according to White.

The men whose names, appropriately or not, more than a quarter-century after they began putting on some of the most memorable events in sports, have morphed into a kind of shorthand to describe intriguing fights.

Take St. Pierre-Penn, for instance. This one will be not only “huge,” but “massive,” White vowed. In fact, consider yourself lucky if you witness as many as “three or four” fights of this magnitude in your lifetime.

Such superlative comparisons might come across as mystifying to any behind-the-times boxing loyalists still living in some version of an old Caesars Palace outdoor amphitheater in their own mind.

But they make perfect sense to fans of professional mixed martial arts.

Tickets are sold out for the Grand Garden Arena, where attendance is expected to exceed 14,000. Pay-per-view sales could break 1 million, and the live gate figures to challenge the $3.4 million generated by UFC 92 in December at the MGM Grand.

The story lines for the main event are electrifying, White said, quickly reverting to his usual form of drawing a contrast between boxing’s deficiencies and the UFC’s more appealing traits.

St. Pierre, the UFC’s welterweight (170-pound) champion, and Penn, the lightweight (155-pound) champ, are both in their prime. Penn’s stepping up in weight class isn’t a typical “leap” that takes place in boxing from, say, junior bantamweight to bantamweight. “It’s a big jump to go up to 170,” White said.

The fight, scheduled for five five-minute rounds because it’s a title bout, is a rematch of a three-round split decision won by St. Pierre in 2006. Both fighters are using the first meeting as a motivator, Penn to avenge the loss and St. Pierre to prove he has progressed enough to stop his opponent rather than allowing it to go to the judges.

It shapes up as a potential thriller, White said, rather than a pairing of pitty-pat punchers content to stick and jab their way to a decision.

“You have two guys going in there to try to finish each other,” White said. “You don’t see that every time you buy a pay-per-view.”

St. Pierre (17-2 MMA), of Montreal, is putting his welterweight belt on the line for the second time after regaining it in April with a stoppage of Matt Serra in a rematch of Serra’s 2006 victory in a title fight. St. Pierre also exacted revenge for his other loss, beating Matt Hughes twice after losing to him in 2004. St. Pierre has won four fights in a row since his loss to Serra and has been installed as a minus 180 betting favorite (risk $1.80 to net $1) against Penn.

Although Penn has tried to stir it up a bit by making fun of St. Pierre’s long-standing practice of visiting a sports psychologist, the attempts at trash talk between the fighters have felt halfhearted, with both men willing to settle their differences on fight night rather than through inflammatory words.

“He’s not somebody I dislike,” St. Pierre said of Penn. “He’s not somebody I hate. He’s a fighter and my job is going to be to beat him ... He’s a very skilled fighter. He’s a very well-rounded fighter, that’s why he’s so good.

“It’s going to be about who can take more. I think he has improved a lot. He’s got very good hands. His boxing is amazing and he’s a champion on the ground. I’m very excited because I’m fighting the best guy I’ve ever fought. I need to win and to finish him.”

After weighing in at the 170-pound limit, St. Pierre expects to enter the fight weighing 185 to 187 pounds. Penn, of Hilo, Hawaii, is planning to enter the octagon weighing 170.

“I’m going to be strong,” Penn (13-4-1) said. “I’m going to be healthy. I don’t think it’s that healthy to cut weight to go into a fight against a guy as healthy as I’m going to be. I think it’s going to be to my advantage.”

By his own assessment, Penn has rededicated himself to the sport since losing to St. Pierre and Hughes in 2006, renewing himself as a person and as an athlete.

“There’s no future living in the past,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”

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