How 'superfights' changed the MMA landscape

Georges St-Pierre, right, defended the welterweight belt against lightweight champ BJ Penn in 2009 -- a rare UFC superfight. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

"Jiu-jitsu is created where the small man can beat the big man," BJ Penn said one January day back in 2009 as he prepared to put his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to a sizeable test.

He spoke as though he was trying to convince someone of the improbable, and maybe that someone was himself.

"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."

Penn was lightweight champion at the time, but for the UFC 94 main event in Las Vegas he stepped into the cage as the challenger. And Octagon reality didn't play out quite like his envisioning. The bigger, stronger welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre, did not make a mistake, did not fall into an armlock, did not get caught in a choke.

The UFC's first superfight -- 155-pound champion vs. 170-pound champion -- ended up being a brutal counterpoint to the smaller man's big hopes. After an opening round of feisty promise, Penn took such a thumping through Rounds 2, 3 and 4 that the Hawaiian's cornermen, his brother among them, would not allow him to come out for No. 5.

If there was a lesson to be learned, the bruised-up and woozy Penn had no recollection of it. He did not remember anything at all, in fact, from the third and fourth rounds.

"I was probably borderline knocked out or something," he said later. "I just got beat up, that much I know."

This is where fight pundits point out that mixed martial arts, like boxing and all other combat sports, is divvied up into weight divisions for a reason. This is also where fans say they don't care about that and they want more superfights.

They're getting one on July 7, and it's the biggest one ever. As in, heavyweight vs. light heavyweight. In the main event of UFC 226 in Vegas, 205-pound king Daniel Cormier will try to take away the big-boy belt from Stipe Miocic.

"I really, really like the matchup," Comier recently told reporters after taping the latest season of "The Ultimate Fighter," which features Miocic and him as coaches. After spending several weeks with his opponent in the reality show gym, "DC" was sounding hopeful -- at least as hopeful as BJ Penn once had been.

"I know people may think, 'Oh, he's crazy. He's [fighting] the best heavyweight of all time.' Yeah, but he's not this massive guy. He's fast at heavyweight, but just because he's fast at heavyweight doesn't mean he'll be fast to me. The reason I was so successful at heavyweight was because I was fast."

Ah, there's the twist. Cormier is no wide-eyed neophyte visiting the heavyweight universe. He started his career there and was indeed fast and successful. A member of the 2004 and '08 U.S. Olympic wrestling teams, Cormier took up MMA after the Games and by 2012 was the undefeated champion of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, manhandling Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and former UFC champ Josh Barnett along the way. His first two UFC fights also were at heavyweight and he won both, including a smothering beatdown of another ex-UFC heavyweight belt holder, Frank Mir. So Cormier has been locked in a cage with a bigger man on several occasions, and each time he walked out the conqueror.

Of course, much the same once was said of BJ Penn. Long before he challenged GSP, "The Prodigy" even had a short reign as welterweight champion, earning the belt by choking out heavily favored Matt Hughes back in 2004. Penn had the title stripped months later when he left the UFC for the K-1 promotion in Japan, where he moved up to middleweight and at one point even took on future UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida. It was an openweight bout, and Machida weighed in at 225 pounds.

Soon after that bit of heavy lifting, Penn returned to the UFC, where he took welterweight fights against St-Pierre and Hughes (both losses) before returning to lightweight. Within 16 months, he was the 155-pound champion. And after one successful title defense, he was eyeing GSP at 170 again.

When the St-Pierre vs. Penn superfight was booked, it was a huge deal for fans, even though they had seen these two together in the cage before -- or perhaps because of that. In the first meeting nearly three years earlier, when neither man was a champion, GSP had to make a bloody comeback to eke out a split-decision win after getting badly busted up early. "After the fight, he went to the hospital," said a relatively unmarked Penn. "I went to a bar."

The champion-vs.-champion angle set the bar even higher for the rematch. In MMA, titleholders had always tended not to crowd each other. The UFC kept its fighters neatly sorted by size in individual silos, each with its hierarchy of dreamers queued up. The promotion never was lacking for logical same-size pairings for the consequential throwing of leather, so why would the matchmakers want to introduce the chaos of cross-division matchups?

Nonetheless, on those rare occasions when one champ did seem poised to raid another titleholder's personal space, the media and fans would do some space invading of their own, closing the distance between "super" and "fight" to invoke the exalted term "superfight." Invariably, though, the fanciful matchup would not come to be.

For years, practically every wishful mention of a UFC superfight seemed to have Anderson Silva's name attached to it. He ruled the middleweight division from 2006 to 2013 and for most of that time was the consensus No. 1 fighter in all of MMA. Some pointed to him as the greatest in the sport's history. So as St-Pierre piled up title defenses at 170 and rose in the pound-for-pound ranks, there were calls for him to step up to 185 and take on "The Spider." Never happened. Later, once Jon Jones had ascended to the top of the mountain at 205, the armchair matchmakers were calling for Silva to do the stepping up. Never happened.

More recently, the superfight scenario was turned on its head when the UFC tried to book a meeting of bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw and flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson -- not for the 135-pound strap, though, but instead for the 125-pound belt wrapped around the waist of "Mighty Mouse." However, even the upside-down ingenuity of proposing that the bigger guy step down to the little man's domain was unable to carry this matchup from concept to cage.

Another variation of the superfight pits a UFC champion against the champ from the same weight class in another fight promotion. For practically the entire time that Fedor Emelianenko ruled the heavyweight roost in the Pride, Affliction and Strikeforce organizations, fans yearned to get him into a cage or ring with his UFC counterpart, be it Frank Mir, Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar. None of those fights came to be, either, but the UFC did eventually find a means for successfully booking this variant of superfight: Take ownership of the competing promotion.

Dan Henderson's first two fights upon his 2007 return to the UFC, against middleweight champ Anderson Silva and light heavyweight titlist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, came while "Hendo" still reigned in both of those divisions over in Pride, which the UFC's parent company had just bought out. In 2013, after Zuffa acquired Strikeforce, that promotion's lightweight champ, Gilbert Melendez, was matched against UFC champ Benson Henderson.

But the straightforward, classic superfight -- the king of the hill in one weight class challenging the alpha male or female in another division -- is the holy grail of fisticuffs. It exists in our fertile imaginations more than it does in the annals of MMA. Bellator just booked one: middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi will defend against Rory MacDonald, who owns the welterweight belt, on Sept. 29. But in those two fighters' former home, the UFC, the 25-year-old promotion's entire superfight history comes down to GSP vs. BJ II, the forthcoming Miocic vs. Cormier and just one other super event: featherweight champ Conor McGregor's 2016 challenge of lightweight titlist Eddie Alvarez.

The buzz surrounding that one mostly reverberated around McGregor's star power and around the fight's position atop the Madison Square Garden marquee for a UFC 205 mega-event featuring three title bouts. The superfight angle? That was tempered a bit by the fact that neither McGregor nor Alvarez had defended his belt even once.

Still, Daniel Cormier might want to tack images from this superfight on his vision board rather than set his mind on anything related to the earlier one. Whereas BJ Penn stepped up and got beaten down, Conor McGregor was the one doing the demolition. He fought like he was the big brother, putting Alvarez to bed with shocking ease. The Irishman thus became the first fighter to reign in two UFC weight divisions simultaneously. He took what was his -- a matching pair of championship belts -- and walked out of the Octagon, having fulfilled the elusive promise of the superfight.