Georges St. Pierre had just lost his first fight.
Granted, it was to living legend Matt Hughes, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But the young French-Canadian knew he was better than the performance he put on that night. So it was back to the drawing board for "Rush."
And he put the welterweight division on notice.
Road to Toronto is a special series leading up to UFC 129: "St. Pierre vs. Shields." We'll take a look at some of the most important moments in the careers of the champion and his challenger. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. We'll examine the instances in time that have helped shape the men that headline this Saturday's (April 30, 2011) card, the biggest in UFC history.
Yesterday we discussed St. Pierre's loss to Hughes. Today, we’ll dive into his fights immediately following that bout, culminating with his tilt against B.J. Penn at UFC 58: "USA vs. Canada." It was a fight that ended in controversy which led to a rematch – and even more controversy.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s jump in.
After being submitted by Hughes, GSP went back home to Canada. He picked up a win in his old stomping grounds of TKO, headlining their 19th card. Six months after his loss, he was back in the UFC under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
At UFC 52: "Couture vs. Liddell 2," he battered and pounded Jason Miller en route to a one-sided unanimous decision victory. Two events later, he faced off against another rival of Hughes in Frank Trigg. "Rush" finished "Twinkle Toes" in similar fashion to his idol, submitting the American via rear-naked choke.
GSP ended 2005 at UFC 56: "Full Force" by squaring off with Sean Sherk, who at the time had exactly one loss on his record: Matt Hughes. "The Muscle Shark" pushed Hughes to the bitter end, going 25 minutes with the champion, but came up short. When he faced the French-Canadian, he was battered on his feet and beaten on the ground.
What took Hughes 25 minutes and three judges to do, took St. Pierre less than two rounds.
After this victory, St. Pierre grabs the microphone from Joe Rogan, drops to his knees, and begs for a title shot. In a time before Twitter campaigns and fake trash talk to keep one’s name in the headlines, it’s a display of earnest and sincere desire.
But there was someone else with a claim to the title. A former champion who never actually lost the belt in a fight. A "Prodigy" who had, coincidentally enough, made his return to the promotion that very same night.
Before St. Pierre got another crack at Hughes, he had to go through B.J. Penn.
Let’s take a look.
Penn immediately begins to pressure his opponent. Both land hard rights. GSP tries to keep some distance with inside leg kicks. Within a minute into the fight, the French-Canadian is squinting his right eye. A slow motion replay would reveal an accidental poke by Penn.
"Rush" has barely began to adjust to the problems with his eye when the Hawaiian clips his nose with an uppercut. The blood begins to trickle out; slowly at first but with increasing velocity.
They clinch up and exchange knees before GSP forces Penn against the cage. "The Prodigy" shoves off and is shoved right back. His opponent tries to take him down but Baby Jay's elastic limbs come into play and the fight stays vertical.
At this point, St. Pierre's eye and nose are raw. Bloody and swollen, GSP looks like he's been hit by a truck and Penn hasn't even broken a sweat.
Back in the center of the cage, the two begins to exchange, trading leg kicks every so often. Penn has roared back into the UFC at the expense of the young welterweight from Quebec.
The second stanza opens with Penn immediately attacking his opponent. St. Pierre is able to adjust quicker than he did in the first and forces the Hilo native to the cage. GSP begins to grind for a takedown and actually has Penn on the mat for a moment before "Prodigy" hops back up.
St. Pierre doesn't give up however and is able to scoop his opponent up and back down, landing his first takedown of the fight. From there, the French-Canadian lands punches and elbows until Penn is able to get back to his feet.
On their feet, "Rush" looks more confident. He begins putting together combinations and his strikes are crisp. A head kick lands but Penn is able to shrug it off. The Hawaiian is once again pressed against fence, forced to bear the weight of a 190-pound professional fighter on his frame.
They break and GSP lands a nice combination. He's pressing the fight now unlike the first. He once again grinds Penn against the fence and Penn, unable to mount any offense -- save for a left hook that cracks St. Pierre's jaw -- is once again slammed to the mat.
The final round finds "Rush" immediately taking the center of the Octagon. They exchange, GSP closes the distance, clinches up, and drags Penn back to the fence. The unwavering gameplan won him the second round. Can it win him the fight?
Just then, GSP latches onto Penn's waist and lifts him up. He carries him away from the fence and drops him to the mat with authority. A nice elbow is smacked against "Prodigy's" jaw before he's able to get back on his feet.
Penn then tries to take a page from his opponent's book and shoots in for a takedown but the French-Canadian defends well. Penn is forced up against the fence yet again.
They separate and GSP shoots in and follows through on a takedown in the center of the cage. From Penn's guard, St. Pierre finds himself in danger of an omoplata. Penn has snaked his leg around "Rush's" right arm and is attempting to crank it in a direction the human arm isn't mean to turn into.
The French-Canadian defends well and lands punches to his opponent's face. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) wizard attempting a submission and the grinding wrestler landing punches from the top -- that's how the fight appropriately ends.
GSP would win the split decision -- two judges awarding him the fight with the third giving it to Penn -- that night. St . Pierre was a bloody mess. He spent the night in the hospital while Penn, visibly unscathed, went out and partied on the Strip.
"The Prodigy" had beaten "Rush" worse than anyone had before or since. It was a lesson not lost on the young man from Quebec and it was something he held onto for nearly three years.
Tomorrow: St. Pierre collides with Hughes for the second time and fulfills his destiny.