Georges St-Pierre was nine months removed from his resurrection as UFC champion. After regaining the belt -- his belt -- by avenging the shocking Matt Serra knockout of a year earlier that had taken away the coveted strap, the lithe Quebecois had asserted himself in a successful defense against the consensus No. 2 welterweight, Jon Fitch. It was his fourth straight victory, a run that also included a second win over the man who'd preceded him as king of the 170-pounders, Matt Hughes. GSP was a champion as dominant as dominant gets.
So was B.J. Penn. He had spent a few years bouncing around weight classes like a binge eater, fighting at welterweight and middleweight and even against a light heavyweight. But now he was making the lightweight division his house. The Hawaiian dynamo had finished three straight opponents at 155 pounds, two of them former champions. He had the shiny brass-and-leather UFC belt around his waist, and had bigger and better things on his mind. Like two shiny brass-and-leather UFC belts around his waist.
So the fight was agreed upon. St-Pierre vs. Penn would be a rematch of a welterweight bout from three years earlier that had gone the distance, with GSP the winner of a slim split decision. That one had been a fine fight. This was expected to be a super one. Champion vs. champion. A superfight.
Ever since St-Pierre beat up Penn on that January night in 2009, the mixed martial arts world has yearned for a regeneration of that glittery summit meeting where so much shimmering brass was on the line. And last year we thought we finally were on the verge of a matchup worthy of all the superlatives. Throughout 2013, fans drooled over the festering possibility of seeing middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the sport's pound-for-pound top dog, step into the octagon with another champion. But who'd that other belt holder be? For a while, all the anticipation centered upon Silva vs. St-Pierre. Then the talk shifted to "The Spider" against light heavyweight marvel Jon Jones. Then ... nothing.
No superfight had materialized out of what seemed like perpetual posturing, and before long even the remote possibility of one evaporated. Silva lost his belt. St-Pierre lost his desire to fight. A super bummer for all.
But look what's dangling in front of us now. A couple of weekends ago, at a cramped press conference following UFC 169 in Newark, a superfight seemed to come together right before our eyes. José Aldo had just outclassed top featherweight contender Ricardo Lamas for his 17th straight victory -- his sixth defense of the 145-pound belt the UFC had bestowed upon him after absorbing its corporate cousin promotion the WEC, where Aldo had been champion before that. And now the Brazilian was being asked a question that had been posed over and over during the leadup to that night, one that he'd answered only vaguely. Will you move up to lightweight next and challenge Anthony Pettis?
Once again, Aldo was noncommittal, impassively deferring to the will of Dana White. But with the UFC president right there, standing at the podium beside his champion, we didn't have to wait long for an answer. "I've been talking about that fight," said White, appearing amped by where the conversation was going. "I like that fight, I like José at 155."
The ball thrown back in his court, Aldo took another whack at it. "Why not?" he said. "We're ready to fight, so let's get this fight."
Within moments, White was revealing that he'd just received a phone call from Pettis, who wanted in as well. "Sounds like we've got a fight," said Dana. "There you go. That was easy. Got that deal done. One more thing I don't have to do on Monday."
The deal might have seemed heaven-sent, but as always, the devil is in the details. White's superfight scenario, which he laid out at that same press conference, was that Aldo would vacate the featherweight belt and fight Pettis at lightweight, and if José were to lose, he'd get first crack at whoever succeeded him at 145 pounds. We would find out a few days later that the Aldo camp envisions a different set-up.
An Aldo vs. Pettis fight had nearly happened last summer, you see, only that time it was to be contested at 145 pounds. "Showtime" was not yet a champion, and he had his eye on Aldo's belt. A Pettis knee injury scuttled that showdown, but Andre Pederneiras, Aldo's coach at the vaunted Nova Uniao gym, remembers. He doesn't think his fighter needs to go chasing any man. Appearing with Aldo on the Brazilian network SporTV, Pederneiras floated the idea of conducting the champion vs. champion bout in neither man's weight class. "Nobody wants to take the other's title," he said. "We want to see the fight and do a great show for everybody. Aldo would move up a little, Pettis cuts a little, and it's good for everybody."
Not really. While Pettis seemed open to the possibility -- "Catchweight, 155, 145, I'm always game," he told the AXS television show Inside MMA -- White has held firm whenever the topic of the superfight has been raised. In his view, Aldo has cleaned out the 145-pound division, already having beaten the top five contenders in the media-voted UFC rankings. Pettis, on the other hand, is a brand new champion, having not even once defended his belt. Why should he even look outside the lightweight division for a challenger, then? Because the No. 1 contender, Benson Henderson, is a guy he's beaten twice. A superfight with Aldo gives the rest of the 155-pound crowd some time to sort themselves out and line up for the next shot at the belt.
That makes perfect sense, but the other part of White's plan -- Aldo vacating his belt -- is puzzling. If José wins and becomes a two-division champion, he's an instant superstar. He's already No. 2 in the pound-for-pound rankings both here at SI.com and in the UFC tally, and he's shown himself to be enthralling to behold as an athlete and technician. Yet outside the Brazil he has not been the big deal that his resume and skill set suggest he should. A victory over the lightweight champion would give him a hearty boost.
And if that happens, sure, it would make sense to compel Aldo to drop the 145-pound strap. But why should he have to vacate at featherweight simply for taking a title fight at lightweight? Penn wasn't asked to, and following his loss to St-Pierre at welterweight, B.J. picked up right where he'd left off at 155 pounds, finishing challengers in two more title fights before being dethroned by Frankie Edgar. White surely can't fear that the UFC featherweight belt would be devalued if its owner, Aldo, were to lose to the lightweight champion, can he?
That's a good negotiating chip for the UFC to get this superfight signed. Allow for the possibility of Aldo remaining featherweight champ should he lose, and one would think his camp will abandon the silly catchweight suggestion. Bend a little, UFC, and get something big in return.
Of course, Aldo vs. Pettis would be nowhere near as big as an Anderson Silva superfight. And to even say that it's essential would be an exaggeration. But 2014 has begun with Silva on the shelf, perhaps never to return to the octagon (although a Dancing with the Stars episode with Roy Jones Jr. remains a distant-future possibility). GSP is off on some frozen lake practicing for a bid to join Canada's 2018 Olympic curling team. Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is also on the mend, tweeting out pictures not of potential opponents but of his 4-year-old's Barbie doll.
The UFC cupboard isn't bare, but it's not fully stocked, either.
There's a Ronda Rousey fight next week, a different sort of superfight, Olympian vs. Olympian. But Sara McMann, for all her wrestling chops, is still green in this game, which is why Rousey is favored by as much as 5 to 1. Then there's the Memorial Day middleweight championship showdown between Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort. That's a big one. But what else does the UFC have in store?
Anthony Pettis vs. José Aldo could be as good as it gets in 2014. It's a superfight worth fighting for.
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