Last night we saw a pair of legendary fighters, two of the brightest luminaries in MMA's short history, declared victorious at UFC 123. But for many fans, to see the effort put forth by these two great fighters was a suprise.
Many thought BJ Penn's pair of losses to Frankie Edgar were the culmination of his time as an elite fighter. Penn seemed to lack the competitive drive in each loss that, when he possesses it, makes him perhaps the most lethal fighter below Anderson Silva's weight class. The UFC chose to test Penn's capricious motivation, placing in front him the old rival Matt Hughes for a third and final time.
A lot of people want to consider Hughes a far cry from his former self, but that only speaks to how great he was as a champion. He might not ever reclaim the 170 lbs. title from Georges St. Pierre, but Matt Hughes is still a legitimate top-10 fighter at welterweight. BJ Penn came out and beat the greatest welterweight of all time like Hughes owed him money. The Penn we saw last night looked like the fiery kid who destroyed Din Thomas and Caol Uno those many UFC's ago. I can't wait to see if Penn sustains this level of motivation.
But the biggest shocker of the night was Quinton Jackson coming out in excellent physical condition with a focused gameplan and walking down Lyoto Machida. In the days leading up to the fight, it was hard to find a fan who thought Machida wasn't going to run laps around Rampage. It was supposed to be common wisdom that going through all the famous battles and a sojourn to Hollywood had drained Rampage of the tenacity that's made him an icon of the sport. Well, I feel vindicated in thinking it's been Wolfslair more than anything that has hampered Jackson's performances.
He came out with his typical crisp boxing and scored on Machida in the tight exchanges and the clinch. Machida was fast -- as we all knew he would be -- and darted in and out of the pocket to prevent any one-shot kills by Rampage. But Rampage scored and won in the fashion most predicted Machida to take a victory. Though Machida dominated round 3 with the stiffest shot of the fight, got mounted position, and nearly submitted Rampage, it was a clear win for Jackson on the 10-point must system. If the fight had championship rounds, things might have gone differently, but Rampage has proven before that he excels in Rounds 4 and 5. No matter what, the victory puts Jackson right in the mix for the next title shot at light heavyweight.
Up next for Penn is a proposed matchup with perennial contender and consensus #2 welterweight Jon Fitch. If Penn can get by the stifling wrestler, it's likely there will be clamoring for GSP/Penn III. As for Jackson, a rematch with Forrest Griffin seems tantalizing. No matter who's up for either fighter, it won't be so easy for folks to count them out as it was in the weeks leading up to the very memorable UFC 123.