For the past six years, there have been two fighters synonymous with the rise of mixed martial arts in North America: Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva.
Both Silva and St-Pierre debuted for the UFC in the mid-2000s, while names like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes and Randy Couture dominated the MMA landscape. Over this past half-decade, these two fighters have went on to usher in a new era.
While the Hughes’s, Liddell’s and Couture’s of the world started out their hall-of-fame careers dominating bingo halls in the deep south and Indian casinos along the east coast, St-Pierre and Silva have reigned supreme during MMA’s golden years, selling out 55,000-person stadiums (St-Pierre vs. Shields at UFC 129 in Toronto), stretching the UFC brand internationally into exotic locals (Dubai, Rio de Janeiro), and pushing the sport to heights previously unheard of in prior generations.
This isn’t a knock on the prior generation, far from it. If it weren’t for the aforementioned champions, the UFC wouldn’t be a sliver of what it is today. But as the old saying goes, you can’t stop progress.
For the better part of three years, the rumblings about a St-Pierre versus Silva superfight have resonated with anticipation among fans and pundits, alike. If Liddell, Hughes and Couture were the “old guard” then that makes St-Pierre and Silva the “kinda-old-getting-there-but-not-really-guard.”
St-Pierre is 31 (not that old in conventional terms, but this is the fist-fighting business) and Silva is 37. Neither one of these men are getting any younger, and the talent ascending through the ranks trying to dethrone these legends is rising at a quickening pace, putting such a superfight at risk of never happening.
On Saturday night at UFC 158, St-Pierre got a clear picture of what his future could look like, as welterweight freight train and two-time collegiate National Champion Johny Hendricks beat former interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit in a dominating unanimous decision victory. The win marked Hendricks’ sixth win in a row over a who’s who of top-tier MMA talent, and announced to anyone with a ounce of fight-knowledge that a new guard was indeed rising.
Unlike previous National Champions who entered mixed martial arts (Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Kevin Randleman), Hendricks possesses a rare breed of brutal power punching coupled with a lightning quick takedown arsenal, with enough toughness and grit to make John Wayne blush.
Of those aforementioned legends’ combined 85 fights, only nine came by way of legitimate KO/TKO. Hendricks, at 29, already has six knockout finishes to his credit. And to be blunt, they’ve come over a much more diverse and well-rounded group of opponents. Simply put, this ain’t your Daddy’s MMA fighter.
Similarly, “The Spider” faces a member of the “new guard” of MMA on July 6 at UFC 162 in Las Vegas, when he faces off against undefeated wrecking ball Chris Weidman. Much like Hendricks, Weidman posses a very real threat to Anderson Silva’s throne as a power-punching, amateur wrestling standout with such a varied arsenal that even the most ardent pundits have difficulty spotting weakness in the New Yorker’s game.
In a sport known for evolving almost on a yearly basis, the class of fighter that Hendricks and Weidman represents has been previously unseen by the MMA community, and they’re only getting better.
There is no doubt Hendricks deserves his title shot against GSP. He’s unquestionably earned it by dispatching a list of MMA world-beaters like Martin Kampmann, Jon Fitch, Carlos Condit and Josh Koscheck.
It was just barely two years ago, however, that Hendricks was undercarding a TUF Finale event that was headlined by Igor Pokrajac with a co-headline fight that featured Kendall Grove – not exactly the names you would expect to eclipsing a future MMA all-star.
Oh, and Chris Weidman? He hadn’t even debuted in the UFC yet when that TUF finale took place. That would come almost a full year later in March 2011.
The hard truth remains, despite earning their stripes (and title shots), neither Hendricks nor Weidman have the name value or historical relevance that would warrant the huge risk they pose to such an outstanding potential superfight as Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva.
While Hendricks and Weidman share glowing resumes, they were toiling on undercards as relative unknowns back in 2010 and Georges St-Pierre versus Anderson Silva was already being discussed to headline an event at a venue like Cowboys Stadium.
The UFC has spent the past six years billing St-Pierre and Silva as the best in the world. Sure, Jon Jones has been doing mind-numbing stuff in the light heavyweight division, but even he doesn’t resonate with fans, historically speaking, the same as Silva and St-Pierre.
Fans identify with these two. They think about UFC 94, UFC 100, Dubai, Rio, highlight reel KO’s over Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin, head kick KO’s over Matt Hughes – all of these moments are engrained in the heads of MMA fans stretching to each corner of the globe.
No two fighters have come to define the brand of the UFC more than St-Pierre and Silva. With the booming international expansion of the UFC into markets like Asia and South America and mega endorsements from Gatorade, Under Armor and Nike on the table, the UFC must ensure that St-Pierre and Silva meet before the interest is gone, whether it be from a loss or presumed aging; this fight must happen.
The respective streaks that Silva and St-Pierre are on are unrivaled in MMA history. Silva has won 17 bouts in a row, and St-Pierre hasn’t lost since being upset by Matt Serra at UFC 69 in March 2007, in what to this day is widely considered the greatest upset in MMA history.
Over that time, these two have come to define a generation of fighters unlike any two fighters before them. Not only that, they’ve done so in the same company, in different divisions, with just 15 pounds separating them. The tease has been there forever and time is running out.
If the UFC wants to capitalize on these two historic streaks, by these two amazing champions, they must do it soon before time runs out and the new guard takes over. It would be a shame to see it go for naught if one of these champions were to fall to the young upstarts that pose such an obvious threat.
Ah, the beauty of life and the fight game – it truly is a wonderful thing.