At this Saturday's UFC on Fox 5 show, two similar fights most grab my attention. Both B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald and Mauricio Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson tell one of the great MMA stories - the young guard coming to topple the aging legend. It's a terrific formula that has been used countless times to good effect. Obviously then the big question is - can these young guns take out the former champions?
My answer: they can, they will, and they both will do it emphatically.
These are incredibly dangerous fights for both Shogun and Penn. Both men are former champions, fighters who have been in the game for some time and have earned their recognition in the all time record books. But they're also both undeniably fading. Penn is coming out of a one year retirement here, and has only won 1 of his last 5 fights (and that win came against another fading legend in Matt Hughes). Shogun is more successful as he comes in off a win, though it was not terribly impressive, and was preceded by a brutal beatdown from Jon Jones and an epic, grueling war with Dan Henderson. Looking at their recent fights, it's hard not to argue that their best days are behind them.
Despite these struggles, neither man has yet experienced that late career defining (sometimes career ending) loss. You know the one - the brutal KO at the hands of a hot young prospect. Think Chuck Liddell lying unconscious at the feet of Rashad Evans, Matt Hughes slumping to the mat after a Thiago Alves knee, Randy Couture knocked flat by the Lyoto Machida crane kick. These are the kinds of fights from which a fighter can never turn back - the moment where as a fan you realize that not only will this legend never be truly relevant again, you actively fear for them every time they step in the cage. To date, both Penn and Shogun have avoided this kind of loss (though Shogun's loss to Jones was close).
At UFC on Fox 5, that may very well change. Because in both MacDonald and Gustafsson, they are facing a new kind of opponent. These are not the kinds of legends they have fought lately in Forrest Griffin and Matt Hughes. Not decision fighters like Jon Fitch and Brandon Vera. These are two young, hungry, aggressive fighters going for the kill. And for legends like Penn and Shogun, those are the exact fighters that must be most feared. Gustafsson and MacDonald are on the verge of superstardom. All they need is that one marquee win to push them over the edge. Saturday night, that marquee win is staring each man right in the face. And they know it.
B.J. Penn and Shogun Rua have both given so much to the sport. But there's one thing they have not yet given, and that's a highlight reel KO for the ages to a new young lion. It's the last stop on the career of most fighters. As they wind down their careers, have Shogun and Penn arrived at that stop? Gustafsson and MacDonald certainly think so, and I expect they'll prove it Saturday night.