The main event of Saturday's UFC card in Newcastle, England, is an intriguing contest between two champion-caliber lightweights vying for a UFC belt.
Yet in the wake of Sean Sherk's suspension for steroids and the subsequent removal of his UFC lightweight crown, some have questioned the relevance of the title B.J. Penn and Joe Stevenson will fight for at UFC 80.
Listening to the combatants, however, it's clear that as far as they're concerned, this is a meaningful title fight.
"Without a doubt, this is the true lightweight championship of the world," Penn said during a recent conference call.
Penn has tasted glory before, of course, stunning the dominant Matt Hughes to capture UFC welterweight gold four years ago. But since returning to the Octagon following a road trip in several organizations, he fell short of regaining a championship he felt was wrongfully taken from him.
Now a focused and 15-pounds lighter "Prodigy" is seemingly committed to what he described as the fight of his life.
"This fight is huge," Penn remarked. "Joe Stevenson is a great opponent. He's got so many weapons, so many tools that he brings into this fight. This is the most important fight of my life. I know people say it every single time, but without a doubt if I win this fight, I'll become the guy who has two titles in two divisions. I'm already thinking about this fight all the time. This is so important to me. I don't want anything else."
To hear Penn speak with such passion and dedication about an upcoming fight is refreshing, considering it's not something he's always been known to do. For a while it seemed as if the 29-year-old Hawaiian sensation was simply going through the motions. He assures that's not the case this time around.
"I've fought big-name opponents. I've fought Hughes. I've fought St. Pierre. All these people. But this fight is everything," promised Penn, whose MMA records stands at 11-4-1. "Words cannot explain right now where I am in my head. I know what has to be done. This is just so important."
While victory promises a return to glory for Penn, it would most assuredly make Stevenson feel like the sacrifice of missing valuable time with his beloved children was worth it.
"My family is everything to me," said the 25-year-old Stevenson. "It's all anyone really has when they have nothing. As far as my legacy goes, it's about my kids. I don't want them to say that their dad is this great fighter; 'My dad can beat your dad up.' I want them to say, 'My dad is a good dad.' That's a big reason why I try to carry myself professionally in and out of the ring. It's everything. That unconditional love, you'd be willing to go out there and lay your life down for your kids at any given moment. That's what it takes. You have to be able to do that."
Life's turmoil took its toll on Stevenson after he captured a coveted "The Ultimate Fighter" title, losing his first official UFC fight by decision to Josh Neer, his first defeat in five years. The former King of the Cage champion looked flat and unfocused in the fight, but the loss woke up an aggressive powerhouse and made him aware of his mistakes.
"My goal on the show was to just kind of be there and have fun," Stevenson admitted. "I had quit fighting for two years. I was just getting away with ability and talent. What it takes is a good slap in the face sometimes. Losing to someone I feel I shouldn't have lost to made me say, 'Well, I need to take it serious.' Then I realized, as I started to get back into shape, that man, I'm just not a 170er. The harder I work, the faster the weight comes off. So that's why I stepped down to 155. Otherwise, I'd be fighting 170 weighing probably 165."
The Penn-Stevenson matchup is an alluring affair between two men with immense talent who have both seemed to rediscover what got them into the UFC in the first place. If both enter the Octagon at full strength, the fight could come down to Penn's otherworldly jiu-jitsu prowess or Stevenson's relentless grappling and ground-and-pound.
Both men believe they have the answers.
"The ground is my whole life," Penn stated. "When I talk about the ground, or jiu-jitsu, grappling, you're not just talking about a couple of specific moves. You're talking about a lifestyle. You're talking about the way that I live. That's all I do: eat, breathe and sleep jiu-jitsu and this and that. Every moment, I feel like I can do it with my eyes closed.
"Joe's a great guy. He's got great submissions and all these other things that come with him. I feel I can do all these things flawless. That's what I bring to the table."
Stevenson, however, has similar confidence in his grappling ability.
"Honestly, I'm just pretty God-gifted on the ground," he said. "It's just -- I've done it my whole life. Normally for my fights, I don't train any ground at all. This time, I've taken the time to actually make half of my day ground because I respect B.J.'s ground so much. All the experience combined, with being able to strike, do jiu-jitsu and then scramble at the right times, I just feel so comfortable. I feel like I can do that for days. Not like the boring, sit there and hold someone -- when you're going to see us on the ground, you're going to get a clinic. That's the way we are on the ground. We don't just sit there and hold people."
Meaningful or not, and only time will tell, Penn-Stevenson seems to have all the earmarks of a great fight.
Mike Sloan contributes to Sherdog.com.