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Editorial: The Future is Near

Despite how far the sport has come in such rapid order, the history of mixed martial arts remains merely a blip on the radar.

That much is evident when fighters who are known as pioneers of the game are still climbing into cages and winning fights convincingly. That occurred on Thursday, when 40-year-old Pat Miletich won his first altercation in more than two years, teaching a lesson to Thomas Denny with a second-round knockout at Adrenaline II.

Babe Ruth won’t be stepping to the plate anytime soon and launching one of his moonshots. He has been dead for 60 years.

On the other hand, Miletich – a former UFC champion at 170 pounds who has fought a total of three times in the past six years while turning his attention to training – is a living-color example of how far the sport has come in a period of time that can only be thought of as a jolting cup of coffee.

That cup might just runneth over from here on out.

During the same week that Miletich kept alive another link to its infancy, we got a strong glimpse at the thriving health of this still-burgeoning enterprise – thanks to the UFC’s hematoma-producing, leg-breaking “Fight for the Troops” on Wednesday night, followed by the latest “Ultimate Fighter Finale” on Saturday.

Several online articles have dissected the year in MMA, which has already been the most profitable in its brief history even without including income from one final star-studded event (UFC 92 on Dec. 27) that’s sure to delight.

Brock Lesnar should get a pat on his billboard-sized back for the assistance he provided in 2008. People swarmed to buy the three pay-per view events that featured the ex-WWE bad guy and former NCAA wrestling champ. The neophyte with XXXL hands went 2-1 and unceremoniously snatched the UFC heavyweight belt from Randy Couture, a fighter who at age 45 has more in common with Miletich, for example, than he does with a rising star like lightweight Nate Diaz.

The (thankfully) meteoric rise and fall of Kevin Ferguson could be seen as helpful, too, though we shouldn’t spend much time (is 14 seconds enough?) stroking his unkempt goatee and instead should probably give the props to Pink-haired Petruzelli for exiling the ridiculous “Kimbo Slice” myth on national TV.

With all of those fresh fans falling in line this year, an even larger explosion of popularity figures to take place in the near future.

It may well start with the Jan. 31 mega fight that headlines UFC 94: Georges St. Pierre vs. B.J. Penn II. Two of the top five fighters on Earth will clash, one looking to get even and become a double weight-class champion, the other looking to extend his legacy by dismissing a fellow stalwart with class.

Can it get any better than this?

ESPN, the Associated Press and every other far-reaching sports media outlet would be foolish to ignore this encounter. But, I’m sure they’ll try their best, maybe throwing a few skinny bones of attention that won’t compare to the meaty coverage they heaped on Oscar De La Hoya’s laughable loss to Manny Pacquiao on Dec. 6.

Drawing lines between MMA and boxing is futile because the latter has been entrenched as mainstream for a century and maintains a devoted fan base. But, the prospects for St. Pierre-Penn II put to shame a duel like De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao – the most recent “super fight” in the boxing world.

It simply served as a stage for Pacquiao to display his unparalleled pugilistic prowess against a has-been. He agreed to a drastic move up in weight and enforced his tenacious style to basically embarrass “The Golden Boy” for an eighth-round TKO.

If St.Pierre-Penn II turns out to be that lopsided, I’ll eat a printed copy of this article.

It’s precisely the kind of pairing that could catapult MMA into the consciousness of the masses – something the UFC wisely seeks to capitalize on with “UFC Prime Time,” a three-part promotional series.

Penn is a proud Hawaiian who seems to have buckled down and realized his opportunity for greatness. He can hype a fight with the best of them, as he proved before dismantling Sean Sherk in May, and his background (the tale about how he became known as “The Prodigy” is pretty entertaining) lends itself well to storytelling.

St. Pierre, meanwhile, is a fighting machine that also happens to be a publicists dream: The French-Canadian is intelligent, good-looking and honorable. In other words, he’s the perfect role model for the sport.

As if the top-shelf ability of the fighters wasn’t enough of a magnet, there also is the intrigue of their 2006 meeting in which GSP won a split decision.

Was it controversial? Not really. “The Prodigy” bloodied St. Pierre’s face in a close first round and attempted one submission in the waning moments of the third. But “Rush” used at-will takedowns to dictate the rest of the non-title welterweight bout and therefore notched the win.

Since then, the two have cemented themselves in the pound-for-pound ratings – Penn with three straight wins at lightweight, GSP with a string of 10 victories in his last 11 at 170 pounds.

This is a rare instance where two men with world-class ability will lock horns for a title in their prime, a scenario that was found often during the heyday of boxing, but hasn’t happened with much frequency yet in MMA.

That is changing. The direction and growth of MMA indicates that fights like this will only grow more commonplace in the future, even while Miletich and Couture continue to fight as living legends.

We’re still just at the tip of the iceberg. But, it’s a pretty cool place to be.