Few combine greatness and inconsistency as readily as B.J. Penn (left). | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The UFC returns to the land Down Under this Saturday at the Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia, as former two-division champion B.J. Penn and perennial welterweight contender Jon Fitch headline an event with solid matchups and plenty of local talent.
Former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight titleholder Carlos Condit’s injury gives Brian Ebersole a shot at Chris Lytle, so Penn-Fitch becomes even more relevant in terms of credibility at 170 pounds. There are serious stakes in play in the welterweight division, especially with talk of champion Georges St. Pierre leaving should he successfully defend his crown against Jake Shields in April.
Throw in Michael Bisping’s bout against Jorge Rivera in the co-main event and the George Sotiropoulos-Dennis Siver lightweight contender eliminator, and we are off to the races at UFC 127 “Penn vs. Fitch.”
B.J. Penn vs. Jon Fitch
The Matchup: Greatness and inconsistency make for unpredictable stories, and, in MMA, nobody combines those two traits as readily as Penn. After a lightweight reign with three one-sided defenses, it seemed that the Hawaiian-born battler had put his penchant for flat performances comfortably behind him and channeled his dazzling potential for a long run at the top. He was an 8-to-1 favorite going into his first bout against Frankie Edgar at UFC 112 and lost by a close decision. In the UFC 118 rematch, however, Penn looked terribly uninspired, as he was taken down and outhustled, only to pop up immediately for more abuse.
Three months later, “The Prodigy” resurrected his career instantly with a 21-second knockout of rival Matt Hughes at UFC 123. Is the old Penn back, or was his showing against Hughes merely a deceptive blip in the larger scheme of things? Whatever the case, we will almost certainly find the answer here, because there are no question marks with Fitch.
On many levels, he represents Penn’s polar opposite -- a modest athletic talent that works insanely hard to wrest every ounce out of his ability, the master of preparation and strategy who plies his advantages to neutralize his self-realized weaknesses. There is never a question about whether or not Fitch is mentally ready to bring his “A” game into a fight. Fitch never keeps a fight standing longer than he has to, using that element of the game merely to create openings to take opponents down and put them into his world.
It is a brand of stylistic humility that makes for a better fighter, if not always satisfying to fickle fans who want blood when competent tactics would otherwise suffice.
If there is a top question on the list of things one would want to ask about Penn, it is why he waited until the middle of his second fight against Edgar to even try a decent takedown. Landing it easily, he punished Edgar with good shots and then inexplicably fell back into his stand-around mode. He was outworked the rest of the bout. While there are better pure wrestlers than Penn in the lightweight division, he is as strong in MMA-oriented wrestling as any of them, and his marvelous takedown defense and athleticism have no equal in the game. In short, Penn’s lightweight days were defined by him being able to do what he wanted to do, until someone would not let him.
At welterweight, Fitch will aim to do just that, and he is a lot bigger and stronger than Edgar, to boot. Because of Penn’s mentality, expect this to elicit a stronger response than Edgar did; Fitch will come to overpower him, not out-speed him -- a key stylistic difference that will force Penn to fight much harder than he did in the Edgar rematch.
While the second Edgar bout will probably go down as the worst performance of Penn’s career, this fight does not figure to resemble that on, because the Hawaiian’s standup is stout enough to give Fitch problems. Fitch will not enter the cage and attempt to zip in and out to land speedy combinations and work for a decision. He will look to force clinches, work for takedowns and empty Penn’s gas tank in the process.
Because of those tactics, Fitch will be in the most danger while in the pocket trying to close the gap with Penn. If he can create clinches and tie-ups, he can stick Penn on the cage and wear him down, just as St. Pierre did. Fitch may not be flashy in these types of sequences, but he is exceptional at forcing the other guy to burn energy while constantly pushing for a dominant position.
Penn is the type of guy whose ego clicks on in certain fights he is losing, only to remain in the off position in others. If he is taking a thumping, he will come alive. Since Edgar never really hurt him, he did not seem to have that fire. Fitch will force him to respond, and this could become a real firefight. Look for Fitch to take a heavy shot or two in the first round before eventually securing a tie-up. Once there, he will force Penn to work in a long sequence and then rally back by creating space and trying to land a fight-changing haymaker.
The Pick: Fitch is exceptionally durable and should be able to secure a takedown or two by the second round. A key factor in this fight could be the referee and how he or she interprets the work rate of both guys on the ground. It is in Fitch’s interest to stay active in Penn’s guard -- a dangerous proposition given the Hawaiian’s incredible ability to hit sweeps and submissions. Still, that is precisely how Fitch wins fights. Penn will give away a dozen or so pounds at fight time, as well, and, by the third round, Fitch will simply be too much for him to handle, grinding down the former two-division champion en route to a decision win or late stoppage.
Continue Reading » Next Fight: Bisping vs. Rivera