UFC 127 kicks off Saturday night in Sydney, Australia, headlined by the compelling B.J. Penn versus Jon Fitch match-up. The two fighters could not be more opposite.
Penn earned his nickname by becoming the first non-Brazilian black belt to win a BJJ world title. He's confident, talks a big game, takes risks and fights with flare and electricity. Fitch's roots are from wrestling; he spent four years on the team and eventually became the captain of Purdue's squad. He's humble, unassuming, fights strategically and usually buries his opponents by decision with takedowns and top control.
Penn may be the most wildly unpredictable fighter in the game. Fitch might be the most consistent and reliable.
What they do have in common is that they're two of the best fighters in the world at 170 pounds, both have tasted the pain of losing to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, and whoever emerges victorious on Saturday night will be deemed the division's #1 contender.
Free Phase / Striking
It's taken the world many years to realize that Penn's phenomenal accomplishments in sport grappling only camouflaged his true, cardinal advantage in MMA: brawling. It doesn't mean he's not technical, or methodical, or cerebral. It means he wins fights when he throws caution to the wind and goes balls-out like a well trained street-fighter. Every one of his top career wins and the fights that put him on a lofty pedestal came in this manner: Din Thomas, Caol Uno (1), Takanori Gomi, Matt Hughes (1 and 3), Jens Pulver (2), Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson, and Kenny Florian.
Though his 16-7 record boasts 6 submissions wins, almost every one came after Penn clobbered his opponent and facilitated the tapout with his cinder block fists, both standing and with fierce ground-and-pound. Esteemed boxing trainer Freddie Roach credited Penn as "one of the best strikers I've ever worked with."
Penn's last three fights prove this: he stormed out of his corner and almost immediately flattened Matt Hughes at UFC 123, but previously assumed the role of a tactical boxer in consecutive lightweight losses to Frankie Edgar, whose quickness, inimitable footwork, and clever angles were unstoppable. Coincidentally, these same areas where Edgar thrived will be Penn's best weapon against Fitch. If he stays fairly flat-footed and plods straight forward, the surprisingly nimble Fitch will score a takedown, so a balance of his power and aggression with his footwork and movement when attacking will be the key for Penn standing.
Jon Fitch has made significant strides with his hands. Incrementally, his stance has gotten tighter, his punches more crisp, his chin better tucked. His footwork has improved both with his boxing and to set-up his takedowns, such as he showed when repeatedly closing range and either clinching or shooting on long striker Ben Saunders. Fitch is not exempt from dropping his hands during combinations; a mistake GSP and Mike Pierce were able to capitalize on with counters.
Fitch has gone an incredible 13-1 in the Octagon, with St. Pierre handing him his only loss. At 20-3 overall, he's also dominated outside the UFC except when Mike Pyle latched a sub in his first pro-fight and ATT slugger Wilson Gouveia caught him with a brutal knee in his fourth. For Fitch, the stand-up game should consist of measuring Penn's pace and how he closes the distance while avoiding punishment, then looking for a way to ensnare B.J. in the clinch or by timing a double-leg from outside.
The clinch will be Fitch's doorway to exploiting his strength, where only the great GSP was able to out-maneuver him. The AKA product is a master of containing and manipulating his opponents when he ties them up, where he defends well with a shielded stance and distracts with strikes before taking it to the ground. He's got a beastly set of double-underhooks that are difficult to fend off and usually lead to the undoing of his adversary, who soon finds himself on his back via a body lock, trip, or conventional takedown.
He excels with upper-body Greco Roman skills as well as freestyle wrestling techniques, and usually it's "the beginning of the end" if Fitch can get ahold of someone. It's interesting to note that, in addition to GSP, Fitch has been taken down before, even by Wilson Gouveia early in his career when pure wrestling accounted for almost all of his combat experience.
Not known for his takedowns, I would say that Penn has under-rated wrestling (mostly due to his quickness and dexterity) and could surprise Fitch with a takedown attempt if it's timed and set up properly. Generally, B.J.'s offensive approach in the clinch is usually to go high and grab the Thai plum while dirty boxing or throwing knees. However, knowing Fitch's biggest strength, I expect to see the rubber-limbed Penn hopping around the octagon on one leg -- Fitch firmly secured to the other -- while trying to hammer uppercuts and keep his balance.
Though an amazing athletic feat, MMA judges don't appreciate nor score takedown defense accordingly. Therefore, in these stalemate scenarios, the aggression of Fitch's attempt will shift the momentum in his favor, even if Penn defends soundly while landing strikes in response. I don't think Penn has the strength or style to pummel under and repel Fitch, so I expect him to avoid the clinch at all costs (see: footwork importance) and stick to his usual game-plan of using the cage and his flexibility to punch his way loose.
If he loses his composure, gets sloppy, or becomes desperate, Penn could end the fight in the clinch, but on paper Fitch gets the nod here.
Ground / Grappling
It's pretty scary when a wrestling-based fighter's best chance to win is inside the guard of a world champion submission fighter whose had a black belt for over a decade. Notwithstanding, Fitch's top-game prowess and nearly bulletproof submission defense are what earned him his own black belt in Dave Camarillo's "Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu". This is also where cardio will play a critical role, as Fitch's smothering and calculated striking will slowly drain Penn's energy level, as we saw the venerable St. Pierre and Matt Hughes do.
The fans hate this strategy, but don't worry Jon ... they'll turn on you and any other fighter who loses, and though excitement is great, winning is what matters. This is Fitch's realm. This is where he's at his best and his goals are simple: avoid sweeps and subs, maintain and (sometimes) improve position while smattering with ground-and-pound. Once he's there, becoming the human blender is his forte -- it's getting there that's complicated.
Despite Penn's accolades with the gi, in MMA, he hasn't proven to be the insta-submission monster everyone expected. He has shown slick transitions and smooth sweeps, usually alternating back and forth from butterfly to the rubber guard. When he's on top, he has proven to be on another level. Here, Penn relies on his grappling acumen to pin his opponent unfavorably and find the most dominant perch from which to drop earth-leveling punches.
Again, I would give Fitch a slight advantage here, but the catch is that he's in much more danger on his back if Penn can reverse or sweep.
I've been as unbiased as I possibly can so far with my results coinciding with Fitch's slight edge on the betting lines.
However, the reason I'm writing this column is because of the passion MMA inspires. I don't watch the sport or write about it with an emotionless, "just the facts ma'am" visage. I'm on the edge of my seat, waiting for the unexpected to happen; for the curve-balls we know are going to be thrown at us.
If you're looking for the safe bet, Jon Fitch's intelligence, team, strengths on paper, and consistency is the way to go. B.J. Penn has always been an extraordinary (not flawless) athlete, and each time he's fallen, he's bounced back a better fighter. Though I gave Fitch the slight nod in two of the three phases of combat, Penn is more well-rounded, seems to have the fire back in his eyes, and is capable of pulling off the upset. A mere three fights back, Penn was considered an invincible god at lightweight, and once was a welterweight champion. How quickly we forget.
My prediction: Penn by TKO