Whether B.J. Penn wins or loses the main event bout of UFC 127, the former lightweight kingpin will still be a lightning rod for compelling fights and consideration as a contender. Jon Fitch, on the other hand, has no such guarantee – or does he? (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Dana White and the UFC have never had a problem quite like Jon Fitch. Despite five straight victories, an impressive 13 wins in the UFC overall, and a reputation as one of the sport's pound-for-pound elite fighters, Fitch is nonetheless considered an instant excuse for a bathroom break for the PPV audience. For most casual fans, watching him fight is less exciting than watching paint dry. Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks generate more fireworks than a typical Jon Fitch fight. And so far, every fighter not named Georges St-Pierre has had almost no answer for the smothering ground game of the American Kickboxing Academy star.
But, regardless of the perceived boredom, Jon Fitch meets the only criteria that really matters in MMA – wins, wins, and more wins against elite opponents.
B.J. Penn, on the other hand, has quite the opposite problem. Despite a lackluster 16-7-1 record that underscores his raw natural talent, Penn is a PPV draw and a consistent fan favorite in many of his bouts. People flock to Penn's fights to witness his lethal hands, brilliant Jiu-Jitsu, and iron chin. Dana White and Joe Silva could schedule a fight between Penn and a pack of fourth graders and it would still sell over 500,000 PPV buys. Simply put, B.J. Penn is an exciting fighter, win or lose.
If Jon Fitch beats B.J. Penn, it will undoubtedly be considered his biggest victory to date, regardless of how long (or tepid) the fight runs. But will a win at UFC 127 finally get Fitch a second crack at Georges St-Pierre? And let's ask the bigger question – what happens if B.J. Penn defeats the world's Number 2 welterweight?
Strangely enough, it's possible neither man will get another shot at GSP. Dana White's reluctance to headline with Jon Fitch in the Octagon is a long and sordid history of "giveth and taketh away," and to be honest, Fitch hasn't shown the drastic improvement in skills that would suggest he'd have anything different to show GSP in a second fight. Despite winning six of his last seven matches, Fitch hasn't suddenly shown anything in the vein of knock-out power, flashy judo, or sneaky submissions. Instead, it's more of the same consistent (yet effective) grinding punishment that quelled the likes of Paulo Thiago, Ben Saunders, and Mike Pierce.
And in a way, that lack of development can be said of B.J. Penn.
B.J. Penn gave GSP a sound thrashing in a spirited loss the first time the two met in the Octagon, but UFC 94 was a different story. GSP battered, bruised, and bullied Penn from bell to bell after the first round, and it still remains the most methodical beating that "The Prodigy" has ever lived through. Since then, GSP has been on a dominant 9-1 run in the welterweight division, while Penn has gone a middling 2-3 over the same span of time. Granted, most of the damage to Penn's credibility is a direct result of Frankie Edgar's "hummingbird-on-crack" boxing and the two loses that they caused. But ultimately, B.J. Penn's game hasn't consistently stayed at the level that we've seen from victories over Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Sean Sherk.
As it stands, neither Penn nor Fitch have any guarantee of a rematch with GSP, and there's no reason to expect that the winner of UFC 127's main event will do anything more than wait for "Rush" to begin his ascent to the middleweight division. And that just sucks. Regardless of what happened in their last fights with GSP, those rematches are still fights that should be made, and Jon Fitch was a better candidate for that even before his UFC 127 match with Penn was made official.
After all, Georges St-Pierre said it best himself:
"It's never the same competitor. It's never the same guy. (Fitch) isn't the same guy he was when I fought him the first time. He's a much, much better [fighter]. And I'm not the same fighter I was when I fought him the first time."
At the very least, GSP recognizes that Jon Fitch has earned another shot at his belt, and may even have a new surprise or two up his sleeve. At the very worst, another GSP/Fitch fight would be another 25-minute study in how much punishment the human body can take. And at the very best, it could provide St-Pierre with his last fitting challenge in the UFC's welterweight division.
If B.J. Penn wins this next match, I could see him getting passed up for another match with GSP, considering how soundly he got beat the second time at UFC 94. But if Fitch comes out on top against the Prodigy and still doesn't get his second chance at avenging his only loss in almost eight years – that's the textbook definition of robbery. Sure, Jon Fitch bores the casual fans to death. Sure, Fitch looked like a spousal abuse victim after his first run-in with GSP. Even conceding those facts, it's my sincere hope that Dana White and Joe Silva will grant Jon Fitch the title fight that he deserves against the opponent that he wants, regardless of how much camera time Fitch's sponsors get from the back of his shorts at UFC 127.
[McKinley Noble is an MMA fan who got into the sport during the first season of Ultimate Fighter. When not watching MMA, he's usually playing weird video games like Kingdom Hearts and Harvest Moon. McKinley can be easily stalked on Google, but most people can talk to him over at his Twitter profile.]