Jon Fitch Chasing the Grail pt. 2: UFC 127, B.J. Penn & Beyond

Jon Fitch via Sherdog

Continued from Part 1: Falling Just Short

The UFC continued to give Fitch the cold shoulder but that didn't stop AKA's grinding machine from trudging ahead. After a bout with Ricardo Almeida was scrapped due to injury and a rematch with Thiago "The Pitbull" Alves was shelved, Fitch faced Mike Pierce at UFC 107. In what many figured to be an easy fight for Jon Fitch, turned into a nail biter as the stockier Pierce gave Fitch all he could handle. The fight was in a dead heat on the judge's cards and in the third round Pierce caught Fitch with a big hook that temporarily wobbled Fitch but Jon was able to secure a takedown and road out the fight from a dominant position. The loss would have dropped Fitch to the bottom of the Top 10 and unfortunately for Fitch the win didn't move any mountains with the fans or the UFC front offices.

It became apparent in this stretch that Fitch needed to beat Thiago Alves to claim top billing in the division and when the fight was rescheduled for the third time at UFC 111 the table appeared to be set. As fate would have it, the champion Georges St. Pierre was headlining the event against Dan Hardy, a British upstart that appeared to have been ushered to the front of the line past Fitch despite his three straight victories. To pour a bit more salt in the wounds, Alves was once again pulled from the card when doctor's found brain irregularities during his pre-fight check up. In his absence UFC veteran Ben Saunders would step up to the plate and just like 19 fighters before him, "Killa B" was ground down into a decision victory.

In the mean time Fitch did his best to hide his frustrations but it had to be difficult for him to see lower ranked fighters being bumped up to face Georges. St. Pierre. Finally, at UFC 117 in Oakland, Fitch would not only get his shot at Thiago Alves, but UFC President Dana White announced the winner of their matchup would claim the division's number one contender spot. All Jon Fitch needed to do was have an impressive showing against a dynamic striker like Alves and he would finally be given his rematch. Once again misfortune burst onto the scene when Alves, who had struggled with weight cutting in the past, missed the official weight limit for the fight. Rather than take the hour provided to cut the extra few pounds, Alves opted to forfeit his right and was forced to give Fitch a portion of his fight purse. When it came to the actual contest, Alves appeared to be drained of energy and survived three uninspired rounds that saw Fitch employ a flawless game plan. The victory over Alves at UFC 117 put Fitch in the place he had longed to return to but at the post-fight press conference Dana White began to change his tune. Where he had publically stated the winner would get the next shot at the title, White turned non-committal to the earlier proclamation and said the UFC would need to consider the circumstances. White declared there was little excitement in the Fitch vs. Alves matchup and despite it was Alves that missed weight and jeopardized the fight, ultimately it was Fitch who was made to go stand in the corner.

Naturally White's failure to give him the title matchup had to have baffled Fitch but the perennial contender kept his head high. The reason for White's hesitation was the recent signing of former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields and after Fitch's victory over Alves, the UFC boss washed his hands of Fitch's bid and made another public announcement. He declared if Shields was to be successful in his UFC debut again the always dangerous Martin Kampmann it would be Shields who would earn the next title shot.

Shields and Kampmann locked up at UFC 121 and despite a lackluster outing for Shields that saw him fatigued and in trouble on multiple occasions, the Cesar Gracie trained fighter managed to pull out the victory by split-decision. The MMA media waited to see if the poor showing from Shields would be enough for him to go non-committal on his Shields announcement but shortly after Shields defeated Kampmann, White announced he would get the next shot at St. Pierre's title.

To make matters worse for Fitch, rather than give him an opponent in the top five, the UFC announced he would be facing fellow wrestler Jake Ellenberger at UFC 127 in Sydney Australia. It now appeared that Fitch was heading in the exact opposite direction than he should have been traveling but as is so often the case in MMA, things were about to take a drastic turn.

In a bout seemingly unrelated to the welterweight title picture, two MMA legends squared off when B.J. Penn faced Matt Hughes for the third time at UFC 123 in Detroit Michigan. The fight garnered plenty of fan interest but with Penn being on a recent skid and Hughes drawing closer to the end of his career, the bout seemed to be nothing more than a fight the fans wanted to see. Then in a shocking turn Penn knocked Hughes out in 21 seconds not only winning his return to welterweight but at the same time making a loud statement with the UFC brass that he could still get into a title hunt.

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After Penn steamrolled Hughes, the UFC scrapped the Fitch vs. Ellenberger bout and put a proposed matchup between Fitch and Penn on the table. In an instant Fitch went from being a drift in the welterweight division and was pulled into harbor. In facing B.J. Penn, Fitch now has the opportunity to defeat a legend in the sport, one who has proven dangerous at every weight he has competed at. Furthermore, with Penn's reputation for exciting fights, even if Fitch employs his trademark "grind em' out" style, Fitch will still have to overcome Penn's talents to do so.

There is little doubt both fighters have a lot riding on a victory in Sydney, but with both having rubbed UFC President Dana White the wrong way in the past, it is hard to look past the possible repercussions. Penn and White have been all over map when it comes to their relationship and with the tension that arose of details released in Penn's recent book, White didn't seem to mourn B.J. falling off the lightweight mountaintop. Fitch, while not publishing a UFC tell all, has never recovered from the video game incident and with his continued success inside of the octagon White is running short on reasons to keep Fitch out of the number one contender's spot. Simply calling a fighter "boring" is one thing, but to pretend as if Fitch hasn't been dominant in one of the UFC's toughest divisions is another so in booking the Penn vs. Fitch matchup, White will have doused at least one of the fires. A loss for Fitch in Sydney would prove disastrous to his title ambitions and if Penn were to lose then the argument for an early retirement could make its way onto the table. A win on the other hand, gives Fitch the push that he needs but even victory in Sydney could leave Jon a step short of reaching the one thing he wants the most.

This of course all depends on how much stock Fitch puts in White's declaration that the winner will earn the next title shot. It is certainly something Fitch has heard before but even if White is concrete in the main event at UFC 127 being an eliminator match, there is no guarantee Georges St. Pierre will be waiting for him at the top. Since being dismantled at UFC 87, Fitch has been vocal about wanting another shot at St. Pierre and now that he stands at the cusp of achieving this goal, it comes at a time when St. Pierre himself is at a crossroads. With a rumored and highly anticipated "Super Fight" waiting in the wings against Anderson Silva and his upcoming title defense against Jake Shields on the books for UFC 129, there is no telling if GSP will remain in the division long enough for Fitch to get his shot at redemption. While the championship belt has been the primary focus in Jon Fitch's mind for years, to earn gold without having bested Georges St. Pierre would surely taken some of the flavor out of the victory. In fact, the only way a Fitch vs. St. Pierre rematch would even be possible would have to be the result of either a St. Pierre loss to Shields in Toronto or the champion flat out refusing the public outcry to see him face Anderson Silva. Neither of which are likely to happen so the odds of Fitch getting the chance to erase UFC 87 looks slim.

When you examine Jon Fitch's record it's difficult to understand how a fighter who has tasted defeat only once in fourteen fights under the UFC banner has only earned a single title shot. In comparison Kenny Florian, who has logged 15 UFC fights has fought for the title on two occasions and lost to Gray Maynard in an eliminator bout that would have earned him a third attempt. To further the comparison when examining the similarities of the two divisions both have been reigned over by long time champions and both are considered to be two of the most competitive in MMA. While Florian's losses prompted negative criticism from Dana White in regards to "KenFlo's" inability to perform in big fights, the only brushback Fitch has received has come in the style in which he wins big fights. Even if he does defeat B.J. Penn next weekend in Sydney it will be interesting to see if the UFC is ready to give Fitch the opportunity he has been fighting to obtain.

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