Former UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn (16-7-1, 12-6-1 UFC) hopes to continue his success in the UFC's welterweight ranks as he battles former UFC welterweight contender Jon Fitch (23-3-0-1, 13-1 UFC) in a main event showdown that could determine the #1 contender to Georges St. Pierre's title. Penn's impressive twenty-one second knockout of Matt Hughes at UFC 123 in November has added considerable hype around a second chance at battling St. Pierre, despite their second encounter at UFC 94 being one-sided in favor of St. Pierre. Many fans believe the match-up is a way in which Dana White can propel a much more fan-friendly fighter in Penn into another huge pay-per-view selling super fight with the champion.
Fitch has remained surprisingly patient in his ascension back up the ranks since losing to St. Pierre back in August of 2008. Victories over Akhiro Gono, Paulo Thiago, Mike Pierce, Ben Saunders, and Thiago Alves solidify his stance as the consensus #1 contender already, but Fitch's inability to finish any of those opponents has left Dana White and company continually searching for other contenders. With Josh Koscheck out of the title picture, his teammate controls his fate with an emphatic performance on Saturday night.
There are two angles to consider when comparing Penn and Fitch. First and foremost, Fitch has historically been a slow starter. Both Chris Wilson and Roan Carneiro took advantage of Fitch's inability to come out strong by taking opening rounds from Fitch. In more recent fights, it hasn't been evident, but the idea that Fitch can drub Penn from the opening bell is a theory that isn't popular with fans.
Penn is a proven quick starter, although he tends to pace himself in five-round fights against considerably tougher opponents. We have no idea how Penn views this fight, but a three-round fight against a premier wrestler would convey the idea that Penn wants to start strong and win the first two rounds definitively.
Fitch's change in his diet, while not overly important at a glance, has a bit more meaning when we scrutinize how it can affect his performance. Luke Thomas spoke with Kenny Florian about this weekend's match-ups, and he brought up the point that there is some concern in Fitch's weight for this fight:
There's another x-factor Florian shares that changes the dynamic of the fight considerably: Fitch's size. Normally a monstrous welterweight, Fitch's dietary changes have had some profound effects on his stature. "I know you mentioned him walking around at 200lbs, that is definitely the case. However, I just was with him at the last UFC in Vegas [UFC 126] he's actually walking around at 176lbs," Florian stated. "He's a vegan now. He's 100 percent vegan. He's changed his whole lifestlye. And the first thing I said to him 'Man, you're looking pretty darn skinny' and he said, 'yeah, I'm a vegan now and I'm 176lbs right now'. That is actually I hear maybe even a concern with people in his own camp."
Penn won't need to deal with a bulky Jon Fitch in this fight. The weight advantage is out the door for the most part, and that may affect Fitch's ability to control Penn on the ground from the opening bell. As Florian states earlier in the interview, Penn's ability to come out hard with precision and power is a concern for Fitch. Normally, the weight advantage along with Fitch's wrestling prowess would act as a means to nullifying Penn's striking prowess. That may be a much harder proposition for Fitch with the lower base weight.
I won't discount the advantages however. Fitch will likely have more gas in his tank, and he'll be a speedier version of his former self. In my opinion however, it hurts his chances at controlling Penn from the top in this fight, and I think Fitch will have trouble shooting through Penn's takedown defense and imposing his will early.
If that's the case, an aggressive B.J. Penn who comes out quickly and works his overhand will win this fight. Fitch's historically bad starts aren't always the case, but he can't afford to have one of those in this fight. A new diet could help Fitch. It could also bring about new problems that Fitch hasn't encountered before. With those two significant questions, I have to go with what I know. B.J. Penn can absolutely wreck wrestlers in three-round affairs, especially if they aren't carrying around a ton of added weight after the weigh-ins. I'll take Penn via TKO.