Photo by Tracy Lee for Yahoo! Sports
Heading into Saturday night's card at UFC 127 there were supposed to be a lot of questions answered in regards to the welterweight and lightweight divisional pictures but we may have gotten more questions than answers. UFC President Dana White christened the main event as the official number one contender eliminator between Jon Fitch and B.J Penn in addition to future title shot talk for Australian George Sotiropoulos and the resurgent veteran Chris Lytle. The table was set for Sotiropoulos and Lytle to make their argument for contention and even though Jon Fitch had heard the number one contender talk before, he now had his chance to nail it down. As for former two-divisional champion B.J. Penn, the UFC was giving him a chance to get back to a potential third bout with Georges St. Pierre, a fight he has been asking for since St. Pierre dismantled him at UFC 94. This card was supposed to determine a lot of things but as it turns out left the divisional pictures hazier than before.
UFC veteran Chris Lytle has danced with contention once before in his career and since his loss to Matt Serra in the TUF 4 Finale has been on a mission to get the title shot he felt eluded him since losing the decision in the finale. His bout at UFC 127 was supposed to be a big step in that direction but when his original opponent Carlos Condit withdrew two weeks out from fight night, things took a turn for the strange. When the UFC announced Lytle's replacement would be MMA veteran Brian Ebersole, there wasn't much thought to this bout being anything but a side step for Lytle and the UFC keeping the bout on the card. Ebersole came into the fight having 60 plus matches under his belt but had never put together enough of a serious run for the UFC to come calling until the organization came to Australia, the place Ebersole now calls home. The eccentric Ebersole entered the ring with customized chest hair and from the opening bell took a wild approach as he unleashed a failed cartwheel kick. Lytle stalked Ebersole for the entire first round and after each crushing body shot, Ebersole would shrug, laugh or display a quirky expression. After the first round Lytle looked a bit confused by what he was up against and when action got under way in the second round, it seemed the trend would continue. Lytle once again pushed the action in the second but near the midway point in the round, Ebersole caught Lytle with a vicious knee to the chin after bouncing the Indianapolis native off of the cage. Lytle's eyes rolled back and he dropped like a sack of bricks but the resilient and famously hard to finish Lytle snapped back to his senses and held on to survive the round. The final frame saw an exhausted Lytle unable to mount any serious offense and Ebersole snatched a big victory in his octagon debut.
While the loss is definitely an upset, it comes at the worst possible time for Lytle who was looking to make a run at the welterweight title. Despite coming into the fight as the winner of 4 straight, the only significant victory in that streak came against Matt Serra at UFC 119. Even though Serra is a former champion, he was out of the Top 10 when Lytle beat him in Indianapolis and that put Lytle in a strange position coming into UFC 127. When his opponent was Condit, the fight stood to make up some tremendous ground for Lytle as Condit is widely considered to be a Top 10 (SB Nation/USA Today #6) welterweight. If Lytle could have found victory over Condit in Sydney it would have given him a strong argument for contention and even if it wasn't the number one contender's position it would have at least fetched his next opponent from the top of the pile. The loss to Ebersole at UFC 127 will definitely knock Lytle back down the ladder but how far he falls will remain to be seen. At a late stage of his career the odds of Lytle working his way back up to where he stood before Saturday night will be difficult as a future title shot stretches even further out on the horizon.
The next bout on the card that was meant to determine a future contender came in the lightweight division as the red hot George Sotiropoulos took on German powerhouse Dennis Siver. When the fight was originally announced it didn't seem to garner too much excitement and seemed little more than a stepping stone for Sotiropoulos to get to the top. When the fight got underway it was clear Siver had different plans as he stuffed George's takedowns at every turn. The fight remaining on the feet put Sotiropoulos at a distinct disadvantage and when Siver started to land it immediately took a toll. Midway through the first Siver dropped Sotiropoulos on two occasions and it was a surprise that Sotiropoulos survived the round. While the second and third round wouldn't see George hit the deck again, Siver's preparation and game plan where too much for Sotiropoulos to overcome. He was never able to get Siver to the ground and despite finding decent success with his boxing, Siver continued to land the bigger shots and stuff George's takedowns with ease. When the fight went to the judge's cards it was all Siver and while he will need a few more victories to get to the top, Sotiropoulos's climb was definitely derailed.
Over the past year the UFC lightweight division has become one of the most competitive in the sport without a doubt. Since Frankie Edgar dethroned B.J. Penn and then doubled down in Boston, the top positions in the weight class have been a free for all. Sotiropoulos was making excellent ground with big wins over Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino but losing to Siver, an opponent who is not ranked in SB Nation/USA Today Top 25, certainly puts that run on ice. With Edgar and Maynard set to mix it up a third time and Clay Guida and Anthony Pettis scheduled to dance, the top of the division is firing on all cylinders and a win over Siver at UFC 127 would have put Sotiropoulos square in the middle of that heat. The loss in Sydney will shuck Sotiropoulos out of the immediate picture but how he fairs in his next bout will ultimately determine if he has a realistic shot at making it back towards the top.
The final "decider" on the card came during the main event between former two-divisional champion B.J. "The Prodigy" Penn and perennial contender Jon Fitch. Originally Fitch was slated to face fellow wrestling standout Jake Ellenberger but after Penn obliterated UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes at UFC 123, the UFC brass saw their chance to make an excellent fight. Fitch had hovered around the top of the division since bouncing back from his only loss and only title shot against Georges St. Pierre and Penn was supposedly reinvigorated after making a successful return to 170 lbs. UFC President Dana White declared the winner of the bout would stake claim as the next opponent for the winner of St. Pierre vs. Shields and the table was set to either see Penn ascend back to the top or Fitch to finally get his rematch.
Any time B.J. Penn fights there is always the question of which Penn will show and Saturday night saw a game B.J. Penn take it right to Jon Fitch. Rather than try to outbox Fitch as Penn has done with his past several opponents, B.J. hurried across the cage and shot straight in for the takedown. The attack caught Fitch off guard and despite being the smaller fighter, Penn was successful in putting Fitch on the canvas. B.J. worked a strong ground game as he took Fitch's back and controlled Fitch throughout the first round in route to taking the opening frame on the cards.
The second round saw Fitch high kick lead Penn to attempt a flying knee that allowed Fitch to score his first takedown of the fight. Fitch wasn't able to keep Penn down and when they returned to the feet another clinch ensued. He was once again able to score a takedown on Fitch and in a slick transition took Fitch's back. Unfortunately for Penn he wasn't able to keep Fitch from reversing position and Fitch turned into the body lock and took the top. From top position Fitch settled into his trademark attack as he ground away at Penn with punches and elbows. As the bell ended the second round it was too close to call and Fitch's corner let him know that he needed to let it loose in the third as it was anyone's fight.
That is exactly what Fitch did to open the third as he rocked Penn with a big right hand and took the former champion to the canvas. While Penn looked as if he was going to be able to create space at times, Fitch in his comfort zone is a difficult wall to scale. Fitch kept Penn on his back for the entire round as he battered and bashed Penn until the final bell sounded. When the judge's cards were read one judge scored the bout in Fitch's favor while the other two judges saw the fight as a draw leading Bruce Buffer to announce the bout had ended in a majority draw. Fitch immediately looked dejected as did Penn, but for a different reason. In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan Penn stated he felt he had lost the bout. Penn went on to state that before the fight he wasn't sure what a loss in Sydney would do to his career but if the UFC wanted him to do it again he would be open to it. Fitch, who also said he would be open to a rematch, looked past the majority draw and worked for a title shot. Even with Rogan informing him a draw in the fight would be a tough title bout to sell, Fitch side stepped the issue and that if his proven track record wasn't enough to earn him a title shot then he didn't know what would be and this may not necessarily be the case.
Fitch has lost only one fight out of 15 appearances (127 included) in the UFC. With that being said, his inability to put away opponents and the fans rejection of his slow, grinding style has kept him on the outskirts of being a major draw. While there is zero doubt that Fitch is one of the best in the world at 170 lbs. he needed a strong performance against Penn to earn the nod. On another note, the argument can be made that simply defeating a fighter of Penn's caliber should have been enough and while Fitch and Penn both felt Jon won the fight, two out of three judges saw otherwise. An immediate rematch is already being considered but in all reality, the outcome of St. Pierre vs. Shields at UFC 129 will most likely hold the missing piece to the puzzle. Dana White has already set his sights on a super fight between middleweight king Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre and if GSP bests Shields in Toronto that will leave a vacancy atop the welterweight division. If St. Pierre is successful there is a possibility that a Fitch vs. Penn rematch could be for the vacant welterweight title and if this did turn out to be the case the rematch would be a five round affair.
How B.J. Penn handles what went down Saturday night will also hold a large piece of the puzzle as well. While "The Prodigy" had a strong first round and a solid second, he was dominated in the third frame and ultimately felt that he lost the fight. Penn has a history of suspect motivations and this has lead to some terrible performances in his career. After losing his lightweight title in a close fight to Edgar at UFC 112 Penn said he was pumped up and ready to take Edgar's head off, but when it came fight night it was obvious that Penn had taken his preparation for Edgar lightly. As a result he was drubbed for the entire five rounds which lead his vacation from the division entirely. Then again there is always the chance that Penn would get seriously motivated for a rematch as he did against St. Pierre, but what happened on that night showed signs that Penn can break when he knows he's up against someone who is truly better. It is my humble opinion but flashes of that B.J. Penn were seen on Saturday night in Sydney as he took a beating from Jon Fitch in the third round. Fitch had Penn against the fence and was peppering him with short punches and elbows and when the final bell sounded Penn looked like a defeated man. This dejection carried over into the post-fight interview and where Penn could have been happy with two solid rounds and a rough third but instead his head hung heavy as he admitted defeat.
After the card ended the UFC cameras showed Penn walking back to his dressing room with a hollow expression and this is where I believe the story is told. While it's possible he was simply upset with how the judge's cards played out it is also entirely within reason he realized that time has started to pass him by. There is little doubt that he can still give a hard night's work for any fighter in the cage and knockout the likes of Matt Hughes...but a younger, hungrier fighter like Jon Fitch was and from here on out will be, too much for him to handle. Then again I could be wrong...I guess it just depends on which B.J. Penn shows up.