Jon Fitch will enter his fight with B.J. Penn at UFC 127 possessing both a size and strength advantage. Fitch, who wrestled primarily at 184 lbs. in college at Purdue, is a natural welterweight. Penn, on the other hand, is a natural lightweight that is competing in consecutive fights at welterweight for only the second time in his UFC career. Penn will also surrender a four inch height and reach advantage to Fitch. Penn, however, is no stranger to competing against bigger and stronger opponents. He is also no stranger to high level wrestlers with smothering top control. Penn's record while fighting as a welterweight is a pedestrian 3-3, but when including his record in fights above the 170 pound threshold he improves to 5-4. This is important for two reasons:
In his three fights above 170 pounds (2 Middleweight fights and 1 open weight bout), Penn displayed an ability to keep the fight standing against opponents fighting with noticeable advantages in size and weight.
Penn's glaring weakness was in the clinch. This was most obvious in his open weight bout against former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Lyoto Machida, who weighed in at 220 lbs. prior to the fight (Penn weighed in at 191 lbs.). Machida was able to use his size to bully Penn into the corners and against the ropes while attempting takedowns and throwing knees and punches to the body and head. When not clinching, Penn was successful against Machida's counter boxing, but was unable to maintain dominant positions in the grappling exchanges, ultimately costing him the victory.
One of Jon Fitch's favorite ways to initiate the takedown is through the clinch. He prefers to close the distance using his kickboxing and then either force his opponent toward the cage or attempt a single leg takedown. If Fitch's opponent defends against the single leg, he will try to force them into surrendering control of their back in the ensuing scramble. If unsuccessful in gaining back control during the scramble, Fitch again attempts to pressure his opponent against the cage, using the weight of his body and the pace of his attacks and takedown attempts to tire his foe. Once his opponent is on the ground, Fitch employs a smothering style that requires his opponent to expend a significant amount of energy in order to return the fight to a standing position.
B.J. Penn has had issues with his cardio in previous fights, but he has also shown an ability to quickly return to his feet and has been finished in only two of his 24 fights, both in the UFC's welterweight division, and both against wrestlers that used powerful takedowns to wear him down. Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes used their size and strength advantages to gain dominant positions on both the ground and against the cage. Penn's boxing was rendered mostly useless, and while he threatened with submissions off of his back, there was never a time where Penn was close to ending either fight.
Jon Fitch is a strong wrestler that has excellent submission defense. He has said "it's very easy to avoid submissions," elaborating that "It's easy to bunch your shoulders back inside, pulling arms out, getting away from the triangle and armbars." He says a successful defense is followed by "doing damage and controlling top. The bottom guy just takes damage and wears himself out over time." Fitch's grappling approach is not aggressive, however, as his preferred method involves utilizing takedowns to gain top control, drain his opponent's energy and then look for a basic submission like an arm bar, guillotine or rear-naked choke. While effective, this style is neither pretty nor exciting in the eyes of most fans. Prior to UFC 127, Fitch's detractors will likely be saying things like "Jon Fitch is the universal signal for a bathroom break," "Jon Fitch is the MMA equivalent of a Snuggie" or even something as simple as "Jon Fitch cannot finish B.J. Penn".
Deserved or not, Jon Fitch has somehow earned a reputation as someone that fights to win, not to finish. Despite possessing a stellar 13-1 record as a welterweight he has seen his last eight fights end in decision and 10 out of 14 fights in the UFC overall. Fitch's style, while effective, seemingly does not lend itself to finishing fights. Even though four of his first six fights in the UFC ended by TKO or submission, Fitch has not experienced the satisfaction of finishing an opponent since June 12th, 2007. To place that in perspective, in June of 2007, Matt Serra was the UFC Welterweight Champion, current UFC Heavyweight Champion, Cain Velasquez, had not yet made his promotional debut and B.J. Penn was returning to the lightweight division after a four year hiatus. Certainly, the times have changed, and regardless of his ability to finish, so has Jon Fitch.
Since June 12th 2007, Jon Fitch has fought for the UFC Welterweight Championship; posted a 7-1 fighting record, appeared on the television show Mythbusters and gotten married to his longtime girlfriend, Michelle. He has also been temporarily released from the UFC over a contract dispute, fought on the preliminary card of UFC 94 after being in the main event of UFC 87 and earned a reputation as an unexciting fighter, culminating at UFC 117, where Fitch was jeered with chants of "boring" by the crowd in Oakland, California.
Prior to his fight at UFC 117, Jon Fitch was promised a second Welterweight title shot with a victory over Thiago Alves. Fitch notched a decision win against an opponent that came in a half-pound overweight only to see his title shot handed to Jake Shields a mere two months later at UFC 121. Fitch was then scheduled to face Jake Ellenberger at UFC 126 in a fight that would have carried a lot of risk and little reward for Fitch. Fortunately for Fitch, however, he was offered a fight with B.J. Penn in the main event of UFC 127 after Penn expressed a desire to stay in the welterweight division following his first round knockout of Matt Hughes at UFC 123.
Fitch said that he "would be a little perturbed" if Jake Shields received a title shot before him yet he has soldiered on nonetheless, noting that "the title picture never really makes sense anyways, so all I can do is focus on [my next fight]." His next fight is at UFC 127. His opponent is B.J. Penn. Jake Shields will be fighting for the title at UFC 129. This has not deterred Fitch, though, because he realizes the chance with which he has been presented, saying "You've got to beat a legend to become a legend, so this is a great opportunity for that."
At UFC 127, there will be no title shot on the line and no guarantee of a rematch with the current UFC Welterweight Champion, Georges St. Pierre, looming in the distance; no, at UFC 127, there is only victory at stake. A victory for Penn gives him his first ever two fight win streak in the UFC as a Welterweight and places him in contention for a title shot later in the year. A victory for Fitch gives him the biggest win of his career and makes him the clear cut number one contender for the UFC Welterweight Championship. Win or lose, Fitch knows what is at stake, revealing "I had an epiphany about needing to elevate, to evolve my game to another level, to where it convinces everybody out there... that I am undeniably the [top] contender and deserve a title shot."