A very busy stretch of top mixed martial arts bouts kicks off on Saturday night when the UFC 127 returns to Sydney, Australia, for the second time for a main card headlined by a 170-pound showdown between former two-division champion B.J. Penn and welterweight contender Jon Fitch. While the card is Sunday afternoon Down Under, it's a Saturday night pay-per-view main card because of the time difference in North America.
While neither Penn nor Fitch is looking past Saturday's bout, a rematch for the winner could be in the offering against welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who some believe is the pound-for-pound king of the sport.
Fitch (23-3) lost to St. Pierre in a five-round unanimous decision at UFC 87 in August 2008. Since then, he has won unanimous decisions over Thiago Alves, Ben Saunders, Mike Pierce, Paulo Thiago and Akihiro Gono – Fitch was the betting favorite in all five. His last bout was the Alves victory at UFC 117 last August. Fitch's past eight fights have gone to the judges.
Penn (16-7-1) has lost twice to St. Pierre, the last time coming via a corner stoppage in the fourth round of their bout at UFC 94 in January 2009. Penn won twice following that bout, over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, but Penn's career appeared in some jeopardy after the then lost back-to-back bouts with Frankie Edgar. But then Penn bounced back in a big way, crushing Matt Hughes in just 21 seconds at UFC 123 in November. "The Prodigy" knocked Hughes flat onto his back with a right cross, then unleashed a flurry of shots to his head that led to their fight being stopped. Penn had considered walking away from MMA after those losses to Edgar, but UFC president Dana White offered a chance at redemption in a third bout with Hughes. In fact, originally Fitch was to fight Jake Ellenberger but the switch was made to Penn after the Hughes destruction revitalized Penn's stock in the division.
Ironically, Penn brought in Hughes to prepare for this fight with Fitch. Penn said Hughes brought similar strengths that Fitch will on Saturday. Fitch, especially, should test Penn's conditioning and acclaimed takedown defense and Hughes was an All-American wrestler in college. Fitch, also a collegiate wrestler, has not been finished in a fight since late 2002 and will hold nearly every physical advantage: He is three inches taller and enjoys a four-inch reach advantage.
"I know he isn't exactly like Fitch as far as height and boxing and kickboxing goes," Penn said to reporters. "But on the one area where Fitch definitely pushes all his opponents is grinding them out, pushing them on the fence and taking them down. Matt really pushed me in those areas so I gained a lot of confidence working with Matt."
Fitch opened this bout as the -175 favorite at Bodog but early heavy action on him has pushed that number to a current -200. Penn opened at +145 and now is +160. We are seeing two-sided action on both right now but are a bit exposed on Fitch at the opening number. Fitch is 7-0 in the UFC when he is the betting favorite. He is also 5-0 when fighting outside the U.S. Penn is an underdog for the first time since that second loss to St. Pierre when Penn went off at +135. He is 0-2 in his career as a betting underdog at Bodog’s Sportsbook.
The winner of Saturday's bout will be named the No. 1 contender in the welterweight division, but that might not mean an automatic shot at St. Pierre. If he beats Jake Shields at UFC 129 in Toronto on April 30, it's expected that St. Pierre (currently 575 against Shields on Bodog) will move up to 185 pounds for a mega-bout with middleweight champion Anderson Silva.