Pound for Pound – UFC 127

Can the winner of Penn vs. Fitch be a true No. 1 contender?

Chad Dundasby Chad Dundas

You ever see somebody set up one of those huge domino displays? You know, one where there are literally thousands of dominoes laid out in an intricate pattern that takes days and days to rig just right and then – with the flip of a single domino – the whole thing clatters down at once?

I feel like that’s what the UFC is doing with its welterweight division right now. Either that, or the company is running some kind of long con on us all. Whatever you want to call it, there is clearly some very elaborate planning going on here.

When UFC President Dana White announced earlier this month that the winner of Saturday’s UFC 127 main event between BJ Penn and Jon Fitch was going to be the No. 1 contender for the welterweight title, it was clearly part of a much larger strategy. The promotion is obviously betting that by the time either Fitch or Penn gets his shot, Georges St. Pierre will no longer by the 170-pound champ.

GSP is set to take on Jake Shields at the gala UFC 129 event in Toronto in April. If he wins, White would very much like him to vacate the title in order to chase a potential superfight with Anderson Silva at middleweight. This obviously means welterweight would need some new star-power at the top: Enter Penn and/or Fitch. In the unlikely event that St. Pierre loses to Shields? No problem, you can still book the new champion in a future fight against the UFC 127 victor. Either way, you’ve got fresh headlines for 170-pounds.

This is all hearsay, mind you, but the flipside doesn’t make a ton of promotional sense. St. Pierre has already defeated Penn (twice) and Fitch (once, but it wasn’t close) so another bout among that trio would just feel like welterweight class was going into re-run syndication for the next few months. Frankly, nobody wants to see that.

Meanwhile, the idea of a meeting between St. Pierre and Silva – currently considered the world’s top two pound-for-pound fighters – is a promoter’s wet dream. If you have the chance to make that fight, you absolutely do it. GSP seemed initially reluctant to move up in weight, but perhaps imagining all those extra zeroes appearing on his bank account balance changed his mind. Money will do that to a fighter.

The real question here is whether either Fitch or Penn can lay realistic claim to the 170-pound throne, or even potential No. 1 contender status. Despite the fact he’s a former welterweight champion, Penn is just 2-3 in career Octagon appearances in that weight class. To make matters worse, all five of those fights were against two men – St. Pierre and Matt Hughes. So, while Penn remains one of the UFC’s most bankable draws (which is why we’re even having this conversation in the first place) it’s hard to justify him leaping all the way up to No. 1-2 in the world simply by beating Fitch. I’m sure guys like Josh Koscheck or Martin Kampmann might take offense to that.

On the other hand, Fitch has won five straight since his meeting with St. Pierre back at UFC 87. He’s trumped most of the rest of the top contenders and has pretty clearly established himself as one of the division’s best. No, our gripe with Fitch is different. After each of his last eight fights in the UFC went the distance, his wrestling-based fighting style is a pretty tough sell to fans. Does White really want him as champion? Probably not, but short of tinkering with the action in the cage, there’s not much he can do.

So, there you have it. This plan is as good as set: Look for the Penn/Fitch winner coming to an Octagon near you against an as-yet unnamed opponent, with the 170-pound title potentially on the line. Does that sound vague enough for you? No? Well how about this: As anyone who has ever set one up can attest, there’s one other problem with those complex domino displays. All it takes is one domino getting out of place, falling awkwardly, not following the script, and all that careful planning was for nothing.


Chad Dundas writes about MMA for CraveOnline, Versus.com and CagePotato.com. He lives in Missoula, MT.