The UFC 127 main event between B.J. Penn and Jon Fitch, which takes place Saturday night U.S. time in Sydney, Australia, is a living embodiment of a story we were all told as kids, the one about the race between the tortoise and the hare.
Both men are about the same age, Fitch turned 33 on Thursday while Penn is 32. Both are veterans of the sport.
Penn, the hare, is someone likely to be regarded as a legendary fighter after he hangs it up. Penn has been in main events since his few months in the sport, and is one of MMA's most popular fighters.
Fitch (23-3, 1 no-contest), who has the better record of the two, hasn't had those same opportunities, and has nowhere near Penn's name recognition or popularity. But Fitch is the one who seems to always get his hand raised at the end of a fight, and is a 2-to-1 favorite, making Penn the biggest underdog for a match in his UFC career.
Dave Camarillo, who coached both men in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at different points and awarded Fitch his black belt a few years ago, used a different term for this match: talent vs. heart. Camarillo refers to Fitch as the heart, an overachiever in sports from high school on.
Fitch was a walk-on college wrestler at Purdue and became team captain. He struggled for years in the fight game, and even consistently winning didn't make him a star. It took him three years to get into UFC, and six before his first main event. He has no off-the-charts great singular skills in MMA, except his ability to win.
Penn (16-7-1), on the other hand, is the only person in the sport who, despite holding world championships in two different weight classes, some would classify as an underachiever.
"The Prodigy" was the first non-Brazilian to win the world jiu-jitsu championships in the black-belt division, and did so just weeks after being awarded his black belt in 2000. Top fighters across the board raved about Penn's abilities. Everyone who trained with him, or saw him train, were saying that he could beat anyone his size or significantly bigger, even though he had never fought.
Those stories landed him one of the biggest contracts in the UFC at the time, with numbers that blew away anything smaller fighters were earning, all before he had his first pro fight.
By his fourth pro fight, just seven months after his debut, Penn already had a championship match, which he lost via close decision to then-UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver, a fighter that nobody considered at the time, and even less now, in Penn's league.
During Penn's career, he's had 11 championship matches, two world titles, and headlined 16 shows around the world for a variety of companies.
Unless he was challenging a fighter much larger than himself like Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes or Lyoto Machida, Penn went into every career fight as the favorite. He was good at every facet of the game – one of the sport's best boxers, someone extremely difficult to take down, and an absolute master on the ground. As recently as a year ago, many couldn't even imagine that anyone of his size could possibly beat him.
Of course, that wasn't the case, as a smaller Frankie Edgar beat him twice last year in championship matches.
Unlike most who want to remain relevant in the title picture but have blown their shot at the current champion and move down in weight, Penn, who wasn't even a large lightweight, moved up to welterweight. And why not? In 2004, he ran through Hughes and choked him out to win the welterweight title. And in his first match back in the division, on Nov. 10 in Auburn Hills, Mich., he knocked out Hughes in 21 seconds to claim victory in their trilogy.
In training for Fitch, Penn has brought in some new people, including Hughes, to work on his take-down defense and Floyd Mayweather Sr. to sharpen his boxing game.
"I texted Matt a few times, and I didn't know what kind of response I was going to get, but Matt ended up saying, 'You know what, I'm in,' " said Penn.
"I had a great time training with Matt," said Penn. It really upped my confidence. When you fight with someone, you really don't get to feel how you can do with them, as far as strength and stuff. And me and Matt had great workouts, him trying to push me on the fence, him trying to take me down. I definitely think that was the best training partner I could've had for the fight.
"I know he isn't exactly like Fitch as far as height and boxing and kickboxing goes, but on this, on the one area where Fitch definitely pushes all his opponents, his grinding them out and pushing them on the fence and taking them down, Matt really pushed me in those areas."
At Wednesday's news conference, Penn said he was only 165 pounds, considerably smaller than what typical welterweight competitors would weigh four days before fight time. Fitch was trying to keep his weight up to 183 pounds, lighter than ever before because of his change in eating habits, before cutting water and making the 170-pound limit. While they will probably weigh in about the same, in the cage, Fitch will be close to a full weight class bigger.
"But I'll drink three or four pounds of water [before weigh-ins] to make Fitch think I'm bigger than I am," Penn joked.
Fitch has fashioned the second-best record in the history of UFC at 13-1. In contrast to Penn, he's only had one championship fight, and the Sydney show will only be his second professional main event. He's considered neither a knockout artist, nor a submission whiz, but a well-conditioned grappler who doesn't make mistakes, never lets up, and doesn't tire. And he claims his new vegetarian diet has only improved that conditioning.
Fitch hardly started his career with most of the fight world knowing who he was or walking in as a star. After graduating from college, he moved from Indiana to California. He showed up at the American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose. A big poster of Penn, an AKA legend who stopped training there shortly before Fitch's arrival, was on the wall to provide daily motivation.
"He thinks it's to his advantage because he's being trained by the people who started me in the sport [Camarillo, Javier Mendes and Bob Cook]," said Penn. "But I consider it my advantage, because I know exactly how they train people."
There is no real animosity between the pair, and a healthy respect. If you ask Fitch what he thinks about the upcoming Georges St. Pierre-Jake Shields fight, or his thoughts on the possibility that St. Pierre, the only man to beat him in UFC competition, may move up a weight class before Fitch gets a title shot he's earned, he demurs.
"B.J. Penn is a legend in this sport," he said. "I have to focus on him. I would never disrespect him by looking past this fight."
Still, when Fitch talked Wednesday about how if he beats Penn, it's the equivalent of all of Penn's accomplishments and wins being now his, he seemed to strike a chord in the Hawaiian. Penn interrupted with three words: "Not gonna happen."
- Jon Fitch
- Matt Hughes