- Jason Probst
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The UFC returns to the land Down Under on Saturday at the Acer Arena in Sydney as former two-division champion B.J. Penn and perennial welterweight contender Jon Fitch headline an event with solid matchups and plenty of local talent.
Former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight titleholder Carlos Condit's injury gives Brian Ebersole a shot at Chris Lytle, so Penn-Fitch becomes even more relevant in terms of credibility at 170 pounds. There are serious stakes in play in the welterweight division, especially with talk of champion Georges St. Pierre leaving should he successfully defend his crown against Jake Shields in April.
Throw in Michael Bisping's bout against Jorge Rivera in the co-main event and the George Sotiropoulos-Dennis Siver lightweight contender eliminator, and we are off to the races at UFC 127 "Penn vs. Fitch."
The Matchup: Greatness and inconsistency make for unpredictable stories, and in MMA nobody combines those two traits as readily as Penn. After a lightweight reign with three one-sided defenses, it seemed that the Hawaiian-born battler had put his penchant for flat performances comfortably behind him and channeled his dazzling potential for a long run at the top. He was an 8-to-1 favorite going into his first bout against Frankie Edgar at UFC 112 and lost by a close decision. In the UFC 118 rematch, however, Penn looked terribly uninspired, as he was taken down and outhustled, only to pop up immediately for more abuse.
Three months later, "The Prodigy" resurrected his career instantly with a 21-second knockout of rival Matt Hughes at UFC 123. Is the old Penn back, or was his showing against Hughes merely a deceptive blip in the larger scheme of things? Whatever the case, we will almost certainly find the answer here, because there are no question marks with Fitch.
On many levels, he represents Penn's polar opposite -- a modest athletic talent that works insanely hard to wrest every ounce out of his ability, the master of preparation and strategy who plies his advantages to neutralize his self-realized weaknesses. There is never a question about whether or not Fitch is mentally ready to bring his "A" game into a fight. Fitch never keeps a fight standing longer than he has to, using that element of the game merely to create openings to take opponents down and put them into his world.
It is a brand of stylistic humility that makes for a better fighter, if not always satisfying to fickle fans who want blood when competent tactics would otherwise suffice.
If there is a top question on the list of things one would want to ask about Penn, it is why he waited until the middle of his second fight against Edgar to even try a decent takedown. Landing it easily, he punished Edgar with good shots and then inexplicably fell back into his stand-around mode. He was outworked the rest of the bout. While there are better pure wrestlers than Penn in the lightweight division, he is as strong in MMA-oriented wrestling as any of them, and his marvelous takedown defense and athleticism have no equal in the game. In short, Penn's lightweight days were defined by him being able to do what he wanted to do, until someone would not let him.
At welterweight, Fitch will aim to do just that, and he is a lot bigger and stronger than Edgar, to boot. Because of Penn's mentality, expect this to elicit a stronger response than Edgar did; Fitch will come to overpower him, not out-speed him -- a key stylistic difference that will force Penn to fight much harder than he did in the Edgar rematch.
While the second Edgar bout will probably go down as the worst performance of Penn's career, this fight does not figure to resemble that one, because the Hawaiian's standup is stout enough to give Fitch problems. Fitch will not enter the cage and attempt to zip in and out to land speedy combinations and work for a decision. He will look to force clinches, work for takedowns and empty Penn's gas tank in the process.
Because of those tactics, Fitch will be in the most danger while in the pocket trying to close the gap with Penn. If he can create clinches and tie-ups, he can stick Penn on the cage and wear him down, just as St. Pierre did. Fitch may not be flashy in these types of sequences, but he is exceptional at forcing the other guy to burn energy while constantly pushing for a dominant position.
Penn is the type of guy whose ego clicks on in certain fights he is losing, only to remain in the off position in others. If he is taking a thumping, he will come alive. Since Edgar never really hurt him, he did not seem to have that fire. Fitch will force him to respond, and this could become a real firefight. Look for Fitch to take a heavy shot or two in the first round before eventually securing a tie-up. Once there, he will force Penn to work in a long sequence and then rally back by creating space and trying to land a fight-changing haymaker.
The Pick: Fitch is exceptionally durable and should be able to secure a takedown or two by the second round. A key factor in this fight could how the referee interprets the work rate of both guys on the ground. It is in Fitch's interest to stay active in Penn's guard -- a dangerous proposition given the Hawaiian's incredible ability to hit sweeps and submissions. Still, that is precisely how Fitch wins fights. Penn will give away a dozen or so pounds at fight time, as well, and by the third round Fitch will simply be too much for him to handle, grinding down the former two-division champion en route to a decision win or late stoppage.
The Matchup: The UFC seems content to glad-hand Bisping in terms of matchups, milking his marketability as long as possible before finally having to move him up in competition, where he ultimately falls short. Wildly popular in the U.K., the winner of season three of "The Ultimate Fighter" has been consistent against B-level competition in the organization but falters when trying to move to the next level.
It is not for lack of trying. Rashad Evans conducted a wrestling clinic on him that surprised no one at UFC 78, and, after a noxious prefight trash talk buildup with Dan Henderson leading into their clash at UFC 100, Bisping was brutally knocked out by the two-time Olympian in the worst loss of his career. Bisping gave a credible showing against a game-but-aging Wanderlei Silva at UFC 110, but it slipped away from him in the final moments, when Silva battered him with a round- and fight-clinching assault.
A tough veteran, Rivera represents the ideal opponent for Bisping at this point. He has built an inspiring win streak over his last three bouts, this after his career at the UFC level seemed on the downside. Rivera is not an overpowering wrestler who will take down Bisping and negate his game. He comes to slug, which gives Bisping an excellent chance to win.
Bisping is not the bigger hitter in this matchup, but his footwork and ability to mix up strikes are far superior. Rivera relies on an aggressive, wade-in style through which he forces confrontations and tests an opponent's chin. Bisping's jiu-jitsu remains vastly underrated, however, and he uses the cage well to right himself when taken down. This bout carries with it all the hallmarks of Bisping getting the kind of win increasingly characteristic of his career, where he will stick and move, endure a bad spot or two and take a decision.
The Pick: If Rivera can turn it into a slugfest, he will have his best chance to win, so the key factor lies in Bisping keeping a cool head, moving away when hurt and using his superior standup to pull out a decision or late stoppage. He will do just that in this one.
The Matchup: Quality lightweights square off to produce a contender, and with Sotiropoulos on a tear of late, Siver has a major assignment in front of him. With a ledger of 7-0 in the UFC, Sotiropoulos has done in the lightweight division what Fitch did as a welterweight prior to earning a title shot. He has grounded and decimated opponents with startling consistency, improving his game in the process.
Siver is a live wire, with potent striking and a compact build that makes him strong and willing to force a physical fight. If Sotiropoulos wants to prove he belongs at the next level -- where Edgar, Gray Maynard and others reside -- he will have to be impressive against Siver.
While perception holds Siver as the better standup fighter, Sotiropoulos' ability in this area has inched along slowly but consistently. He does not throw huge knockout punches and, at times, seems a little stiff, but his strikes are effective enough to allow him to initiate tie-ups and grappling. Once there, his outstanding ground game takes over. Siver may be exceptionally strong physically, but the Aussie's pedigree, especially when battling for position on the ground, has bested similarly strong foes like Joe Stevenson. Sotiropoulos also looked outstanding against Kurt Pellegrino, one of best lightweight grapplers in the UFC.
Siver has some options available to him. His spinning-back kick has proved dangerous, and his kicks can take a piece out of an opponent if they land clean. He will have to flit in and out against the taller Sotiropoulos while evading clinches and throw attempts. It is a difficult assignment, especially since Sotiropoulos seems to inexorably get closer and closer to opponents, grinding them down with constant pressure.
The Pick: If Siver can land something big early and pounce, that represents his best chance to spring the upset. Once it hits the mat against Sotiropoulos, the opponent is in his world. Sotiropoulos will get the fight there and end it in three, via strikes or a submission.
The Matchup: With Carlos Condit dropping out due to injury, Ebersole replaces him on a little more than two weeks' notice. The veteran has a boatload of bouts across multiple weight classes, having lost to much larger foes in heavyweight Kerry Schall and light heavyweight Stephan Bonner. However, Ebersole has bested recognizable opponents in ex-UFC welterweight kingpin Carlos Newton, former Bodog Fight champion Nick Thompson, one-time International Fight League titleholder Matt Horwich and WEC veteran Alex Serdyukov.
Lytle comes to bang and should be especially willing to do so if Ebersole cannot plant him on the ground and dictate the fight. He remains on the short list of the game's most durable fighters, as he has been finished only twice, each time on cuts, first against Joe Riggs and later against Thiago Alves. In both of those bouts, Lytle was coming on strong when the stoppages occurred. His professional boxing experience and comfort with sliding and rolling with shots serve him well, as he counters expertly in the pocket, mixing in the occasional kick and sometimes throwing shots from weird angles.
Top wrestlers have held down Lytle and grounded him to a decision -- Josh Koscheck battered him mercilessly, leaving pools of Lytle's blood all over the Octagon -- and that could become a problem here. A former college wrestler who has trained at the American Kickboxing Academy, Ebersole could hold the keys to an upset.
A key variable available to Lytle is how effectively he uses his defensive wrestling to keep the action standing. Ebersole is not in the same league as Koscheck or Fitch, and he will have problems as long as he stands against Lytle, who excels in striking-based matches.
Given the short notice on which he accepted the bout, Ebersole figures to try to fight the smartest fight. He will have to earn at least a little respect standing before Lytle trying to close for a shoot or clinch. Even if he does get it down, Lytle's excellent jiu-jitsu and uncanny ability to survive from his back are considerable obstacles. He is patient when put there and can absorb a terrific pounding while looking for ways to get back to his feet.
Look for Lytle to adjust his game plan to Ebersole's wrestling tactics, using movement to deny him angles and hoping to take it deep as a fallback in case he cannot make something significant happen early. Lytle's conditioning is solid, as well, and he should be able to work through a takedown and attempts at ground-and-pound from Ebersole.
Ebersole's striking and striking defense have improved since his earlier in his career, as he has become somewhat more comfortable on his feet. In a four-round loss to gifted Bellator Fighting Championships titleholder Hector Lombard in September 2008, he put up a decent scrap against one of the best middleweights in the world.
The Pick: Condit's injury scrapped a bout that was an odds-on favorite for "Fight of the Night," but this one could still be entertaining. Lytle should do just enough to strike effectively and deny Ebersole effective action if he scores a takedown. Lytle wins by late submission or decision.
The Matchup: Two lesser-known middles square off in their first appearance on the main card of a pay-per-view, eliciting a feeling of opportunity and nervousness. Noke and Camozzi are pretty comparable stylistically and in terms of how they have performed against various levels of competition. Alums of Season 11 of "The Ultimate Fighter," both are 2-0 in the UFC.
Noke's submissions and positioning might be a little stronger, with Camozzi taking the edge in wrestling and takedowns. One had to like the level-headedness Camozzi showed in outpointing previously unbeaten Korean slugger Dongi Yang at UFC 121. Noke is experienced but relies more on groundwork than an overpowering standup game.
The Pick: This one probably hits the mat early, as neither is particularly dangerous on the feet, and winds its way to a ho-hum decision. Camozzi takes a close nod.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.