Both Penn and Fitch are fighting for the chance to be king when the dust settles. Of course, they got here by very different methods. Penn seemed like he was in for a long run as UFC lightweight champ when he was derailed twice by Frankie Edgar. From there, a move to welterweight was the logical choice, and he announced his arrival by blasting Matt Hughes in a 21-second knockout last November.
Meanwhile, Fitch has rolled through his recent competition, winning five straight fights since his title loss to St. Pierre. But he still faces criticism from fans about his inability to finish. He's been to a decision in eight straight fights. In matching them, the UFC hopes the pairing of the grinding technician against a game fighter with top takedown defense results in a more dynamic performance from Fitch or a legit claim as top contender for Penn en route to a title shot.
It may surprise some fans to hear that at 32 years old, Penn (16-7-1) is actually younger than Fitch, who turned 33 on Thursday. Penn's roots though, are much longer in the sport, and in fact he spent many of his early days training at American Kickboxing Academy, the gym that later built Fitch.
While Penn is rightfully considered one of the sport's all-time greats, he is actually considered the underdog in this fight. Most observers think Fitch (26-3) has worked himself into a more rounded fighter, and expect his grinding style to give Penn problems.
FItch's statistics prove what most instinctively know after observing him: he wants to get the fight to the ground. According to Compustrike, Fitch has tried 42 takedowns over his last nine fights, which encompass 28 rounds. That's 1.5 takedown attempts per round, a very high number. He's been successful on 27 tries (64 percent) and as a result, he's spent 54 percent of his fights on the ground. There he is torture, landing 74 percent of strikes. Bottom line: you don't want to be underneath Fitch.
What makes this fight interesting is that Penn has some of the best takedown defense in MMA. In his last 12 fights, opponents have only been successful on only 15 of 58 attempts (26 percent).
Breaking it down further, two fighters have been responsible for more than half of those successful takedowns. St. Pierre and Frankie Edgar took Penn down four times each en route to their UFC 94 and UFC 118 wins, respectively.
But other solid fighters who have tried have looked downright silly against Penn. At UFC 107, Diego Sanchez couldn't take Penn down a single time despite 19 attempts, while at UFC 101, Kenny Florian also whiffed, going 0-for-6.
Whether Fitch has success like St. Pierre and Edgar or struggles like Sanchez and Florian may determine the fight's outcome. Fitch has worked hard on improving his transitions from striking into takedowns, and if he is able to successfully implement those changes into his fight on Saturday, he has a much better chance at finding himself in the former group rather than the latter.
If he does get it there though, things don't get any easier to determine. Though most people consider Penn the higher-level jiu-jitsu artist of the two, both men are black belts. Since Fitch is more likely to be on top, it's fair to say his defense is good enough to avoid a submission from Penn on the bottom, but neither is he likely to tap out Penn. Fitch is smart enough to know this, so will likely focus on ground strikes and forcing Penn to work from under his weight, a physically taxing prospect.
If the fight stays standing, Penn has become heavily dependent on his boxing. The numbers show that over his last 12 fights, nearly 93 percent of his standing strikes have been arm strikes, an almost alarmingly high number. Continuing that trend makes him much more predictable for Fitch, and there is evidence that is the case, as Penn recently spent time working with renowned boxing trainer Roger Mayweather.
Not surprisingly, coming from a camp called American Kickboxing Academy, Fitch shows much more variety to his standup attack, as about 71 percent of his standup strikes are arm strikes. That will be key against Penn, as keeping him off-balance will be important in setting up takedowns.
Penn has the punching power to change the fight with one landed strike, as illustrated in his fight with Hughes, but Fitch hasn't been knocked out since his fourth professional fight, back in 2002. The likeliest scenario sees Fitch mixing up striking and takedown attempts, and if he's not successful with the takedowns, using his size and strength to bully Penn against the cage.
If Penn focuses solely on his hands, he won't have an easy time finding Fitch's chin. Opponents land only 38 percent of arm strikes against him, and he has a four-inch reach advantage on Penn, further complicating matters. While you can never count out Penn, stats suggest he has his work cut out for him.
The one X-factor here is that Fitch has openly talked about changing up his style. On his UFC 127 Fight Journal, he compared his re-tooling to the one Tiger Woods made just before he went on an epic run of majors. Will there be growing pains in regards to that or will it go smoothly? It's a risk, but then again, even if he struggles, he has his old style to revert to, and even that might be enough. Fitch via unanimous decision.