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B.J. Penn versus Blank Space

Having to unexpectedly replace injured fighters is as familiar a concept for MMA organizations as hiring attractive ring-girls and crossing your fingers Cecil Peoples hasn’t been assigned to score one of your bigger bouts. Any sport involving a high level of physicality inherently has more risk involved where maintaining its participants’ health is concerned so it goes without saying the occasional cut, break, or tear may spring up to throw a wrench in a promotion’s plans.

Such was the case last week when word surfaced Jon Fitch had been forced out of a scheduled bout with B.J. Penn at UFC 132 due to an undisclosed shoulder injury. The two had been set to meet after fighting to a Draw in February as means of determining the welterweight division’s top contender.

While the perception may be the UFC caught a break based on the affected event taking place in July rather than two weeks from today, the reality is the problem is far more complex than simply slotting a new name opposite Penn’s and calling it a day. Penn is by no means your average fighter for reasons beyond simply his phenomenal ability in the ring. He is a complex individual requiring motivation beyond money of which he already has plenty in the bank; who genuinely seemed to be on the cusp of retirement after underperforming in his estimation against Fitch at UFC 127.

Who should the UFC call upon to fill Fitch’s vacancy? With such a deep roster there are plenty of options but how many actually make sense and would spark Penn’s interest? It may actually be fewer than you think…

Anthony Johnson: Johnson falls into the category of fighters who are certainly talented enough to make a fight with Penn competitive but don’t carry the necessary name-value to co-headline a PPV or inspire B.J. to put his legacy on the line (See also: Martin Kampmann, Mike Pyle). “Rumble” would pose problems for Penn where wrestling and size are concerned but he’s also coming off an extended layoff and didn’t do himself any favors with fans by taking Dan Hardy down repeatedly after guaranteeing a stand-up war in media appearances prior to the bout. From 1-10 with ten being the most realistic/best possible choice to face Penn he’s a “3”.

Diego Sanchez: Sanchez is certainly a big enough draw and he’s coming off a win but let’s not forget the absolute decimation he suffered at the limbs of Penn when they fought in 2009. In fact it would be interesting to see if Sanchez even wanted the bout based on comments he made about how the loss impacted his psyche. However, things could arguably go different at welterweight than they did at 155-pounds so it’s at least worth considering…just not for long. He rates as a “5”.

Thiago Alves: Unfortunately, Alves is already booked to face Rick Story at UFC 130 on May 28 so it would take some reshuffling for the “Pitbull” and “Prodigy” to meet. Even if Alves wins in dominating fashion a six-week camp in preparation for Penn would make as much sense as Shonie Carter competing in sweatpants. As such he’s a “1” based purely on scheduling though granted it would definitely be edge-of-your-couch-cushion stuff if the UFC decided to scrap the Story fight in favor of a match-up with Penn.

Carlos Condit: The UFC should seriously consider Condit as a replacement for Fitch. He is a former champion who has won eleven of his last twelve bouts (with the exception being a Split Decision to Kampmann), is on a three-fight winning streak, and has finished 25 of the 26 opponents he’s beaten. Those factors not only make him divisionally relevant but a stiff challenge for Penn, plus he arguably matches the Hawaiian’s intensity in the ring which would almost certainly create fireworks in the Octagon if the two faced off. The “Natural Born Killer” is also available after having to withdraw from a February fight with Chris Lytle with a minor knee injury. 9 out of 10.

Jake Shields: The only way Shields applies in this scenario is if he loses to GSP later this month and escapes the bout relatively unscathed. Beyond that there’s no reason to rush him back into the ring against someone on Penn’s level after having fought an opponent the caliber of St. Pierre two months prior. Since things are unlikely to play out as they would need to for a match-up with Penn to be made he comes in as a “3”.

Georges St. Pierre: Similar to Shields he would have to lose at UFC 129 and make it out of Toronto injury-free for a fight with Penn to make semi-sense, and even with those two things in place it has to be considered that St. Pierre is 2-0 on Penn with their last fight being fairly one-sided in nature. 2 out of 10.

Josh Koscheck: Koscheck is on par with Condit in terms of being an excellent selection to replace Fitch for a few reasons. He’s got the wrestling ability to pose problems for Penn where takedowns are concerned, the high-level conditioning to press the pace and test B.J.’s fitness, and the fortitude to keep fighting regardless of the situation (as evident in his ability to go the distance with St. Pierre while dealing with a severely broken orbital bone). He’s coming off the title-fight with GSP, so his contendership-credentials are in place for Penn, and also happens to be a teammate of Fitch’s as AKA so there’s that dynamic as well in terms of inspiring Baby Jay to bring his best. It would also be an easy fight to promote based on Koscheck’s role as somewhat of a villain in MMA and Penn’s as a fan-favorite. Like Condit, “Kos” is a 9 out of 10.

Nate Marquardt: Marquardt could be an interesting option in the sense he’s talked about being able to make welterweight in the right situation. What better opportunity to do so than against a double-divisional champ like Penn on the stage set by July 4th Weekend? Marquardt’s grappling is solid, his striking is dynamic, he’s obviously bigger than B.J., and he’s a former middleweight title-contender. He’s definitely a threat to Penn and an apt opponent, i.e. a sellable match-up to fans as well as Penn himself. Assuming he can legitimately drop to 170 Marquardt gets a “7”.

A return to lightweight: Extremely unlikely to happen, as Penn has been fairly clear on his preference to compete at his natural weight rather than deal with the pound-cutting process. 1 out of 10, though it would be even lower had the scale started at “0”.