Fitch Chasing Penn’s Legacy, Second Title Shot at UFC 127

photo by Esther Lin for HeavyMMA.com

Fitch ready to contend once more

Long before Jon Fitch became a part of the team at American Kickboxing Academy, the man he’ll face at UFC 127 was working with the same trainers who have helped make him one of the best fighters in the sport today.

Though the image many people have of B.J. Penn preparing for a fight has been crafted by various UFC Countdown specials showing the former two-division champion training in his native Hawaii, Penn indeed trained in San Jose, and Fitch has heard all the stories and uses them as motivation.

“It’s like chasing a ghost almost, hearing stories about a guy you’ve never gotten to work with or train with or anything. When I first came to AKA was shortly after B.J. had left, and everybody who had trained him or trained with him was still around, and he was a pretty amazing athlete, so you’ve got a lot of stories about some of the things he’s done and what he’s capable of.

“You kind of have this mythological thing in the gym because of B.J.’s presence there before, and it’s like you’re always trying to chase it. It’s kind of like having an older brother, and you always have to kind of live in his shadow a little bit.”

In the time since Penn left San Jose, Fitch has established himself as one of the elite welterweights in the world.

He’s won five-straight heading into his headlining match-up with Penn in Australia, and 21 of his last 22 fights; the only blemish being his UFC 87 loss to Georges St. Pierre. While the spectre of Penn still looms at AKA, another motivational factor became present in October, as teammate Cain Velasquez brought home the UFC heavyweight championship.

“We [talked about this] is one of our team discussions,” Fitch said of the impact of Velasquez’s victory over Brock Lesnar at UFC 121. “Cain went out there and he caught the star and brought it back to show it to us all. Now we can see that you can actually catch these things.”

Watching his teammate win gold not only made the possibility more real to Fitch, but it also removed the stigma of being the best gym to never produce a UFC champion from AKA. With that monkey off their back, the 32-year-old welterweight believes the floodgates are ready to open.

“I agree with that; it is kind of like the floodgates have opened, like throwing rocks at a door. Now that we’ve cracked the door open and Cain busted the door open, it is going to make it easier for the rest of us to step it up and get to that place where he is.”

Before he can get back to a championship bout, Fitch needs to get by the talented two-time former champion in front of him in Australia. That being said, the opportunity to headline an event in an emerging market is a show of confidence from the UFC and something the former captain of the Purdue wrestling team doesn’t take for granted.

“I feel the UFC has definitely given me the opportunity to make a strong case at a bid for the title. It’s hard to make a strong case over guys that don’t have big names, and I think with Thiago (Alves) coming off such a long layoff, it took away from my win for some people. I still think he was as good as he would have been any other day, but some people see things differently.

“I think a great opportunity like this, to headline a card, not only against a great fighter like B.J. Penn, but in a virgin market that has only had one other UFC event is huge. You should have seen it when we came over here for our press tour. We had a two-hour autograph session that went four hours one day, three hours the other, and we had to cut the line off at one point. It’s pretty crazy.”

While he could certainly already make a case for a second title shot having amassed a five-fight winning streak since last UFC 87, including beating Alves in a bout Dana White deemed as a #1 contender bout, Fitch no longer worries about his place in the pecking order and fighting those battles. Not when he’s got a more pressing fight in front of him already.

“I could sit around and cry about stuff all day, but that’s just going to take away from my focus, which is B.J. Penn. He’s such a tough fight and such a great fighter that I can’t let myself be distracted in the least,” Fitch says. “I’ve put everything else out of my mind, and the only thing I’m concerning myself with is this fight with B.J. Penn, putting on a great show in Australia, and beating a legend.”

If he does get a win over Penn this weekend, you can be sure Fitch will once again be campaigning for a second crack at the welterweight belt. Only this time, there will be no real way to argue against him.

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