Even non-title fights should go five rounds, as Penn-Fitch shows us
A good fighter doesn't enter the cage looking to win: A win is an abstract concept, and winning isn't under his control. What he wants to do instead is break his opponent, which fighters say you can feel, physically, when it happens, like something dying in your hands. Do that and the rest will follow, unless it doesn't, in which case what can you do.
Jon Fitch broke BJ Penn Saturday night. He put in the work, and did his job. When a jiu-jitsu player of Penn's gifts has a man in his guard for five or so minutes and manages so little defense that he ends up getting hit more times than any fighter but one has ever been hit in a single UFC round, when he can barely breathe enough to speak in his post-fight interview, and when he admits he lost in that interview, he's been broken, in the sense that fighters mean it.
This isn't to say that Fitch won; he didn't. By definition, my opinion (I scored the fight for Fitch), Dana White's opinion (he scored it for Penn) and your opinion count for nothing at all. All that matters is what the judges saw, and they saw a draw. Call it a quirk of the system or the inevitable result of poorly designed rules, but this is how fighting works. You can spend 15 minutes in a cage proving you're better than your opponent and come away with nothing for it.
You can't, though, spend 25 minutes doing so to no end. There have been dodgy decisions in closely fought five-round fights, such as the infamous first bout between Mauricio Rua and Lyoto Machida where dunce judge Cecil Peoples decided that leg kicks don't count, but no instances I can recall of one man clearly and decisively breaking the other and not earning a win.
This is the main reason why important non-title fights ought to go five rounds. There are all sorts of ways to break a fighter. Some, like a good right hand or tying him like a rope, can work quickly. Some, like wearing him down until he can't breathe, constricting his motion until he can't move his arms and hitting him softly from close range until he can't think, take time. None is better than any other. All are means to the same end.
A three-round fight, though, disadvantages a fighter whose style takes time. There is nothing wrong with that if the point is to put on an entertaining spectacle and find out who the best in the world are at the arcane arts of relatively quickly finishing an opponent with strikes and holds. If the point is to learn who the best fighters are, including those with specialties in the equally important arts of defense, stamina, control and patience, there is something wrong with it.
Of course any limit on the length of a fight is arbitrary, and there are still Gracies around grousing about the artificiality and meaninglessness of a fight game in which jiu-jitsu stylists aren't given an unlimited number of rounds with which to prove their superiority over masters of lesser arts. Twenty-five minutes seems right now to be enough time for a man to prove himself, though, and anyone fighting for a title, tournament advancement or something else that really matters ought to have them.
I wonder sometimes if people really appreciate just how special a fighter Dan Henderson is. At 40, he isn't quite what he once was, but going into his light heavyweight title fight this weekend against Rafael Cavalcante he is still one of the best middleweights in the world, and determined enough to take real fights at a time when he could be coasting and mounting exhibitions that he wanted in on the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament.
Here is some perspective on how long Henderson has been working. He made his fighting debut in 1997, at a Brazilian tournament that also featured Kevin Randleman, who had fought on just two previous cards, eventually became one of the biggest stars in the world, and has now been a basically irrelevant fighter since 2002. He made his UFC debut at UFC 17, the same night that Chuck Liddell fought for the first time. Jeremy Horn, who has now fought 112 professional bouts, made his UFC debut on that same card; it was just his 15th fight. Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz had a combined four fights at the time.
Lots of fighters from those days are still in the cage; none are fit to go for major titles. It has been many years since anyone who wasn't widely acknowledged as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world has beaten Henderson. I have no idea how much longer he's going to keep this up, but it isn't hard to imagine him taking shots at some of Couture's marks for freakish longevity from a Team Quest fighter.
The most intriguing fight by far on Thursday's UFC Versus card is the one between middleweights Alessio Sakara and Chris Weidman, where we could see anything from the debut of the next great prodigy to evidence of the dangers of getting what you wish for. Weidman, 26, is a former Division I All-American wrestler training under Matt Serra and Ray Longo and earning raves for what he's done in their gym. He's also fought all of four times and is now not just making his UFC debut, and not just doing so on live television, but doing so against an opponent who legitimately ranks in the top 15 in his division, a level of competition even tough contenders such as George Sotiropolous don't always face. Figure Weidman as the real deal, but also figure that this fight will have the tantalizing element of car wreck appeal. People crack under pressure like this, and sometimes they never recover. It isn't often that you get to see just so early on in such a touted prospect's career just what he brings past his skills.