This time, UFC president Dana White would have us believe, he's serious. This time when he says that the winner of Jon Fitch's next fight with B.J. Penn at UFC 127 will receive a title shot, he really means it.
So he says, anyway.
Of course, he said the same thing before Fitch fought Thiago Alves at UFC 117. The winner of that fight was absolutely, positively going to fight whoever was champion after Georges St. Pierre defended his title against Josh Koscheck. Only after Fitch won yet another boring decision and GSP managed to hold on to his belt, that promise quickly evaporated.
Instead of being the No. 1 contender, Fitch was simply, to borrow one of White's favorite phrases, "in the mix." That is to say, he was one of the guys who could fight for a title if the UFC found itself devoid of other challengers, but there was really no hurry.
I'm not sure when White first discovered this useful phrase, but I suspect it was an invention born of necessity.
The last thing the UFC wants to do is limit itself by creating anything resembling actual fighter rankings. The business of fight promotion requires too much fluidity for that. You never know when you might need to shuffle one guy in for another, or craft a main event bout out of nothing more than hope and hype, and that's when vague phrases like "in the mix" really come in handy.
Take the Fitch-Penn bout, for instance. Since losing his title fight to Georges St-Pierre in August of 2008, Fitch has won five straight. He won them all by decision (in fact, the last time he finished a bout was in 2007), and none of them are going to make anybody's list for fight of the year. But you still have to give the man credit for winning, even if you'd rather sit through a school board meeting than go back and watch any of those fights for a second time.
Penn, on the other hand, recently won just his second UFC fight at welterweight with a knockout of Matt Hughes at UFC 123. Even if he were to beat Fitch, it seems unlikely that fans would pay to see him fight GSP for a third time, just like it seems almost unfathomable to ask anyone to cough up $49.99 for St. Pierre-Fitch 2.
And yet, when you have a fight to sell, declaring the winner to be "in the mix" helps grant it an immediate sense of importance. Whoever's left standing in Australia on Feb. 27, that guy's going to fight for the title next.
Depending on who wins, and how.
The problem with running an organization this way is that sooner or later you start to look like the boy who cried No. 1 contender. It works as a means of selling a fight, at least until people realize that it's merely a means of selling a fight.
It's hard to blame the UFC in this situation. When you've got a champion as dominant as St-Pierre, pretty soon you run out of challengers who he hasn't already throttled. Still, as long as those vanquished challengers are still on the roster, you've got to do something with them, and you've got to convince people that that something matters.
Does calling it a No. 1 contender bout make the Fitch-Penn fight more meaningful? Maybe, but only just barely. For all his legendary exploits elsewhere, Penn hasn't been able to make much of a case for himself in the UFC's welterweight division. And Fitch? He's on track to become the best fighter who nobody wants to watch.
That could all change, of course. If Penn finishes Fitch in spectacular fashion, or the other way around, maybe we'll see a break in the clouds at 170 pounds. Or maybe GSP's move up in weight for a superfight with Anderson Silva will leave the kind of welterweight power vacuum that will force some interesting brand of chaos to erupt.
For now, all we can do is wait and see, which is also what Fitch has been doing for the past year or so. If he's not careful, a fighter could spend the prime of his career just sitting around "in the mix." Then again, I suppose it's not the worst thing that could happen. In the mix is still better than out of it.