In professional sports, winners are rewarded, beloved, and celebrated. Winners advance. Winners move to the next round. Winners compete and take home championships. However, today’s MMA scene isn’t like most sports. If it were, Jon Fitch would be held in the highest regard. He fights, he competes, he wins, and he does so quite often, compiling victory streaks that extend through large chunks of presidential administrations.
But even at 23-3-1, the 33-year-old UFC veteran finds himself as the exception to that rule: still fighting for respect in the world’s largest MMA organization because of a style that doesn’t result in finishes, but rather hard, ground-out, gritty decision victories.
In front of a Sydney, Australia, crowd that sold out the Acer Arena in near-record time, Fitch will have his opportunity to silence his critics when he faces BJ Penn at UFC 127 on Feb. 27—a victory that will put him in position for a title shot that he has already earned, but that was given to someone else.
“It’s that old saying where, to be a legend, you need to kill a legend,” says Fitch. “That’s the way I have to go in there, with the mentality to destroy BJ Penn and take that aura from him and take it for myself.”
Prepping for Penn
Fitch has fought in big spots before, but at this stage of his career, the Penn fight represents a tremendous opportunity, and one that came together in rapid fashion. At November’s UFC 123, Penn returned to the welterweight division and earned a quick payday by knocking out Matt Hughes in just 21 seconds.
Fitch was already planning on fighting in Australia, but was preparing for Jake Ellenberger. However, after Penn’s speedy victory, that quickly changed. Fitch’s manager, Bob Cook, was asked if his charge wanted to fight Penn instead, resulting in a mini manhunt, as Fitch had his phone off and wasn’t watching the event. Eventually, Fitch was reached and agreed to the high-profile bout in time for the news to be announced at the post-fight press conference.
Fitch says there weren’t any big changes in his gameplan due to the nature of fighters and trainers existing in a constant state of evaluation. They’ve essentially prepared for Penn inadvertently for years.
“Knowing him so well and seeing him fight so many times, we’ve been developing strategies for a long time,” says Fitch. “When you have a big fight like this, the strategies fall together quickly.”
In addition, Fitch has a deeper advantage with fighter knowledge, as Penn used to train at American Kickboxing Academy with founder Javier Mendez, and Penn even co-authored a book with head grappling coach and Fitch trainer Dave Camarillo.
“BJ is a star because he had the belt, but Jon has won tougher battles,” says Camarillo. “BJ’s the kind of guy where he can finish you in the first 10 seconds or get grinded out. He’s hit or miss. We’re going to take this fight as it’s the best and most dangerous BJ. That’s what we have to prepare for. Fitch is a gamer, and he’s more of a gamer than anyone who has ever stepped in the Octagon at the welterweight division and maybe even in the UFC, period.”
No Respect? No Problem
Hearing complaints about decision victories are as common to MMA as black t-shirts with skulls on them. It’s safe to say that Fitch has heard all of the criticism and then some. Those are the types of things that happen when you go to the scorecards in eight straight fights.
The good news for Fitch is that he won seven of those eight, and he is riding a five-fight win streak. The bad news is that in a culture stilll earning to appreciate the sport, Fitch’s lack of finishes has him defending himself more often than enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Camarillo feels that MMA fans are still in an evolutionary state, and they prefer to look for flashy knockouts, submissions, and fights like Griffin vs. Bonnar as standard bearers rather what than they are seeing with Fitch.
“Fitch is a tactician. His style is not to go in there and get hit,” Camarillo says. “There seems to be two sides to this: the smaller group that loves the technical side; and the larger group that likes guys who are not very strategic with their fighting and are chasing Fight of the Night rather than along career. Naturally, I love Fitch’s style, so I will always be a Jon Fitch fan.”
Prior to UFC 117 in August, Dana White said the winner of Fitch’s rematch with Thiago Alves would earn a shot at champion Georges St-Pierre. Coincidentally, the Alves fight was nearly two years to the day that Fitch first fought for the 170-pound title, losing a unanimous decision to GSP at UFC 87.
Fitch defeated a depleted Alves quite handily, but that promised opportunity later went to Jake Shields, even after his lackluster victory over Martin Kampmann at UFC 121.
Welcome to the business of fight promotion. Give the people what you think they want, baby.
“They’re in business of selling fights,” says Fitch. “The UFC has a former Strikeforce/EliteXC Champion in Shields against their Welterweight Champ, so that’s a big fight. All that matters to me right now is this opportunity to fight BJ Penn.”
New Techniques, Same Fitch
While not completely changing his style, Fitch has been working with Camarillo on getting into the “details of the finish,” working on BJJ sequences of techniques where he’ll have three or four submission options at his disposal. Fitch said Camarillo has seen the techniques prove successful with other fighters, and he feels it will make a difference against Penn.
But don’t expect a different Fitch to roar into the Australian Octagon, especially at the expense of losing.
“The truth of the matter is that no one likes a loser. If you lose three or four fights in a row, I don’t care how exciting you are, you’re getting cut,” says Fitch. “You might get away with one exciting loss, but if you follow that up with another loss—especially with the WEC guys coming in—there’s a high possibility you’re getting cut. I want to be the best ever. It’s just not enough to be the best in my weight class. I want to make sure I get out there and compete with all the greats before I’m done.”