UFC welterweight Jon Fitch is always just one fight away… one big finish away.
Johnny Cash’s acoustic guitar gallops over the loudspeakers. Showtime. Gravel-voiced UFC coordinator Burt Watson signals the charge from the dressing rooms to the Octagon in Syndey’s Acer Arena. The UFC’s production crew keeps a tight pace around Jon Fitch as he walks toward the tunnel, teammates in tow, ready to fight BJ Penn. A title shot is on the line.
I’m gonna break. I’m gonna break. I’m gonna break my rusty cage…and run.
Fitch feels something is off. Cash started too early. The drums are supposed to kick in when he hits the cage door. They screwed it up during his last fight when he fought Thiago Alves. A title shot was on the line then, too, and he asked them to fix it. They’re fucking with me, he thinks. By the time he gets to the cage for grease, the drums have started. This is not good. Everything is all wrong.
In the world that Jon Fitch sees, there is no big show. You walk into the cage and fight until someone wins and someone loses. There are knees to the head of a downed opponent, no time limits, and no standup. No crutches. The best two samurais square off and do battle. All that matters is who makes the deepest cut. “On a long enough timeline, I win by murdering that person,” he says. “It might take me an hour to do it, but you die,” he says.
Fitch towers over traffic in his hulking Toyota Tundra with over-sized wheels and flat black paint. He doesn’t like the regular shiny stuff. So overdone—it looks like every other car out there. Besides, flat back is more Batmobile or A-team, which he says is racist yet still funny. Fitch has cut off his cable and lives on Netflix and video games, entertainment where he can escape advertisements. He reads non-fiction and watches documentaries or the occasional one-star zombie flick with the wife. The less commercials, the better. If he walks into the store to buy Cheetos and happens upon a Cheetos salesperson, he won’t buy them. He’s trying to blend out the consumer world.
One thing that you never say to Jon Fitch: “Because I said so.” Growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., he was the kid who always asked “Why?” and questioned every adult not named mom and dad. “We don’t owe this person anything,” he would say to classmates. “Let’s just not do it.” He was a little schemer, too. As a second-grader in Catholic school, he managed to sneak into the girl’s changing room before class and switch all the jumpers so everyone came out with the wrong size. Oh, the disaster. The administrators gave him a personality test for that one—at seven years old—and he gave crazy answers so they would send him to the psychologist, where he could play with clay and get out of religion class. In fourth grade, he experienced the biggest betrayal of his life when he found out pro wrestling was fake. He went home and castrated his Iron Sheik and Hulk Hogan action figures.
Thankfully, no one is pitching Cheetos on this cloudy Saturday in October. We’re headed for strip-mall sushi, which is a short stroll from American Kickboxing Academy and his house in San Jose, Calif. It’s meat day for the mostly vegan welterweight. Fitch doesn’t much care for doing interviews any more. Good luck getting him to pick up his cell. If he had it his way, he’d talk to one reporter a year, preferably face-to-face. Then, he reasons, everyone would read it, and he wouldn’t have reporters asking him stupid questions. There are far more stupid ones than good ones. “How’d you get started?” is a favorite—and Jon has no patience for that. “How are you going to come to me and pretend that you’re a professional and not know a goddamn thing about me?” he says. Sponsors looking to ride his coattails to the after party can take it to the curb. If they’re peddling a product with a questionable ingredient or if he doesn’t agree with their business practices, he won’t take their “dirty money.”
The restaurant hasn’t yet opened, so we settle for strip-mall Chinese. Fitch orders Kung Pao bean curd. He periodically casts his gaze downward and his eyes widen like he’s aghast or about to sneeze. But his eye contact is almost unflinching. He says his entire life is one big series of failures. He didn’t win the state championships in high school wrestling. Senior year in college, in his final match for the Purdue Boilermakers, he got taken down, lost on points, and failed for the fourth time to qualify for the NCAA Championships. His eyes well up. This is 10 minutes after we sat down. He could have tried to hide it a little better, like most fighters would, but Fitch doesn’t hide for anyone.
“I really don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks,” he says. “That’s the big shift that happened. I don’t care. I like the way I fight. I like doing it my way, and as long as my family and friends and team are good, that’s all I care about. If you’re a fan of mine, I’ll make the time to interact with you, but other than that, you can really piss off.”
Not much is spelled out in the politics of MMA, but you can read between the lines. UFC president Dana White puts it like this: The promotion puts on the fights that fans want to see. Behind the scenes, the philosophy is a little more succinct. Fights that sell pay-per-views and guys that put butts in seats write their ticket. Every once in a while, the promotion has to give a Yushin Okami or a Jake Shields a shot at the belt to reinforce the notion of sport. But this is the ultimate entertainment business, and if you don’t entertain the fans, White, and matchmaker Joe Silva, you may have to wait for your due. And wait.
There was a time, Fitch says, when he wanted to say and do the right things. Then he got in trouble for standing up for himself. Then he started seeing the game. Nowadays, fighters piss on beds and miss press conferences and generally make asses of themselves and still get the world handed to them. This is the world that he doesn’t understand. He’s been the No. 2 welterweight for three years and can’t seem to get another shot at the title. He prides himself on understanding systems and the way they work, a little genetic echo of his engineer father.
“But I’m stuck here,” he says. “I can’t figure it out, and no one’s telling me what the system is. If I knew what the system was, I could replicate it.”
Around six months ago, Fitch had a “fuck it” moment. He had just read that opus of selfish—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—and had been given a talking-to by former UFC Light Heavyweight Champ Rashad Evans, who told him to stop taking the fights that didn’t advance his career. In six years with the UFC, he had taken every fight offered him. So he announced that he would only fight champions or former champions. He reasoned that he had stuck his neck out plenty of times and should be allowed not to take fights in which he had more to lose than gain. Three months later, he was offered a fight at UFC 141 against Johny Hendricks, who met none of his qualifications. He could have turned it down, but, as he says, “I don’t really have an option right now.”
To those who want to learn his system or how he kicks ass, Fitch cares deeply. Earlier in the day, Fitch taught a seminar to a herd of weekend warriors and a few pros. It’s the first curriculum that he’s designed entirely on his own, and he’s proud of it, though he felt guilty promoting the seminar online. Jiu-jitsu is a complex game. His philosophy, however, is efficient and kind of mean in the best way possible. Force an opponent into bad positions. It’s “smash-the-crap-out-of-you jiu-jitsu,” the kind he likes. Knee-on-belly, in your face. When he started wrestling at Purdue, he admired the relentless guys, the ones who would drive the same takedown until they got it. “The fewer amount of moves, the higher the probability of the technique working,” he tells his students.
Fitch has for two years been AKA’s team captain—just as he was at Purdue—like a union rep between athletes and coaches. Teammates Justin Wilcox and Kyle Kingsbury say there wasn’t a vote to elect Fitch because there wasn’t anyone better suited for the job. He is always at the gym, always grinding. He is fatherly and stern and delivers even-tempered advice. “Obviously, we wouldn’t want Josh Koscheck running the show,” Kingsbury jokes. But there’s a limit to his compassion. If you’re at AKA for two years and haven’t yet fought, Fitch will beat on you, a lot, to see if you still want to come back. Training is not so fun then, but he believes in his heart that if you don’t have a purpose, you don’t belong. Some don’t come back. “I ran out of patience a long time ago with people who just take up space,” he says. “I don’t remember their names.”
The quest for a purpose-driven life has served Fitch well in his chosen profession. That doesn’t mean the universe is listening. This year’s plan was to get the title shot and take the belt from UFC Welterweight Champ Georges St-Pierre after his failed bid at UFC 87. In fighting Penn to a draw at UFC 127 in February, he lost that shot and wound up damaging his rotator cuff and labrum. He spent half the year on the bench, which torpedoed a rematch at UFC 132 in July. He says he was healthy enough to do the fight in October at UFC 137, and Penn joined him in a Twitter lobby to UFC president Dana White. White, though, said Fitch wasn’t medically cleared, and Penn instead got Carlos Condit (and then Nick Diaz). Fitch bitterly resents Penn for not putting his foot down. “That’s kind of an altruistic view to think he should have to go out of his way,” Fitch says. “But I know if I were in that situation, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable not settling it. Because now it’s this fucking thing in your stomach that stays there forever.” Now, he’s fighting Hendricks. Did he mention he bought a house before UFC 127? Through the wonder of bubble financing, he qualified to purchase a fixer-upper with no money down, despite the $180,000 he owed on his primary residence. He still invested 20 percent. Now, he’s doing a remodel on the new place mostly by hand, piecing it together with friends from the gym. “By doing things the right way, I’m more screwed,” he says with a wry smile.
There is always the chance that Fitch understands the system but refuses to abide by it. In the UFC, you have to win your fights, and win them impressively. He’s done the former, while some might argue the latter. Anybody, though, can see there are outliers to those who jump to the front of the line. You can be a loose cannon like Nick Diaz or a loudmouth like Chael Sonnen. Would their rise have been as quick without that verbal onslaught? In fact, Fitch is compadres with one of the best trash talkers in the business—Koscheck. He has the access to all the information he needs. It could get him ahead. But he won’t do it, nor will he watch any other fighter where trash talking or bad behavior takes on a bigger role than the fight (Koscheck excepted).
“I believe that if you just sold the fighters at face value for what they are and how they achieve things, people will support those guys,” Fitch says. “I think we’re at a stage right now where we’re dangerously close to pro wrestling. If you don’t have any legitimacy in the sport, then fans lose interest and the fighters stop caring, because there’s no guaranteed path to success. It’s like, do all the right things and beat everybody and still not get ahead. It’s like jumping the shark. Eventually, the foundation is going to crumble. If you’re not building fans who are fans of the technique being displayed, then the sport has no legs.”
Fitch doesn’t want to talk about an incident three years ago that led to his brief termination from the UFC. The reports say that he was fired for refusing to sign an agreement drafted for UFC: Undisputed that gave the promotion lifetime rights to his likeness and image. Less than 24 hours later, he signed the agreement and was brought back into the fold. He wants to make it clear that his complaints are not as an employee but as a fan of the sport. Still, there’s a heaviness that hangs over him when he talks about his current lot.
“All of this could be a long summer layover, and I’ve had too much time to think about it,” he says. “I’m sitting here in my own mind rotting to death, picking everything apart, and really it’s just that I’m this close to finishing a fight and that’s all I really need: one knockout, one finish.”
Ah yes, the finish. Fitch’s had four of them in 15 UFC fights, and his past nine have gone to the judges. Who ties Fitch for decision wins in the Octagon? Only Georges St-Pierre, who, like him, is a lightning rod for online critics. Some behind the keyboard throne write that he’s boring personified. Others believe that he’s a wronged man. He calls the former the “one-percenters,” maybe a thousand people whose voice is amplified by the media. So some have given him a scarlet letter that he can’t seem to rip off. At this point, he’s stopped trying.
“That’s the craziest misconception about me,” Fitch says. “Ridiculous. I’ve outstruck most of the opponents in my career. Just because I don’t commit to standing in front of a guy? I’ll land a three-punch combination and then hit a double-leg. What’s wrong with that? The purpose of a fight is to fuck that guy up as much as you can without getting touched. Why am I going to go punch-for-punch with him? That’s stupid. I can attack multiple ways. That’s why people are frustrated with me and can’t figure me out. My fights look boring because my opponents don’t put up a fight—they’re stuck. If I let people punch me in the face more, the fans would probably like my fights more.”
He could be right. Maybe he’s just a punch or a kick away from turning the tide and getting another crack at St-Pierre. Maybe there are circumstances that he can’t control that keep him from his dream. Maybe he’ll snap one day, and smart will go crazy. It could drive you bonkers sitting as he has for almost a year in his house, a modest two-story dwelling. A major facelift would be kind. Bits of particle board lean against the living room walls. There’s a baseball-sized hole in the TV room. The fireplace has been gutted. St-Pierre was supposed to pay for this. Now, he’s hoping Hendricks will put down a deposit.
Fitch is back in training camp now and doesn’t have time to ruminate as much as he did with a busted shoulder. The UFC went above and beyond its obligations to pay for his recovery, and he’s supremely grateful for that. He now realizes that his episode before the Penn fight was completely unfounded and the likely result of a less than stellar training camp. He jokes that if Penn had noticed what was going on, he might have gotten knocked out in the first instead of taken down. “BJ’s genius was actually his stupidity,” he laughs. The music wasn’t the issue. It was a crutch. Subconsciously, he put it there.
A day later, he’s painting the light fixtures and the guest bathroom, reggae pulsing from the TV room. It’s a sound more associated to stoners than professional fighters, but Fitch says it helps him spar. He recently read The Alchemist, a book about discovering one’s personal legend, the thing you most want to accomplish in life. When you do that, it says the universe will conspire to help you achieve that thing. After he beats St-Pierre, he wants to move up in weight to challenge Anderson Silva. It might not happen—Silva may be retired by the time he cleans out the welterweight division, which looks like what he’ll have to do. Luckily, Fitch loves his job and loves being in the UFC and waking up late and watching kooky Japanese anime with his wife. As for his personal legend, he’s still driving, simply, with purpose, still building it himself.
HERE COMES JOHNY
Jon Fitch’s opponent at UFC 141 on December 30 is two-time NCAA Wrestling Champion Johny Hendricks, who has compiled an 11-1 MMA record, with six of those wins coming in the UFC. On paper, Hendricks has superior amateur wrestling credentials, but how will that translate inside the Octagon against a man who is known for his grinding wrestling ability? Here’s what Hendricks had to say seven weeks out from the fight.
How’s your training going?
Great. I’ve been training my butt off for the last five weeks. I can’t wait for December 30 to get here. I feel great physically and mentally. And, I’ve got the beard rocking.
Were you excited when the UFC offered you this fight?
Absolutely. It doesn’t get much bigger than Fitch. If I can beat him, I’m ready for the next level.
Your wrestling credentials are better than Fitch’s. Do you think you also have superior wrestling for MMA?
Look, I know I can wrestle. I can go into the Oklahoma State wrestling room right now and prove that. I’m really working on my MMA wrestling—throwing kicks and punches and being able to see the signs of a takedown coming. Fitch does that better than almost anyone. The plan is to figure out the combos that he throws and the shots that he sets up. It’s a process. Nothing is easy at this level, so I’m not going to say that I’m better than Fitch until I get the chance to prove it. I have nothing but respect for him.
If Fitch takes you down, what kind of confidence do you have in your BJJ?
Great confidence. I’ve been learning from the best—Marc Laimon. I’ve entered BJJ tournaments at higher weight classes and won them. No one has really seen my BJJ in the cage, but I use it to stay off bottom and control from the top. I’m totally comfortable in my guard if the fight goes there.
Without giving away your gameplan, how do you beat a guy like Jon Fitch?
It’s definitely not easy. Just look at his record. However, there are a few important strategies. First, it’s important to fight him in the center of the cage. You don’t want to let him push you against the cage and get the takedown. Second, if you’re standup is good enough and so is your takedown defense, you can try to out-strike him like GSP. Finally, you can try to do to him what he does to everyone. Fitch is great at taking people down and doing enough damage on top to prevent the ref from standing the fight back up. You can try to out-grind the grinder, so to speak. The great thing about MMA is that you can prepare for about 95 percent of what your opponent is going to do, it’s the other 5 percent that makes the fight so unpredictable and exciting.
If you beat Fitch, that would throw your name into contender talk with guys like Carlos Condit, Josh Koscheck, and Jake Ellenberger. Are you ready for that?
Yeah, oh yeah. That’s why I like this fight so much. If you can beat Fitch, you are ready for the chance to face GSP.