Jon Fitch (cont...)
To Fitch, the whole question of finishes revolves around two failures of understanding. The first revolves around what he actually does in the cage.
"I'm always working to finish fights," he said. "I'm always trying to put my opponents away, whether it's through ground and pound and making them quit through attrition, or making them give up a submission after beating on them for a while."
The second has to do with the unified rules of MMA, which are highly artificial, having been written more to placate politically powerful athletic commission members than to promote sensible fighting. In Fitch's argument, the rules, especially the rule about standing up a fight stalled on the ground, work against a wrestler trying to finish.
"You used to have only three options if you got taken down," he said. "It was either get back up, submit the guy or tap out, and the fight's over. Now we have the stand up rule, which adds a fourth dimension, adds a fourth way for guys who get taken down to improve their position. And that is to stall and to close guard and to hold on to elbows or gloves so your opponent can't ground and pound. Once they're able to keep you from delivering any offense when you're on top, and the referee comes in and stands you up, it's basically awarding the guy a position for not fighting."
There is a lot to this, as there is to Fitch's objection to the senseless rule banning knees to the head of a downed opponent.
"Removing the ban on knees to the head on the ground is another thing that would speed up the game and make the fights more exciting," he said, "because there's more motivation to pass guard at that point. Right now, there's really no motivation to pass guard, because it's actually easier to get up from bottom when the guy has side control than it is to get up from the half guard or full guard. So you're actually putting yourself at a detriment by passing the guy's guard, whereas if we actually had knees to the head, you could pass guard and put yourself in position to end the fight quickly."
It is probably true that these rule changes would make it easier for wrestlers to finish fights, rather than grinding down their opponents from the top. It's also probably true that UFC, the one organization with the clout to lobby for and get these changes, would, all else equal, prefer not to advantage wrestling over other disciplines. Fitch and others like him will adapt, or they'll pay a price for fighting the way they do.
One can overstate the extent to which Fitch has been jobbed out of chances his success should have won him. He's had a title shot against St-Pierre, and is a month and a half away from fighting Penn in a pay-per-view main event. He has money and a lot of fans and a giant truck and he doesn't have to worry about how he's going to practice given the demands of a day job. He knows this, and maintains an obstinate belief that excellence will win out.
"I've always had faith in the sport being as big and great as it is," he said. "And I've always had faith in myself to do the work necessary to put myself in a position to have big fights. I've been waiting for the opportunity to get these type of big fights, and waiting for the opportunity to prove myself."
He has it. If he beats Penn, he is very likely to get the next shot at the welterweight title, and if he wins it, there is not going to be much criticism of how he fights, or what he says or doesn't say.
Should he lose to Penn, though, or should he lose a second title fight, he will be up against a math problem that shows out, even more than White's occasional capriciousness, exactly the problem UFC is up against in trying to establish itself as a legitimate part of the sporting establishment.
UFC generally maintains a roster of about 200 fighters. In the past, this meant that there were about 40 spots open in each weight class. With the absorption of WEC and the featherweight and bantamweight classes, that number has gone down by about a third.
A Jon Fitch incapable of beating B.J. Penn, or of winning the welterweight championship, is not one who is ever again going to be in serious title contention. He would remain, though, one of the most dangerous fighters in the world, at worst the third- or fourth-best fighter in his weight class, more than capable of not only tearing up the vast majority of prospects and contenders in the division but also of making them look utterly helpless.
In sports, this sort of thing isn't supposed to matter. In the fight business, it does. A Fitch who isn't in contention presents a problem, one that might be solved with a move to the 185-pound weight class, and one that might be solved by gifting a rival promotion with a truly great fighter unlikely to make it a great sum of money and nearly guaranteed to make everyone on its roster look fraudulent. You can understand the inexorable logic that could play events out so that White would get rid of one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world; you also understand how the fact that it might make sense for him to do so poses an even larger threat to the legitimacy his organization so badly wants than his occasional habit of making promises the world then forgets.
Either way, you suspect Fitch will be fine. The happiest he's ever been, he'll tell you, was when he stopped caring about money altogether. He has a different goal, one that if he comes near achieving it will make the scenarios outlined above utterly irrelevant and the problem he poses go away.
"I want to be the greatest mixed martial artist ever."
Tim Marchman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.