Fitch may lack flash and pizzazz, but he is a force in the octagon
Jon Fitch is a top UFC fighter, but his style hasn't connected with fans
He is set to fight B.J. Penn on Feb. 27 in a highly anticipated match
Fitch's UFC record is 13-1 and he's lost one fight in the last eight years
Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is rarely rested, careless by nature and often in range of people with questions and notebooks. So he says a lot, and a great deal of what he says makes no sense.
Last August, for example, White announced that the winner of a fight between Jon Fitch and Thiago Alves would have the next shot at the welterweight title, due to be contested in a fight between Georges St-Pierre and Josh Koscheck. This was the first bout Alves had taken since St-Pierre, the champion, had laid a kind of beating on him that left no one not paid by Alves wanting to see a return. There was also the fact that Fitch had said he would change his weight class rather than fight Koscheck, a teammate at San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy. Still, White said it, sold and promoted the fight on the idea that buying a ticket or ordering the show on pay-per-view would give you, the fight fan, the line on who the next top contender in the UFC's deepest division would be.
In the event, Fitch won the fight, and got no title shot, and most everyone acted as if nothing had happened. Perhaps the point of the thing was White making a show of his power, intimating that Fitch and Koscheck would fight like dogs over a scrap of meat if he so desired. Perhaps -- and this is what UFC officials might tell you -- there was no point, because White just says things, and to act as if they mean anything is to misunderstand who he is and what he does. (I would have liked to ask White, but he didn't respond to an interview request.)
Whatever the case, the real point may have been this: While mixed martial arts is very much a sport, UFC fighting is very much not. There is no crime in this. No form of prize fighting has ever been or ever will be pure, and if UFC were run on Olympic lines its audience would number in the thousands. There are times, though, where the imperatives of sport and business conflict so badly that you can wonder what the point of the whole thing is. And there is no better example of that than what is at stake in Jon Fitch's next run of fights.
Fitch, 32, says he doesn't care about the title fight he isn't having. Given how intensely he believes that greatness is achieved by doing one thing at a time and doing it well, he probably believes it. He will be fighting B.J. Penn in Australia on Feb. 27, and that is enough to care about.
"B.J. is such a dangerous opponent," he recently told me. "He's a legend. He's such a huge name in this sport. For me to give him anything less than 100 percent of my full focus and attention would be greatly detrimental to me winning this fight. So I have to just focus on him, and not worry about anything that's been said in the past, or anything that's been promised in the past."
This is the right thing to say, and also modest; Fitch is almost uniquely suited to mince Penn. Penn is a tremendous boxer and a master jiu-jitsu player; Fitch has a kevlar chin and a black belt in jiu-jitsu earned under Dave Camarillo. Penn is also a natural lightweight who has never once shown that he can go full on the length of a fight while fighting at 170 pounds, while Fitch is an enormous welterweight who has to take care, in training, not to build his wind up too much. Fitch's analysis of his chances runs more or less on these lines.
"I'm extremely hard to finish and I have a huge gas tank," he said, "and historically that's a big problem for B.J. Penn. If he doesn't have the cardio to keep up with my pace, there's no way he's going to last.
"If I went out there and tried to match BJ's timing, or match BJ's speed, it would never happen. And a lot of guys fall into that trap. It's more about setting your pace and dictating the action, dictating what's going on in the fight. That way you're not reacting to things, you're making the faster guy react to you. If you're good enough you can set traps, make them react the wrong way."
Fitch is about as good at dictating the pace as anyone has ever been in his sport. His UFC record of 13-1 is one of the most impressive ever run up in the Octagon, and with the exception of a loss to St-Pierre, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world by acclamation, he has won every fight he's been in for more than eight years, over opponents like Diego Sanchez, Paulo Thiago and Akihiro Gono. His problem, in fact, may be that he's too good.
A wrestler out of Purdue University -- he trained under Tom Erikson, a Pride and K-1 veteran, and became interested in MMA when he learned of the huge paychecks Erikson's fighting cronies were earning in Japan -- Fitch has never unlearned what all wrestlers are taught, that the thing is to win, whether or not it's ugly. Perhaps consequently, after an early run of mauling people -- four of his first six UFC fights ended by knockout or submission -- he hasn't finished anyone in years. His last eight fights have gone to the judges, and with one exception they've gone his way. There is no other way to call a fight in which one man just straitjackets the other.
Partly because of this, and partly because he is an amiable type from Fort Wayne, Ind., disinclined to talk about eating his opponent's souls or show much interest in anything other than being a great fighter, Fitch is thought of by many as about the most boring fighter in the United States. This isn't an abstract concern: Just two of his first seven UFC fights were even placed on the main card of a pay-per-view, so he was barely able to support himself as a fighter during much of the time he was running up one of the longer undefeated streaks the promotion has yet seen. If the brass believes that anyone wants to pay to see him, it has yet to show it.
There are two basic theories of fighting. One proposes that the whole appeal of the sport is in seeing who the very best fighters in the world are. The other proposes that a fighter is just a kind of celebrity, a star through whom the masses can live vicariously.
In the first construct it doesn't much matter how Fitch wins, any more than it matters that Tim Duncan is great because of his mastery of space and the high-percentage shot. If his best tools are his ability to work leverage in fights and his endurance rather than knockout power, so be it. The thing is to win.
In the second, probably more realistic, line, Fitch's inability to finish matters because it shows that he leaves something in reserve, that he's an athlete rather than a warrior -- that he thinks, rather than feels, his way through a fight. No one wants to live vicariously through a thinking man's fighter. There is a reason why Kevin Ferguson, by all accounts a very nice man, plays Kimbo Slice on television, and there is a reason why Chuck Liddell, as thoroughly shot a fighter as you'll ever see, could make seven figures tomorrow by fighting you.
The most damaging critique of Fitch, though, is probably this: His consistent failure to finish demonstrates he is fighting at something less than his full potential. It's one thing not to be able to tap Thiago Alves, quite another to go full three rounds with Ben Saunders, a less gifted and skilled fighter. Work his boxing technique as he may -- and he does -- Fitch is never going to hit like Brock Lesnar. He is, though, a black belt, more than able in theory to pull a submission on a lesser fighter. If he can't do it to Chris Wilson, this line goes, what are the odds that he'll do it to Georges St-Pierre? And if there are no odds, why should he have a second shot at the champion?