Jon Fitch never knows what’s coming next.
Most professional athletes don’t like to look past their upcoming competition -- Mike McCarthy isn’t answering Super Bowl questions right now -- but when you ask Fitch where a win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 141 on Friday would put him in the currently Georges St. Pierre-less welterweight division he honestly has no idea.
“I don’t always get a lot of credit, but I keep plugging away and I keep winning fights,” Fitch said. Even over the phone his voice sounds beleaguered. He’s been answering questions about where he thinks he is in the division since he lost to GSP at UFC 87 in 2008. The answer hasn’t changed. He’s believes he’s number two, right behind the future UFC Hall of Famer.
Nate Diaz and Chael Sonnen have both had successful MMA careers by using their outspoken personalities to market themselves. Don’t expect that kind of strategy from Fitch anytime soon.
“Jon’s not flashy,” said former PRIDE fighter Tom Erikson, who coached Fitch during his wrestling days at Purdue. “People don’t want to hear about guys doing the right things.”
In fact, if you want someone to tell you about how underappreciated Fitch is in the UFC, the best person to talk to is anyone but Jon Fitch. The welterweight is quick to point out that Purdue doesn’t have the reputation of cranking out top fighters like it should. He’ll sign action figures at Purdue wrestling’s alumni golf tournament every year and passionately list guys like Stefan Bonner, Matt Hamill, Matt Mitrione, Miguel Torres, Nate Moore, Jake O’Brien and Chase Beebe -- all of whom have Purdue ties -- but thinks Purdue is under the radar because many of the fighters did wrestle. Erikson, who is still an assistant wrestling coach at Purdue, has a different theory.
“I don’t think we get the credit we deserve and that’s because Jon doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” he said.
Fitch will admit that sometimes MMA tries to take on too much of a professional wrestling or kung-fu fight mentality which makes his fighting style less marketable, but that’s about as far as he’ll go complaining. On Nate Diaz and Carlos Condit, the two men fighting for the interim welterweight title, he said, “They’re both good fighters but I think they’re both guys that can be beaten.”
Don’t take that as Fitch saying he should be the one fighting for the interim belt. When you ask him who can beat Diaz and Condit the first name he says is Jake Ellenberger. If you want someone to tell you Fitch deserves a shot at the interim belt if he beats Hendricks, you have to talk to someone else.
“Jon Fitch is the second best welterweight on the planet,” Erikson said adamantly. “A lot of people may not like the way Jon approaches a fight, but doggonit you’ve got to admit the guy’s tough.”
Erikson first saw the toughness when he was recruiting Fitch to come to Purdue. The Fort Wayne, Ind., product never won a state title, but his determination and work ethic impressed Boilermakers’ coaches enough to give him a shot. After two years of “paying his dues” -- Coach Erikson’s way of nicely saying getting hopelessly beaten up -- Fitch was a team captain and varsity wrestler. He was just starting to get good when he ran out of eligibility and giving up competition was “a nightmare,” so he stayed another year as a graduate assistant coach. That’s when Erikson introduced him to MMA. Fitch would roll around with Erikson, Mark Coleman, Gary Goodridge and other mixed martial artists that trained in Purdue’s wrestling room.
“He kind of opened the door for me,” Fitch said. “I didn’t even know the door was there, really.”
Fitch started off training at a local Indiana gym, but after losing two of his first four fights he moved to San Jose to train at the American Kickboxing Academy. His only loss since the move is to Georges St-Pierre. His teammates notice the same intensity Fitch brought to the Purdue wrestling room.
“I have a lot of respect for him, how he trains and how he lives” said Nate Moore, a former Purdue wrestler who following Fitch to AKA and lived with him for six months in San Jose. “He outworks everybody and he also outsmarts them.”
Moore was immediately impressed with Fitch’s lifestyle, which can basically be boiled down to workouts, watching fight film and spending time with his wife Michelle and dog Bricks. The Strikeforce welterweight doesn’t think his teammate’s matchup with Johnny Hendricks makes a lot of sense.
“I don’t think Hendricks has an advantage in the stand-up or on the ground,” Moore said.
Hendricks was a two-time national champion wrestler at Oklahoma State and may be the toughest wrestler Fitch has faced in his MMA career, but the ground-and-pound artist, said that won’t affect his gameplan.
“A fight is a fight; it’s not a wrestling match,” Fitch said. “The basic gameplan is always the same: I take what’s given.”
Moore was a little more specific. The four-time NCAA qualifier is currently sidelined with a knee injury and was unable to help Fitch prepare for Hendricks, but he believes his teammate is one of the smartest fighters in the UFC.
“Fitch is the gameplan master,” Moore said. “He’s not going to put himself in a position to get taken down and if he does he’s going to have an answer.”
Predictably, if you want someone to tell you what to expect on Friday when Fitch gets in the octagon with Hendricks, who has an 11-1 MMA record, Fitch isn’t the best person to ask.
While Moore said, “I look forward to him smashing Mr. Hendricks because I think he’s a little cocky,” Fitch just said, “A lot of people don’t give me any credit for my stand-up.”
Unfortunately for Fitch, it’s not just his stand-up that’s underrated.
-- Stephen Boyle