Fitch may lack flash and pizzazz, but he is a force in the octagon
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?
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."