The lesson Jon Fitch learned over the past two tumultuous years has been one of life's most basic: Control the things you can and let go of those you can't.
At the start of 2011, the veteran Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight appeared to be on the cusp of greatness. With a style which epitomizes substance over flash, Fitch, the former captain of the Purdue University wrestling team, forced his way onto most mixed martial arts pound-for-pound Top 10 lists by winning five straight fights and 21-of-22.
Twenty-two months later, Fitch faces a dramatically different scenario as he prepares to meet young welterweight hotshot Erick Silva on Saturday at UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Two years filled with surprise results inside the octagon and injuries outside have given the 34-year old Fitch a new perspective on what a fight career entails.
"I got too caught up in what might happen down the road," Fitch said in a Wednesday phone interview from Rio. "It wasn't that I was overlooking my fights, but I was letting myself think too much in terms of where this fight might lead to, and what it might set me up for, rather than concentrate entirely on my opponent."
The litany of events speaks for itself: First there was a controversial split draw against B.J. Penn in the main event of UFC 137 in Feb. 2011. Then shoulder surgery sidelined him for much of the year. When he returned, he suffered a flash, 12-second knockout at the hands of Johny Hendricks. Then an ankle injury robbed him of an opportunity to fight in July in his adopted hometown of San Jose, Calif.
The chain of mishaps led Fitch from the precipice of a shot at Georges St-Pierre's welterweight title to the fourth-billed fight against a highly-touted Brazilian on his opponent's home turf. But rather than brood about how things ended up, Fitch looked at the past two years as his chance to fine-tune while there are still plenty of miles left in his tank.
"I'm not thinking about a title shot at the moment," said Fitch, who lost to St-Pierre via decision at UFC 87 in 2008 before rebuilding with a five-fight win streak. "When I got into this sport, I wasn't thinking about title shots. I just loved the sport, I loved to compete. I want to get the feeling back. I'm going to take things a fight at a time and if another title opportunity presents itself, great. But if not, so be it. I want to compete at as high a level as I can for as long as I can."
If that's the case, Fitch (23-4-1, one no-contest) is putting his money where his mouth is. In Silva (14-2, one no-contest), he'll face off against one of the hottest prospects at 170 pounds. The Via Velha, Brazil native has smoked all three of his UFC opponents (though he only actually has two official wins to show for it, as he was on the wrong end of a questionable disqualification in a bout he was dominating against Carlo Prater at UFC 142).
Silva is exactly the type of challenge many established veterans would actively avoid at Fitch's stage in his career. While Silva is considered a can't-miss prospect, his name isn't yet quite big enough that he merits top billing on the card and the paycheck that goes with it. But if Silva wins, not only does he get the rub from beating an opponent of Fitch's standing, but he would also shove Fitch down in the pecking order.
None of this fazes Fitch.
"This is the type of challenge I've taken on my whole career," Fitch said. "I've never taken shortcuts. I thrive on pushing myself against the best opponents I can face. Sometimes that's meant a fight against a high-profile name, but sometimes it's been against a super-tough opponent who doesn't have the name recognition. Doesn't matter to me, give me a challenge and I'll accept it."
In response, Fitch is given a list of some of those tough-out opponents, like Paulo Thiago, whom he defeated at UFC 100.
"Exactly," Fitch said. "Look at Paulo Thiago. There was a guy who was 11-0 when we fought. A guy who up until his last fight (against Siyar Bahadurzada in April) had never been finished. Or Akihiro Gono. When we fought, the only time he had been finished in his weight class in the past eight years was by Dan Henderson. Maybe I don't get the credit because I haven't been knocking guys out, but I've never backed down from a challenge."
And while several vets further would have balked at the prospect of facing Silva in Brazil, for Fitch, the location was part of the fight's appeal. Fitch simply saw the fight as an opportunity to compete in MMA's birthplace while the UFC is going through a boom period in the country.
"It's been amazing," Fitch said. "I got into this business in part because I love to travel, and they know their fights and their fighters down here. The other day Phil Davis (who is also fighting on the card) and I made it out to the beach and we were mobbed by fans asking for pictures and autographs. I know they'll probably be rooting for Erick Saturday night, but that's cool. It's been a great experience already."
The best way he can top the experience, of course, is by defeating Silva and making the statement that he still belongs near the top of the heap.
"This is the best I've felt since 2010," Fitch said. "This is the first full training camp I've had in two years where I haven't had to avoid doing some things because of this injury, or doing other things because of that injury. I've just been able to do my thing. I've been able to train all out and I think you'll see the results of that on Saturday night. I'm back to doing what I love to do."