With a UFC record of 13-1, welterweight Jon Fitch soldiers ahead toward a second title shot, a campaign underwritten by an eminently blue-collar and unassuming approach. As he prepares to face B.J. Penn at UFC 127 on Sunday in Sydney, Fitch knows it to be an opportunity replete with upside.
In short, an impressive win over Penn could go a long way toward getting him a second crack at champion Georges St. Pierre.
Originally booked to fight Jake Ellenberger, Fitch received news of the switch after Penn's slam-bang knockout of Matt Hughes on Nov. 20. Because Penn had been coming off back-to-back decision losses to Frankie Edgar, the win instantly resurrected his stock in the welterweight division.
"[American Kickboxing Academy trainer] Bob Cook called my wife and had her track me down. I was kinda shocked," Fitch says. "It was late Saturday night; they're calling for an opponent change and a date change. I jumped all over it. I was a little [disappointed] to come away from the Jake Ellenberger fight, because he's an up-and-coming guy. I've been in that situation. But, at the same time, I need the fight with B.J. Plus, to headline a card is great."
Stylistically, the matchup is compelling, as Fitch and Penn are polar opposites in terms of how insiders and fans perceive their consistency.
Fitch's grind-'em-down approach and conditioning are guaranteed to come into play against every opponent. Even in his five-round bout against St. Pierre, his gutty persistence and resilience won him the enduring respect of all who watched despite the one-sided action. When he has an advantage, he presses it, punishing opponents with a work rate and hard-nosed attack that offers little chance to rest.
Penn, perhaps one of the most talented fighters in the sport, remains mercurial, with moments of inimitable brilliance. His impressive lightweight reign resulted in three one-sided title defenses against quality foes in Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, but he seemed flat and listless against Edgar.
The long-lurking downside to Penn's ability always has been the question of his motivation, an issue that seemed apparent against Edgar. But against Hughes, Penn was his destructive vintage self, dispatching the former champ in a mere 21 seconds to win the rubber match of one of the game's best rivalries. With that, Penn instantly elevated himself back into the welterweight conversation. The next chapter comes against Fitch.
"There are definitely things we have to change around, with fighting B.J. I never really try to force the fight going anywhere," Fitch says. "I have a good outline of what I want to do, trying to dictate the pace of the fight. Everybody is unique, and you'll see a good mix. B.J. has skills that can push the fight, too."
That's where the style collision lurks, and it asks questions of both. Penn's takedown defense and wily bottom game make taking him to the ground a difficult proposition and surviving there an especially risky one. Fitch excels at taking down opponents and wearing them out. Something has to give, and with Fitch's durability and work rate, he forces physical exertion at a pace few fighters can imitate. He may not get the first takedown or transition in a tie-up, but one can be certain he will keep trying. That is how Fitch breaks opponents.
It is exactly the kind of fight one needs to beat Penn; St. Pierre executed perfectly in his four-round TKO against the Hawaiian at UFC 94. It is also the template Fitch created when he moved out west on the wings of a dream and mortgaged everything to
become a professional fighter.
From vagabond to title contender
After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in physical education and a minor in history, Fitch worked as a graduate assistant in the school's wrestling program; he had been team captain his senior year. Later, he relocated to train at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., and, in the beginning, literally had floors on which to crash at night and a handful of T-shirts in which to rotate through his various workouts.
"It was a huge long shot. I just felt like I had to do it. I had an opportunity. I had just graduated from school. I just decided just to pick up and do it," Fitch recalls. "I always wanted to go to California, and the more I got involved with MMA, the more I craved to learn more about it. I had the realization that the only way for me to pursue this life of fighting was to fully immerse myself in the culture and lifestyle of a fighter, so I removed myself from everything that was familiar to me: friends, family, jobs. Anything I couldn't fit in my 1990 Buick Regal got left behind."
After compiling a stellar 10-2 (plus one no-contest) record in smaller shows, Fitch entered the UFC in October 2005. He put together an eight-fight win streak, beating increasingly tough foes, from handing Thiago Alves his only knockout loss to decisioning "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez. Fans eventually took notice, and a shot against champion Georges St. Pierre arrived at UFC 87 in August 2008.
"It was amazing, just because of the team element behind me and always supporting me," Fitch says. "We have that whole training camp documented in the documentary, [so I get] to go back and watch that to see how the team came together to push me forward to that fight."
The documentary to which Fitch refers, "Such Great Heights," chronicles the American Kickboxing Academy's preparation leading into the St. Pierre bout; the film's Facebook page targets an early 2011 release date.
For Fitch, the second run to a title shot represents the chance to make up for his mistakes in the first St. Pierre match. In the middle of the first round, after being taken down by the champion, Fitch battled back to standing position and threw a right leg kick that St. Pierre countered perfectly, landing a jarring right hand that dropped him hard.
"After I got through the bad leg kick and was dropped, the game plan went out the window," he says. "My mind switched to 'I've got to finish him.' I was trying to knock him out with every single punch."
In one-sided fights that go long, most competitors on the short end will adjust accordingly, ratcheting down their aggression in what boxing trainer Teddy Atlas calls "the silent contract."
In ceasing their efforts to win, they let the better fighter notch a decision victory in return for not getting their head handed to them. Only the rarest of breeds keeps coming, and coming, and coming again. Fitch survived a five-round assault without a hint of surrender. No matter how many times St. Pierre thumped him with strikes or landed big takedowns, Fitch would not stop battling.
Since then, St. Pierre has rolled ahead as champion, notching four defenses, winning every judge's scorecard of a possible 57 rounds in the process. His second reign as champion has prompted talk of a possible match with middleweight king Anderson Silva, given perception that has cleaned out the welterweight division. The superfight would not happen, if Fitch had anything to say about it. He offered his thoughts on the champion's recent performances as well as GSP's ever-evolving game.
"It's timing. Timing is everything with GSP. He's not technically the best anywhere. He's not an expert at any one position," Fitch says. "Guys will have better stand-up, wrestling, or BJJ [Brazilian jiu-jitsu], and he's able to blend everything so well."
Athletes like Fitch generally fly under the radar longer than most of their peers, even when they are more accomplished than their contemporaries.
Lacking the crass appeal that translates into extra notoriety and recognition, a guy like Fitch represents the ultimate blue-collar type. He shows up in shape and pushes the pace from the opening moments with a game predicated on knowing the percentages he can play and the strengths he can exert to sap you of your own. There is no mean-mugging, histrionics at the weigh-in or on the way to the cage, no manufactured grudge; his game mimics the same stripped-down approach.
Fitch rarely throws strikes more complex than a basic straight or textbook counter, and his wrestling is a nuts-and-bolts compendium of everything one would want to teach a junior high wrestler to give him a foundation. What makes Fitch excel is the peerless execution of these strategies, the fights within the fights that comprise the largely overlooked tactical side of MMA. With an outstanding jiu-jitsu game backing up his wrestling, he is one of the better-rounded grapplers in the sport. The end result is that he gets from Point A to B with a jarring sense of inevitability, almost always with a backup plan in case his opponent stops him on the first attempt.
If blocking and tackling alter the calculus of a football game, positioning, angles, and properly applied pressure work the same way for Fitch in MMA. He simply outthinks and outworks foes until the reductive effects produce the same inevitable result: You're tired, he's pressuring and you're sucked into his world.
Javier Mendez, trainer at the American Kickboxing Academy, weighed in on the matchup with Penn. Mendez's perspective is a unique one, as he has mentored Fitch since the early days of his career and trained Penn from 2000 to 2002, right when "The Prodigy" began his ascent into MMA.
"Jon is the true testament to anybody with the mental desire. He's not great physically, but he is stronger than anybody, just as strong as Cain Velasquez, mentally," Mendez says. "He's very strong and very coachable. Jon is one of my easiest fighters to work with."
Ironically, Penn represents the flip side of that model -- a magnificently gifted athlete with the ephemeral asterisk; the grappling wunderkind who won the jiu-jitsu world championship after just three years of training and won UFC titles in two divisions, yet forever carries a qualifier because of inconsistent conditioning and performances.
"Jon's a grinder. It's gonna be a real, real tough fight. It all depends on what B.J.'s able to exploit on Jon and vice versa," Mendez says. "B.J.'s jiu-jitsu is better than Jon's, but it's not that much better, and he's not a better wrestler. B.J.'s got better hands; Jon's got better kicks."
At the end of the day, Mendez adds, it comes down to how much Penn wants to be Penn, the dazzling impresario.
"I've always thought with B.J. [that] he's gonna be what he wants to be. He'll just do it. When he fought Lyoto Machida, he gave him all he could handle," he says. "If you're gonna try and outgun B.J. based on size, you've got another problem coming. B.J.'s fought a lot of street fights with big guys, so he's not unaccustomed to that."
Seeking St. Pierre
If Fitch needs marked improvement in one area, it is his stand-up game. Against most opponents, it has proved serviceable enough to allow him to initiate takedowns and tie-ups, underwritten by a rock-solid chin. However, in his title challenge against St. Pierre, he found himself outmatched standing, unable to get the correct distance to apply his grappling against the uber-talented champion.
Mendez, although he refuses to look past Penn, believes that a second chance is available against St. Pierre, with different results. So far, AKA representatives are 0-3 against GSP, with Josh Koscheck losing twice. His rematch with the French-Canadian in December yielded little in the way of encouraging results.
"Georges is a puzzle. Koscheck kind of got a little bit of the puzzle figured out. He took him down and was able to hold him down," Mendez says. "But I think anybody that knows MMA, if that was Jake Shields, GSP could have had some problems. Koscheck got up every time he took him down."
Penn serves as a great benchmark for how Fitch Version 2.0 might match up against St. Pierre. Fitch will be the larger man come fight time, as he will enter the Octagon somewhere around 184 pounds; Penn, coming up from lightweight, likely will be around 175. In the end, it becomes a matter of thinking and executing correctly against an eminently crafty opponent in Penn. If he can do so, Fitch will be nicely positioned to take on St. Pierre. However, with five decision victories in a row, he probably will have to do a bit more against Penn to build the required buzz to land him another shot. A stoppage and some highlight-reel brutality would go a long way Down Under.
"I think what you're seeing now is the climate shift of the sport," Fitch says. "Everybody kind of knows everything now. Yet what you are seeing is the guys who are pulling ahead and shining are the thinkers. They're able to strategize and have a purpose for what they're doing during a fight. The guys who have all those abilities and don't have a strategy aren't going to succeed."
If there is one trait Fitch has shown, it is that he is good at getting up when knocked down. As long as he can do so, he remains in the fight.
Now that MMA is ushering in more talent than ever, he takes in the up-and-comers as a welcome influx; they are where he was just a few years ago, and the inclination to press forward and keep working, improving and pushing himself is all the invitation he needs.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.