For four years, Jon Fitch was generally considered the No. 2 welterweight fighter in the world. Until a year ago, he sported the second best win-loss record within the UFC of any fighter in the history of the UFC, behind only Anderson Silva.
But, far more than any fighter on UFC 153, Fitch (26-4-1, 1 no contest overall, 13-2-1 in UFC competition) is at both a career and life crossroads. With a win over Brazilian Erick Silva (14-2, 1 no contest) tonight at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, and Fitch is back to being talked about as one of the top contenders in the welterweight division.
For Silva, this fight is just as big. A win over Fitch and he's instantly a welterweight championship contender, and should be one of the sport's hot new stars. A loss, and he joins the pack of guys who looked great against mid-level competition, but couldn't hang with the big boys.
Silva has destroyed all three of his UFC opponents in the first round. Technically he has one loss. The second of the three foes, Carlo Prater, got his hand raised via disqualification even though Silva overwhelmed him in 29 seconds. But the ref ruled he had hit Prater behind the head. Still, anyone who saw that fight would consider it no more of a loss than Jon Jones' singular loss to Matt Hamill.
If Fitch loses, he may be looking at getting a regular job. Fitch's record in UFC competition is the best lifetime record of any fighter in company's modern history who has never held a championship. Of major modern stars, even with his disappointing 2011, he's ranked behind only Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans. The flip side of that record is that he is not going to get anything that he doesn't earn double.
During that same period he was considered the second best welterweight, he was also the poster child for regular debates about sports vs. entertainment. Fitch was the guy who would take guys down and grind out victory after victory, mostly by decision. He wasn't flashy. Only four of his wins came by finishes. When you think of Jon Fitch, you think of his hand being raised, but there are no spectacular moments etched into your hard.
Some would argue his fights were the antithesis of entertainment. And he's paid for it. He's only had one title shot in his career. Even though he's won fights where the winner was promised a title shot, those shots never materialized. Then, a controversial draw with B.J. Penn was enough to remove him from any talk of a title shot. Some cited his record, saying his treatment wasn't fair. Others argued that if the fans don't clamor to see you in a title match, and are more interested in someone else, you aren't getting the benefit of the doubt in close decisions. Fitch was never actually turned down for a title shot as much as never fast-tracked, like his more colorful trash-talking good friend Josh Koscheck was. And UFC, as a rule, tries to make the fights they perceive the fans want to see.
"I can't financially afford a loss," he said. "I may have to get a real job."
In fact, this week, he's talked more than just beating Silva, but also winning with an exclamation point and picking up a performance bonus. That's something he's only won one of during his career and that was a best match bonus he won based on pure guts of hanging with St-Pierre for five rounds in the kind of a war that would have mentally broken 95% of fighters.
"Ideally, I'd love to walk out with a fight of the night or submission of the night bonus," he said. "I'd like to put a lot of distance between me and financial woes. We've been living month-to-month since last summer. I've had to borrow money from my family. A good performance will help us pay everything back and pay everyone back. Next time I fight, we'll be out of the water."
After two long winning streaks, his good luck started running out just before the Penn fight. It started with injuries. The draw with Penn, which led to vehement debates on who really won that fight, led to a natural rematch that would have been even bigger. But a torn rotator cuff put him on the shelf and Penn moved into a new direction. The time off from fighting led to financial issues.
He just started a family, and purchased a home in the expensive San Jose, Calif. area. He admitted that he went into the cage for his last fight, a 12 second knockout loss to Johny Hendricks on Dec. 29, not ready to fight due to suffering a second-degree MCL tear on the first day of his training camp. The only reason he didn't pull out is because he was falling behind on his mortgage.
"The biggest thing I've learned is don't try to fight injured," he said. "I tried to force myself though that training camp. I needed the money. I didn't have the option of pulling out or of pushing the fight back. I convinced myself I could win. I wasn't able to grapple or wrestle at all in that camp. All I could do was box, and even in boxing I was very limited in the amount of movement I could do. I relied on head movement. It wasn't even a good way of boxing. There was no talking me out of the fight. I needed the money. I got into the cage, and found out if you're not confident with your training camp, your mind's not going to be there. And it's not going to go good from there."
Fitch's injuries the past two years have included the torn rotator cuff that he fought Penn with, the torn MCL that he fought Hendricks with, and so far this year, a partially torn ACL, a dislocated knee, and a separated rib.
"My last injury was a ridiculous fluke that shouldn't have happened," he said. "We were in a big room. Four guys were in the room. I was sparring with Luke Rockhold and two guys from Japan were sparring together. One hit a double on the other and ran into the back of my leg, dislocated my knee and I got a partial ACL tear, which aggravated the rest of the knee. It was nothing related to training too hard. It was negligence by people not being careful. The injury I had before that was a week after the Hendricks fight. I separated my rib. I was doing light sparring with a guy I thought was 220 or 230 pounds, but I found out he was really 280 pounds. He hit a double leg and just his sheer weight separated the ribs."
Much of this year was spent healing up.
"This is the first training camp I've had that I've been actually healthy and able to do everything I needed to do and work on everything. It's not a camp with no wrestling, no grappling and no kicking (like before the Hendricks fight), and I think it's going to make a huge difference."
Fitch's plight is a combination of things. The injuries took him out of the usual rotation of fights. In addition, the MMA economy has changed greatly over the past two years, and there are limited opportunities to earn money while not fighting. It's harder to get paying sponsorships for a number of reasons. MMA isn't as hot as it was a few years ago. The economy is tough, particularly for small businessmen that used to sponsor fighters. Plus, tougher restrictions by UFC, not allowing certain sponsors, and also forcing sponsors to pay UFC a significant sum for the right to sponsor fighters has kept the smaller sponsors out of the UFC game. And even with the bigger sponsors, there is a lot less money to trickle down to the fighters.
"It's tough for everybody," he noted. "In this sport, if you're not fighting, you're not making money. That's just the way it is. You used to be able to make enough on the side to be okay if you were hurt. It's hard to get seminars. People aren't calling for appearances, and if they do call, they low ball you from what you would usually accept. And if you accept the low prices, if the economy does come back, people will expect you to take appearances at the low price. A lot of sponsors have dried up. The small businessman is struggling in this economy. It's hard to even get equipment and T-shirts."
Fitch has made some minor changes in training for Silva on concession to being 34 years old. He's cut back on hard sparring. For years, he was in there every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, going back-and-forth with some of the toughest guys in the world at the AKA Gym in San Jose. In this camp, he wouldn't spar on Fridays, and instead used it as a technique day. He noted that if he spent five minutes drilling double leg takedowns, he'll do hundreds of them. If he's sparring going live, he may hit one or two.
And even though he is a big proponent of the health aspects of a vegan diet, he regularly ate meat every Friday for dinner, and every Sunday, for lunch.
"I do my workload of training during the week," he said. "I don't eat meat during the week because I want to recover faster. I don't want to be sluggish. Sometimes I noticed if I ate meat on Sunday night, I'd have a bad Monday of training. It took a little bit of time figuring things out. I'm a big supporter of a low meat, plant-based diet. But as an athlete, you need certain things to maintain body size and strength. Some guys may be able to eat less meat and keep their size. I was about five pounds lighter walking around (on the pure vegan diet). There's a big difference training at 188 pounds and at 183 pounds."
He sees Silva as an impressive fighter, but thinks Silva's rapid success over the past year may work out to his advantage. Fitch has been facing top level competition consistently for years. For Silva, Fitch is a major step up from anyone he's faced so far.
"He's very fast, very explosive," said Fitch. "He's got a good spinning back kick. He kicks a lot. If I can control the range, I'll be able to take some of that way from him. I think experience will be a factor in this fight.
"I definitely can see some things to take advantage of. His inexperience, fighting in his home town is going to put a lot of pressure on him. I'm the underdog. The longer the fight goes, the more doubt he'll have in himself. He may have a lot of overconfidence because he's finished his fights so fast. He's all hyped up. You start believing in that hype and you're susceptible."