Jon Fitch was already well on his way to becoming a verb when he fought Georges St-Pierre at UFC 87 in Minneapolis. To get "fitched" meant to spend three rounds on your back staring up at the ring lights in a state of helplessness, using peripheral vision to try and avoid incoming elbows and icepicks. He was the quintessential grinder, always gritting his teeth and snarling.
St-Pierre, though, would not get fitched, not that night nor ever. He would be the dictator of wills, and win a hard fought decision that left both men bruised and in tatters. The hype around UFC 87: Seek and Destroy not only belonged to GSP in that defense against Fitch, but also to the hometown colossus Brock Lesnar, who fought in the co-main event against Heath Herring. Lesnar brought the blitzkrieg to Herring that August night back in 2008.
It was a night of moving fortunes.
In hindsight, who’d have known at the time that A) this would be Herring’s last fight in the UFC (or anywhere) or B) that this was the high-water mark for Fitch. He would live perennially in the No. 2 space behind St-Pierre after the loss until Johny Hendricks crashed a left hand through him at UFC 141. It was a mercy measure. By batting Fitch back, Hendricks allowed UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to loosen his tie.
That same night, there was an alternate on the undercard who’d been booked only after a series of injuries to more familiar names. That was Jon Jones, a generic sounding warm body who had alliteration working for him but little else. He came in ultimately as a replacement for Tomasz Drwal to face Andre Gusmao, who was also making his promotional debut, having just knocked out Mike Ciesnolevicz in the IFL. Not too many people paid attention.
Particularly Gusmao, an unsuspecting Brazilian fighter who trained under Renzo Gracie in Manhattan. Gusmao didn’t know it then, but he was the proverbial steak being slid under the door for the 21-year old former junior college wrestling champion from Endicott, New York. He made history that night by going first on the trail of "Bones."
"I literally knew nothing about him," Gusmao, now 36, says today. "I just didn’t know. I was supposed to fight one guy and he got hurt, so they put in another guy, I think it was Alessio Sakara, and he got hurt. I think Jones was like the fourth option of guys down the line. They said, your guy got hurt, so we’ve got this guy, he’s a wrestler, you should fight him. I was like sure, I don’t care, I’ll fight him no problem. I literally knew nothing about him, other than he had a couple of fights."
Jones was 6-0 at the time. He was a one-two-and-shoot fighter, just raw rudiments and length. At least, that’s what he’d shown on the local circuit. But in the UFC, he began freelancing with his striking right off the bat. There were some spinning elbows and flying knees that started trickling in as the fight progressed. Even still, it felt like Jones was leaping into the deep end of things in the fabled light heavyweight division with so few fights under his belt. The following card, UFC 88 in Atlanta, featured a bout between Chuck Liddell and Rashad Evans. Those were the great heights. That’s why Joe Rogan said on the telecast of Jones, "this is a shark tank division to jump into after only nine months in the game."
Turns out Jones was the shark, and everyone else a school of remoras. Including poor Gusmao, who knew he was in trouble the moment he laid eyes on Jones.
"I’d never seen the guy before, so when I saw him at weigh-ins I was like, man this guy is huge," Gusmao said. "The first time I saw him was pretty much when we faced off. I hadn’t seen him before. Didn’t know about his height or his reach, nothing. So I was like, s---, because I’m 6-foot-2 and I looked at this guy and thought, wow, this guy’s big -- I’m in for a long night."
Jones used his wrestling, and some crude ground-and-pound. He also cracked Gusmao with spinning elbows and flying knees, which sort of blossomed over the course of the three rounds into something like "we might want to keep an eye on this guy."
"When the fight was over I was very pissed off," Gusmao says. "This guy just kept kneeing me, gave me a hard fight. I didn’t do well. One of my cornermen said, you know, this guy’s going to be a champ. I said, no man, I just fought badly. He said, no, this guy’s going to be a champ some day. And then as time went by, and now when I look at it, I’m like Jon Jones is freaking great. Even Renzo Gracie and some of my fans, they’re like, you gave this guy the hardest fight and you didn’t even know who he was.
"At the time I was very pissed off, but these days, I’m like, okay."
Less than a month later, on Sept. 6, Rashad Evans knocked out "The Iceman" to essentially bring to a close the Liddell era -- an era that carried the UFC through the mid-aughts. In the span of four weeks, between UFC 87 and UFC 88, Jones came into existence while Liddell receded into a bygone day. The future barely made a splash, while the past sent shockwaves through the fight world.
And Gusmao? He now runs a gym in Manhattan. In the fight game as in trivia, he’ll always be the guy who found out first about Jon Jones.