Jon Fitch was never quite sure what it was. Could it have been statements he made? The way he fought inside the Octagon? Contractual pushback during the UFC's key growth period? Ultimately, he doesn't know. But whatever it was, it caused him to never feel at home in the UFC during his nearly eight year run in the world's preeminent MMA organization.
That's why his release from UFC after losing to Demian Maia at UFC 156 in February - despite being ranked as one of the top ten welterweights in the world - isn't altogether surprising. Not to Fitch, anyway. "I just kind of laughed, really," Fitch said, explaining his feelings to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "It was a surprise, but at that the same time it kind of wasn't. You feel like you got a knife dangling over your neck for a long time. You're not surprised when it cuts you."
"I didn't know what was quite expected of me and I never felt right in the [UFC] organization," Fitch noted. And by nearly everyone's estimation, the American Kickboxing Academy welterweight's run with UFC was almost always contentious both inside the cage and out.
There was a fissure between fans on Fitch. Some belonged to a group who decried his wrestling-based, top-control style of fighting as ruinous for the sport's appeal. Others blasted what they believed were attempts by UFC management to deny the fighter title shot opportunities based on a perfectly legitimate if less exciting style of fighting.
UFC brass seemingly never embraced the former captain of the Purdue wrestling team and even (very briefly) axed him from the organization for failure to sign over his lifetime likeness rights for use in the UFC's video game in 2008.
In Fitch's mind, there was rarely a moment where he felt he wasn't unfairly scrutinized, doubted or repudiated while competing for the UFC. "I kind of felt that way from the beginning," Fitch lamented. "Things kind of deteriorated more after the video game [incident]. I never really felt comfortable or wanted there."
To that end, during the pre-fight press conference for UFC 157 in late February, UFC President Dana White defended his organization's decision to release Fitch, noting that while the welterweight was still ranked in the top 10 of UFC's own media rankings, the best was over for him. White claimed while Fitch was once a top contender, he was now 1-2-1 in his last four fights and most recently has lost a dominant decision victory to Demian Maia. If there was any trajectory to Fitch's career, it was downward.
Despite being 35 years of age, Fitch categorically rejects White's assertion he is on the 'downside' of his career.
"No, in no way," Fitch stated adamantly. "In no way am I on the downside of my career. I don't agree with that at all." According to Fitch, he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't. It was odd for there to be intense focus on his recent performances as hugely meaningful when he believes his win streaks and victories were never acknowledged properly by the UFC. "And I never really got that much recognition as a number-one contender when I was under contract," he argued.
"I never felt like I got a lot of attention that other people did that were doing the same thing as me," Fitch continued. "But, the important thing is that I am going to be with an organization now that I feel we're really going to get a chance to do something big.
"I think this is just going to be a fresh start and something a lot better."
That "fresh start" Fitch refers to is his signing with upstart league the World Series of Fighting (WSOF), a new promotion with a recently-inked deal to air up to six fights annually on the NBC Sports network. WSOF is also all too happy to take fighters cut from the UFC who still have ability and fan appeal. That's especially true in the case of a fighter widely recognized as one of the ten best welterweights competing in the sport.
Fitch declined to specify the terms of his deal, but did confirm he'll be competing on June 14th as part of the main event. No opponent has yet been named, although UFC veteran Gerald Harris has vocally thrown his hat in the ring as a potential foe. Fitch also said while his WSOF deal isn't as lucrative as the one he had with UFC, it does provide leeway to be paid as part of grappling super fights or exhibitions. Depending on the frequency of his fight schedule, he could even compete for other organizations overseas.
For Fitch, though, it isn't just about a more accommodating contract. Instead, it's about a chance to be himself again. To hear him tell it, his attitude is better than it's been in years. He calls the move to WSOF 'life changing'. There's a freedom, he says, that comes with being at WSOF that makes him happier as a person and practitioner of MMA.
While Fitch notes it isn't the UFC's fault, "the sport was kind of turning me into a fighter and not a martial artist. I think living my life and doing things daily as a martial artist made me a lot happier. I think I've gotten back to that in the last month or so."
The WSOF welterweight contends without the pressure to be someone he isn't while in an organization that openly covets his services, there's a relief to the fight game. He's enjoying himself again. There's no second guessing with WSOF, according to Fitch. He knows he's wanted. Fitch says that doesn't mean he won't answer if the UFC comes knocking at some point in the future, but he's also all too happy to "turn the page" on that chapter in his career.
"I'm actually very excited and in a very happy place right now because I feel working with World Series [of Fighting], I get to help build an organization and work with people, instead of kind of feeling like I'm working against people."