As WSOF debut nears, Jon Fitch feels unleashed by break from 'hostile' UFC

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It didn't take long for Jon Fitch to be asked about the three letters that for a while, served to define him as a professional. Why would it? The wound, after all, is still fresh. It was only about three months ago when Fitch was let go by the UFC, one of 16 fighters released on a cold February Tuesday despite still being ranked No. 9 in the promotion's own ratings system. It was just days before his 35th birthday when Fitch got the news. And despite his ranking and his long tenure with the promotion, it came as no shock.

He has a new start staring him in the face. On June 14, he will debut for World Series of Fighting, facing Josh Burkman in the night's main event. It will be nationally telecast on NBC Sports Network. The winner will get to fight for the soon-to-be-established welterweight championship. He has moved on. But to many it doesn't feel like, at least not until he is seen in a cage with less than eight sides. For now, he is still connected to the UFC, at least by fraying strands, at least by the people who watched him for so long. After 18 bouts and nearly eight years, the connection is still a natural one to make.

Not on his end. As Fitch tells it, he never really felt comfortable in the UFC. He felt stifled, unwanted. That's why after all this time, moving to WSOF is a deep, exhilarating breath.

"From very early on, I was fighting for my job every single fight," he said of his UFC days. "They made it very clear that they didn't like me or want me around. That's one reason I’m so excited about being with World Series of Fighting right now. They want me around and they're giving me a great push. It's awesome to have people working with me instead of against me."

He offers evidence for his contention. There was once a very public firing in 2008, just shortly after he had challenged Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight belt. At the time, it was his first loss in 17 fights, and he was still ranked No. 2 in the world. It was a stunner. And while the rift, which stemmed over a marketing deal, was soon patched up and Fitch was brought back into the fold, according to him, he never felt particularly wanted.

"There were times throughout my career with contract negotiations, there were threats of, after agreeing to terms of contracts, they were like, 'It doesn't matter anyway, as soon as you lose, we're going to cut you and sign you back for half as much.' [Those] type of statements," he said. "And just things said under their breath around me, things said behind my back to the media. Without ever sitting me down like a man and talking to me. To me that's a clear sign of not wanting somebody around, not being appreciated, and not having a place at the table."

His perception of the "hostile" atmosphere around him was crushing, to the point where he said it will be extremely helpful to fight for once without fear of losing his job.

"That freedom itself kind of takes the leash off the dog," he said.

It was Dana White's contention that Fitch is on the tail end of his career, pointing at his 1-2-1 record in last four fights as proof. It's Fitch's mission to disprove him. He believes that he has time left, years, really. He called WSOF 3 the start of the "second half" of his career, one in which he'll be supported and respected.

"It feels good," he said. "You can't put a price tag on respect."

His fight with Burkman is a rematch of a 2006 bout between them. Fitch won the original with a second-round rear naked choke. He was younger and still establishing himself. He was also motivated to prove the UFC wrong.

Yes, his first UFC snub came before he ever competed in the organization, back when he was supposed to be on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. He was chosen and quit his job to take what he believed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. On the day he was supposed to fly to Las Vegas, he was at the airport, 15 minutes from boarding the plane when he got the call to turn around and go home. He'd been replaced with no explanation.

Burkman wasn't on season one either, but he was cast on season two, and when Fitch got to face him, Burkman represented that lost opportunity. It was a little extra motivation. A little extra spark to make a statement, which he did.

This WSOF restart is much the same. He knows who'll be watching, and the statement he can make. Jon Fitch may be gone from the UFC, but he's still relevant in the mixed martial arts world.

After all this time, the connection between Fitch and the UFC still matters. It always will.

"I’m proud of my history, I'm proud of what I've done," he said. "I'm even more proud of what I've done under the circumstances. It's not easy to be successful in a hostile work environment. Anyone who’s worked in any profession that had to go through that knows that for a fact. I feel like I have double the wins because of the circumstances that I fought against."

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