When Jon Fitch was cut from the UFC following a unanimous decision loss to Demian Maia at UFC 156 in February, UFC President Dana White said the welterweight - while still a good fighter and a guarantee to be a champion in a smaller organization - was basically on the downside of his career.
Even at age 35, Fitch and his supporters bristled at the idea the still top-ten ranked welterweight was in any decline. Still, it didn't matter. His first fight in his new home of the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) would be a good opportunity to bounce back.
The problem is, as MMA fights are wont to do, his first WSOF bout didn't go as planned. In a rematch from their 2006 bout in the UFC, Fitch met Josh Burkman at WSOF 3 in June. There would be no triumphant debut, though, as Fitch was shockingly choked unconscious in just 41 seconds into the first round. The loss marks the first time Fitch has experienced back-to-back losses in his pro MMA career.
"I mean, fighters, I don't think we ever really get over losses," Fitch explained to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour about how he's been dealing with the loss. "It's kind of what drives us to keep working and keeps us moving to get better and try to get better. So, I've dealt with it, but I'll never be over the loss. It's just a matter of me putting together a win or two and getting a rematch."
Not only was the fight an upset generally, but the manner in which Fitch lost surprised many. Fitch, whatever else his flaws are, was believed to be as close as unchokable as any mortal fighter can be. Yet, Burkman not only won by submission, but put Fitch completely to sleep. How could it all have gone so wrong?
"I didn't respect the choke at all," Fitch said. "I went to lift right away. There was a moment when he sank the choke in where I made a decision. I could've went one way and I'd have defended the choke or I could try to pick him up and slam him and I decided to try to pick him up and slam him. I think it was much deeper than I thought.
"When I got to probably the apex of the lift, my body started to give out. I was conscious, but my body already started to go out. By the time my head hit the mat, I was unconscious."
Fitch says he hasn't gone back and watched tape of the bout except what he saw in the cage on the big screen replays immediately after the fight. He claims he doesn't need to because, in his mind, it's all pretty cut and dry in terms of what went wrong. He also acknowledges what cost him was that he got away from what he knew was right in favor of what was flashy or exciting.
"No, usually it's straight to defense. It's one of my biggest rules: defend first. Whether it's a submission or a takedown, you have to defend it 100 percent first before you move onto the next thing," he claimed.
Fitch argues that it wasn't just what technically went wrong, but what went wrong beforehand that led to a poor technical decision. The AKA-product argued the week went smoothly and the WSOF is a professional organization. He also loved the intimacy of the smaller Hard Rock venue in Las Vegas instead of huge UFC crowds. So if it wasn't the event or the change or the show that tripped him up, what did?
As he explained it: pressure to perform. Fitch said he wanted to give back to WSOF, to entertain for putting him front and center and promoting the bout. As a result, he chose the risky slam over the choke defense and paid for it.
"I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to make this debut the biggest debut I could. I was looking for something bigger," Fitch said. "I think this company put a lot of effort into promoting me and getting me out there and I wanted to step up and represent and help take World Series to that next level. Because I knew a lot of people would be watching after everything that's transpired over the last several months."
As for the refereeing controversy in the bout, Fitch doesn't believe Steve Mazzagatti deserves criticism. Win or lose, he's looking for finality and that's what he got. "I'm a little old school. I like when a fight's definitively finished. I think a lot of times nowadays refs are pretty eager to jump in and stop and break things up before you really get that solid finish in a fight."
After the fight, Fitch took a bit of a vacation, but he's back in the gym now. More than anything, he wants to get back on the horse. He claims he's looking at an October return, but there's nothing official yet. No opponents have been named or even suggested.
What's noteworthy, though, is Fitch's outlook. He acknowledges at 35 years of age he's seeing other fighters his age retire and that it surprises him. "I started thinking about [retirement] a little because I started seeing stuff online about guys retiring all the time and they're my age. I'm like 'What the hell? This guy is retiring? I thought he was young.'"
Yet, Fitch doesn't believe he's anywhere near being done. To hear him tell it, sure he had his hiccups in the UFC. And no, things didn't go well against Burkman. But he's ready to keep going. He's ready to be with WSOF for the long haul. He told Helwani he's eying five more years in the sport. If things go well and he can stay healthy, maybe 10. Either way, he'll be in his forties before he's ready to walk away from the sport and the loss to Burkman, if everything goes well, will be a distant memory.
"I figure three times a year, that's at least fifteen fights in five years if you're healthy," Fitch stated. "I think I have fifteen fights left in me."