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Despite surprising release, Jon Fitch can leave UFC with dignity intact

Mark Kolbe

One of the all-time great MMA post-fight press conference appearances came from Jon Fitch. It was at UFC 87 in Minneapolis, after Fitch lost to Georges St-Pierre in a defeat that denied him the welterweight championship he had chased for so long. The reality that he'd been sent to the back of the line hadn't yet sunk in, but the disappointment of losing had.

Fitch walked into the room with a cold Corona in one hand, a bag of ice in the other. The ice wasn't for the beer. It was for his face. He was leaking blood from any number of cuts, his face was speckled with bruises, and his left eye was completely swollen shut. He looked like he'd been hit with a bat after surviving a car crash. Moments earlier, he had just been ordered to head directly to the hospital for observation, but instead, he decided to delay the trip to explain his defeat.

Months earlier, the UFC had announced a partnership with Anheuser-Busch, and "Bud Light" logos were on the backdrop behind Fitch, forcing UFC president Dana White to deftly cover Fitch's Corona with water bottles. There was always some friction between them, it seemed.

At that point, Fitch wasn't exactly used to losing. He had come into the match on a 16-fight win streak. Against St-Pierre, he was nearly finished in the first, and mostly dominated in a decision in which St-Pierre won every round. You could have understood if Fitch left for the hospital. Instead he chose to be accountable.

It was also a time he was very human. His great regret, he said, was not that he had failed to win the belt. It was that he had let down his friends and family.

"I'm disappointed," he said, a tear rolling down his cheek. "I feel like I let people down. My teammates, my friends, my family. I had a lot of people come up here tonight. They don't have a lot of money, but they still came up here to support me and I let them down. And I feel bad about that..."

His voice trailed off even though you could tell he hadn't completed his thought. He stayed until the end, answered every question, and then walked out with his dignity intact.

Fitch was released from the UFC on Wednesday, about three weeks after losing to Demian Maia. In his seven-plus years in the UFC, Fitch fought 18 times, with a 14-3-1 record. That history of success made him one of the most surprising roster cuts in recent memory.

In reality, the decision was likely sealed by his recent inconsistency as well as his base salary, which was $66,000 at last check.

This is not the NFL where teams have a hard salary cap they must meet, but the UFC does have internal budgets. In a time where starting fighters are getting $8,000, his cut will pay for eight rookies while opening up a valuable roster spot. Cuts are necessary because of the influx of Strikeforce and women's fighters. Out with the old, in with the new.

The decision while surprising is not without some rationale. Fitch has only won once in his last four fights. In a performance-based profession, that is decidedly sub-par regardless of opposition level. Yet it is also true that others have been kept around with far worse streaks.

I remember talking to a UFC executive back in late 2010, who told me that Fitch was expendable as soon as he was no longer relevant in the title picture because of the money he made. Other strikes against him? He had never been a draw, and he had never been considered "entertaining." Since that time, he's struggled. His most recent fight, a unanimous decision loss to Maia, was lackluster at best, and effectively knocked him off that first tier of welterweights, even though he was still parked at No. 9 on the UFC's rankings.

Against Maia, he landed only six significant strikes the entire night. Maia had more takedowns (seven) than that. And that was probably the cue to cut him.

Of course, there could have been more at play. Fitch has had issues with the promotion in the past. In 2008, after declining to sign away his image rights for a video game, Fitch was released from the company. He then spoke out about some of the company's "strong-arm tactics." Suffice it to say, he wasn't high up on the Zuffa Christmas card list.

At least Fitch can go out with his head held high. He always did things his way. He never buckled to public pressure to change his fight style, and he mostly won. Even before facing Maia, he had his last moment of glory in a scintillating win over promising young talent Erick Silva in one of the best fights of 2012. Just before that, Fitch had made a point of saying that he needed to win or risk getting a real job.

It's unclear where he goes from here. At 34 years old, he's not over the hill, but he's not a youngster, either. Bellator has tended to stay away from longtime UFC veterans, but there are other options. None of them will pay as well as the UFC, and none of them will give him the same spotlight.

Indeed, barring any change of heart, Fitch has probably seen his last night in the octagon. That's what made me think back to UFC 87, Fitch walking in with a Corona in hand, bloodied and bruised but unbowed. In a sense, he's leaving now the same way.

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