The Captain of the American Kickboxing Academy fight team in San Jose, California, Jon Fitch earned that accolade through hard work, a selfless attitude in the gym, and an example that is second to none. That’s why the honor was bestowed on him by none other than his teammates.
“All of that means a lot to me,” said Fitch. “I carry that with pride and honor and I try to represent the team as well as I can and help everybody as much as I can. I’m not that much of a vocal guy, but I always believed that actions speak louder than words, and through my actions and the way I carry myself, I think it’s a good example for the rest of the guys to follow if they really want to be successful with their fighting careers.”
On February 27, Fitch will headline UFC 127 against former two division UFC champion BJ Penn. It’s an opportunity for the Purdue grad to cement his place as one of the leading contenders for the welterweight crown while paving the way for an eventual rematch with Georges St-Pierre. So how did Fitch get here? These are his seven defining moments.
Mike Pyle – RFC1 – The Beginning – July 13, 2002
Result – Pyle Wsub1
Fitch found mixed martial arts while he was wrestling at Purdue, as assistant coach and MMA fighter Tom Erikson brought in UFC and Pride veterans Mark Coleman and Gary Goodridge to train with him.
As Fitch recalled, “I got to roll with them and I just got to develop a real appreciation for the sport and the techniques involved. I said, ‘I think I can do that.’ I always loved competing, and in some sick way, I think this is God’s plan for me, because there’s no way you could have said 15 years ago, ‘hey, you’re gonna fight in the UFC someday.’ I have no fighting background, and I probably have around three times as many professional fights as I’ve had street fights. I’m not one of those macho guys who goes around trying to pick fights with people. I just have an appreciation for the sport.”
And when the MMA vets started discussing the money they were making, Fitch’s interest was really piqued.
“They’re talking about the money on their end,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know it was a lot different when you’re first starting out. They’re talking about 70 to 100 thousand dollars a fight; little did I know that I’d be spending two, three years of my life fighting for like $500 in some smoky bar.”
That first fight, in July of 2002, was against Mike Pyle, and with little but wrestling and heart on his side, Fitch was submitted via rear naked choke at 2:35 of the first round.
Welcome to MMA.
Thiago Alves I – Ultimate Fight Night – June 28, 2006
Result – Fitch TKO2
Life in the fight game wasn’t a smooth one for Fitch in the early days of his career, as he sat with a 2-2, 1 NC record after five fights. But soon Fitch got the hang of things and he started to run off wins with regularity. The success got him noticed by Spike TV, which was putting together a new reality show called The Ultimate Fighter, and he apparently made the cut. Then disaster struck.
“My bags were checked, and they called me with about ten minutes to board and told me not to get on the plane,” remembered Fitch, who was scrapped from the show at the 11th hour. “I had to pull my bags from the plane and call my girlfriend to pick me up, and then I had to go back and explain to everybody what happened for like the next month. I still don’t know what happened.”
Disappointed but undaunted, Fitch got back in action, continued to win, and by October of 2005 he had made it to the UFC and he went on to score Octagon wins over Brock Larson and Josh Burkman. But it was his battle with fellow young gun Thiago Alves that really put his name on the map as he halted the Brazilian in the second round to improve to 3-0 in the organization.
Diego Sanchez – UFC 76 – September 22, 2007
Result – Fitch W3
If you believe in fate, then it was probably written in the stars that Fitch would eventually face one of the winners of the show he got scrapped from. And in Diego Sanchez, Fitch would be facing a fighter that he mimicked for an entire training camp five months earlier, when his teammate Josh Koscheck handed the “Nightmare” his first pro loss.
“I was Diego for the Koscheck fight,” said Fitch. “I had to imitate how he fights, I switched to southpaw for a couple of months, and I did everything that Diego does. I’m in his head a little bit because I can see how he thinks and what he’s looking for.”
And it worked, as Fitch scored a three round decision win over Sanchez that solidified his place in the 170-pound pecking order. A shot at the welterweight crown was within his grasp. All he needed to do was win one more fight.
Chris Wilson – UFC 82 – March 1, 2008
Result – Fitch W3
Sometimes the anticipation for a title fight is worse than the fight itself. Add in the fact that it will take one win over a tough, yet relatively unknown, opponent to secure that fight, and it can break a fighter. Sure, if you can’t beat one of your fellow contenders then you probably don’t deserve the shot, but all it takes is one lost second of focus, one awkward punch that breaks your hand, one wayward elbow that cuts you and all your dreams have gone down the drain. With a 7-0 UFC record and an overall 15 fight winning streak, Fitch had earned his title fight, but he still had to beat Chris Wilson to secure it. He did, reaching down deep to gut out a tough three round decision, but it was far from easy. Regardless, when it was over, Fitch could breathe a sigh of relief and set his sights on the welterweight title.
Georges St-Pierre – UFC 87 – August 9, 2008
Result – St-Pierre W5
Things were going well enough for Fitch early in his title bout against Georges St-Pierre. Then an ill-advised kick changed everything.
“The second I threw that kick, I was like ‘what the hell am I doing?’” recalled Fitch. “I didn’t set it up, I didn’t step off, and it just felt bad throwing it. The next thing I knew, ‘boom’, I got hit, and everything was in slo-mo and I was kinda like ‘survive through the round.’”
Fitch ate a right hand from the champion in response to the kick, and from there GSP took over, eventually winning a five round unanimous decision. Yet even though the judges didn’t give Fitch a round, this was far from a one-sided beatdown, as Fitch never stopped trying to win throughout the 25-minute scrap. To this day, St-Pierre calls the bout his toughest ever, but that’s little consolation to Fitch.
“I’m not big on moral victories,” he said. “I’m proud of the work I did to get to that position and I’m proud of the work I did in that fight, but I wasn’t complete at that time, and I think I’ve done the work from then to now to complete myself as a fighter.”
“I thought I belonged there before, but after I went through it, I definitely know,” Fitch continued. “I eliminate a few of those mistakes, make a few changes here and there, and I’m right there in contention for a title with those guys considered to be pound for pound the best in the world, maybe the best ever.”
Akihiro Gono – UFC 94 – January 31, 2009
Result – Fitch W3
One look at Fitch’s face in the aftermath of the St-Pierre bout, and you had to wonder if he was going to be able to rebound. Sure, he was young and that was his first real war, but fights like those have a way of chipping away your armor a lot faster. So while the entire MMA world expected him to beat Akihiro Gono at UFC 94, the way he did it was going to be telling. And Fitch responded by being Jon Fitch, showing no signs of wear as he pounded out a three round win the way he always does – efficiently and in dominant fashion. Fitch was back, and ready to start a new winning streak.
Ben Saunders – UFC 111 – March 27, 2010
Result – Fitch W3
If you had to pick some mentally tough fighters to have your back, Jon Fitch would likely be in your top three. And if he’s not, he should be. So when a late switch of an opponent takes place, you expect that he would be the last guy rattled. But what was going to happen when his old rival Thiago Alves, was forced out of their UFC 111 rematch on fight week, with hot prospect Ben Saunders not only agreeing to step in, but requesting it? Fitch was unmoved by the switch, unrattled by taking on the lanky Muay Thai machine, and when the bell rang that night in Newark, it was business as usual for Fitch, who again proved himself to be Ol’ Reliable as he scored a three round unanimous decision victory while getting barely threatened by Saunders. In August of last year, he would make it two in a row over Alves, and now he’s got Penn on his dance card in what is likely to be one of the most intriguing fights of early-2011.
Jon Fitch - Seven Defining Moments
By Thomas Gerbasi February 11, 2011