mma / Columns

Jon Fitch Keeps Grinding Away

April 29, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Jon Fitch Bellator 220

Bellator’s welterweight tournament features a mix of in-prime talent, up-and-coming fighters, and a couple of athletes that have seen their best days pass by. The final match of the tournament’s opening round pitted one of the fighters in his prime, Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald, against one of the grizzled veterans, Jon Fitch. Based on that description, you’d think MacDonald would roll over Fitch and move into his second-round fight seven weeks later healthy. The betting public agreed with that sentiment; Fitch entered the fight as a 3-to-1 underdog.

When the cage door reopened after 25 minutes of fighting, as expected, MacDonald had advanced to the second round. The dominant story that emerged from the fight was MacDonald’s post-fight interview, in which he gave a sober assessment of his fighting mentality that conjured questions of his fighting future. As it stands, MacDonald plans to defend his title against Neiman Gracie in the tournament semifinals on June 14. But let’s not allow MacDonald’s candor to overshadow a remarkable happening: Fitch, 41, dragging the 29-year-old champion to a hard-fought draw.

You aren’t supposed to see a fighter past 40 be so competitive against a top fighter like MacDonald. It can happen—we can all cite Randy Couture as the exception to any number of feats accomplished after 40—but this is a rarity and reserved for very special fighters.

Fitch did his best to fight a classic Fitch fight. At his core he’s a gritty wrestler. It’s not the most exciting style, but it has taken him to heights and granted him longevity few fighters can claim to match. Fitch’s grappling kept him in the fight against MacDonald and won him some rounds. When his grappling was unsuccessful, MacDonald was the much more effective fighter on the feet. The result aside, Fitch keeping this fight so close to where he had a good chance of winning on the scorecards is a feat unto its own.

Saturday’s performance was just another feather in Fitch’s hat as one of the five best welterweights in MMA history. He is surely the best fighter in the division’s history to have never held a first-tier world title.

Perhaps Fitch would have gotten hold of that major world title if only he’d had the opportunities other fighters were afforded. He entered the UFC in 2005 and beat Brock Larson to begin an eight-fight win streak in the UFC cage. It was a steady and long climb, certainly longer than others had to travel to reach a title shot. In that span, Fitch finished Thiago Alves, submitted Roan Carneiro, and handed Diego Sanchez his second loss. While the title picture was sorted out between Georges St-Pierre, Matt Serra, and Matt Hughes, Fitch kept turning in consistent performances and was waiting for St-Pierre when the dust settled.

Of course, the 2008 title bout between St-Pierre and Fitch went strongly in the Canadian champion’s favor. Fitch was overmatched from the outset and St-Pierre turned in one of the most dominant title defenses MMA had seen to that point, but Fitch survived all 25 minutes and was lauded for his toughness.

Years from now, Fitch’s legacy might be stronger for what he’s done outside the cage than inside of it. He’s one of the marquee fighters in the UFC anti-trust lawsuit that may or may not have significant ramifications, but the first time he publicly ran afoul with the UFC occurred after the St-Pierre fight. Fitch and his management, Zinkin Entertainment, who also represented other notable fighters training out of American Kickboxing Academy, declined to sign over his likeness rights for life in advance of UFC’s first video game release in several years. Dana White threw a fit, lambasted American Kickboxing Academy, stated intentions to stop working with the camp, and cut Fitch along with Christian Wellisch. Up-and-coming heavyweight Cain Velasquez and welterweight contender Josh Koscheck might have met the same fate, but the UFC and Zinkin Entertainment came to terms in short order, which brought Fitch back into the UFC fold.

Once again, Fitch began working toward a title shot, winning his next five fights. The last win of that streak was a rematch against Thiago Alves in 2010. Behind St-Pierre, Fitch and Alves had established themselves as the second- and third-best welterweights in the world, so their rematch decided that second spot. Fitch dominated the fight, but it couldn’t be called an exciting bout.

By that point, Fitch’s resume screamed for a second title shot. But St-Pierre, the fighter who had beaten him so soundly, still resigned as champion, and Fitch’s reputation as a boring fighter gave the UFC no incentive to push him back to a title shot. And so, the fall began.

Fitch went to a draw with BJ Penn in 2011. The fight was very close, with Penn taking the first round and about half of the second round, while Fitch took the rest of the second round and the third round. Fitch’s time in control was much more effective than Penn’s in terms of damage, and he may have deserved a 10-8 round in the third. But it went down as a draw, which effectively crushed Fitch’s immediate title hopes.

At the end of the year, Johnny Hendricks put Fitch out in just 12 seconds. After losing to Demian Maia in early 2013, the UFC surprisingly cut Fitch again, this time for good. He went 14-3-1 under their banner. In the history of the UFC welterweight division, only St-Pierre has more than 14 wins and fewer than 3 losses.

Fitch picked up impressive wins after his UFC run. Most notably, he defeated Yushin Okami, Jake Shields, Paul Daley, and in 2016 he beat João Zeferino to win the World Series I’d Fighting welterweight title.

There is a dark mark on Fitch’s record over this period; after losing to Rousimar Palhares, Fitch failed a drug test for synthetic testosterone. Fitch explained his performance-enhancing drug usage on the MMA Hour as a reaction to a low point for a short period. Of course, Fitch is hardly the only high-level fighter to have used PEDs.

At 41, Fitch’s fighting days are numbered. Perhaps we’ve even seen the last of him. Given the closeness of his loss to the champion, he should be first in line if Bellator needs a replacement fighter in the tournament. Who knows, Saturday may not have been the last time we see Fitch in a title fight. After all, he’s the type of fighter that chomps down on his mouthpiece and grinds away victories; as one of the bigger names in Bellator’s welterweight division, it might only take a couple wins for him to get back to the title.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Jon Fitch, Dan Plunkett