Saturday, February 24, 2007

The fire next time: Lytle burns for shot at Hughes

By Jason Probst

The bill almost always comes due, even when you win, and in the life of a hard luck fighter, it goes without saying that even the good days will cost you.

For Chris Lytle, one of the game’s eminent hard-luck types, a career of close decisions and tough breaks has always gone underappreciated, probably because he never complains. Not like he didn’t have a license to. But the father of four and full-time fireman simply keeps plugging away, and even in defeat he’s still showed the kind of durability and guts that is hard to find, and that’s why he keeps coming back.

It’s the mental side that had him out of the game in recent months, but now he’s whipped that, too.

For a mixed martial artist, fighting means dealing with training and the aftereffects of competing, be they assorted aches, contusions, broken bones, and the wide-ranging medley pain meted out while plying your trade.

But overcoming a broken fighting spirit can be a far more complex challenge. And for Lytle, that’s exactly how he felt after dropping a split decision to Matt Serra in the November finale of The Ultimate Fighter 4. With the judges’ scorecards edging the other way by a single point, it was Serra who landed a welterweight title shot, a $100,000 endorsement contract, and the assorted spoils for the guy who made it through an 8-man elimination jungle on the reality show appropriately themed “The Comeback.”

“I thought I won the fight. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had,” Lytle told “I’d worked hard for something for so long, and then I didn’t get it and was in disbelief. It took my fighting spirit for a while.”

Lytle had a January bout scheduled with Forrest Petz, which was called off when Petz was injured in training. And the Indianapolis-based fighter says that that’s just as well that he didn’t come back at that point.

“I’d go in and train and wasn’t into it. My people were like, well, Chris, (you’re) not right. I’m usually one of the last ones to leave the gym,” he said. His head and heart simply weren’t in it.

Then everything changed when Lytle found out he would be battling former champ Matt Hughes March 3 at UFC 68.

Hughes, fresh off a knockout loss to new welterweight boss Georges St. Pierre. The most dominant champion in the history of the UFC. The big dog looking to get back on top of the mountain. The guy whom Lytle originally hoped to face. Go figure.

Who wouldn’t want to be the one thing between Hughes getting his rematch with St. Pierre?
Certainly not Lytle, a come-one-come-all type of fighter who’s almost always billed as “other guy” and whose career mark of 22-13-5 is one of the most deceptive in the sport. Check the line-by-line account of his ledger and see all the close breaks he didn’t get on the scorecards, or fights against guys that outweighed him by one or two weight classes. Stopped only once on a cut against Joe Riggs (naturally, Lytle has just getting into his rhythm when a powerful elbow ended the bout), Lytle has lost hard-fought decision losses to Nick Diaz, Robbie Lawler, and plenty of other tough guys.

Yet he kept training. Kept plugging away, fighting in the UFC and wherever else would find him a spot. And on the reality show, he landed in the finals by showing what hardcore fans always knew to be his best assets. Using subtle, slick grappling along with capable standup, he seamlessly choked out dangerous striker Pete Spratt in his first bout, landing him a spot in the semifinals. There, he decisioned good buddy Din Thomas to land the finals berth against Serra only to run into another tough break that didn’t go his way.

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