Friday, March 2, 2007

Jon Fitch, Swinging in the Dark

By Dustin Lee DePue

It’s easy to overlook a fighter like Jon Fitch if you’re not, as he puts it, “a diehard” fan of the sport. Even though he’s had four fights in the UFC (UFN 2, 4, 5 and UFC 64) only one of those, the bout on UFC 64, has actually made it onto the air. Throw in a stocked welterweight division with an uber-talented and seemingly invincible champion (Georges St. Pierre), a longtime veteran and beloved former champion (Matt Hughes), a Jiu-Jitsu phenom with the skills to beat anyone in the world (BJ Penn), a hungry young talent whose career blossomed on cable T.V. (Diego Sanchez) and an exciting, never-say-die Judo wizard whose beaten the best of the rest (Karo Parisyan) and you’ve got a shadow a mile long that any up-and-comer has to step out of to be noticed.

For Fitch, it’s just another challenge to overcome. “You’ve got a lot of so called experts out there who have only been watching the sport for a year or two who probably don’t know me,” Fitch tells FCF. “But, you know, my time will come. As long as I stay focused on the technique and the work and not worry about any of that other crap everything else will take care of itself.”

Hard work, it seems, is what Fitch is all about. A wrestler and four-year letterman at Purdue, Fitch was in the midst of earning a degree in Physical Education when he realized that he didn’t want to become a teacher. Still, he finished his degree and received his teacher certification in Indiana so that he would have something to fall back on while he planned a way to fuel his competitive desires and still make a living.

“I really wasn’t wanting to compete in the Olympics and try to make the Olympic team. I knew some guys who were trying to do that, go that route and their bodies were racked and they had no money. It didn’t seem like a smart career path at the time.”

Then, Fitch caught a glimpse of what the future might hold for him. Through Purdue’s assistant wrestling coach and MMA fighter Tom Erikson, Fitch met and occasionally trained with MMA stars Mark Coleman and Gary Goodrich. Their ability to make a living off of fighting quickly caught his attention.

“Honestly, one of the big things that first interested me was the financial aspect,” says Fitch. “Those guys got paid an incredible amount of money. At the time I didn’t realize that most guys didn’t make that kind of money. I figured I’d have a couple of fights and step into that kind of payday.”

Thus Fitch plunged headfirst into MMA. With little training and no real team of fighters to consistently train with, Fitch wasn’t growing enough as a fighter. After losing two of his first four fights with little money to show for it, Fitch made the decision to move California to train with the American Kickboxing Academy .

“I moved to California and gave myself 3-5 years. I said I’d put everything I had into it, you know, no partying no hanging out, no girls in that time period. If I didn’t amount to anything or if the sport itself didn’t go anywhere I could go back to teaching. I knew it would be tough going at first, but I also knew that with my work ethic and my drive I would be able to make something out of it, make some money. If not, you know, its something that I tried. I could move on and be happy with that.”

That decision has taken Fitch to the brink of MMA stardom. With victories over Shonie Carter, Kyle Jensen and Jorge Ortiz among others, Fitch was given a shot in the UFC’s Ultimate Fight Night 2 in October of 2005, where he won a unanimous decision over the undefeated Brock Larson. Next in line was the very tough Josh Burkman, who fell by rear naked choke at UFN 4 followed by a TKO victory over Thiago Alves at UFN 5. Fitch capped 2006 with his fourth UFC victory in a row, winning a unanimous decision over Kuniyoshi Hironaka at UFC 64. Currently ranked seventh overall in FCF’s top ten ranking and sixth among UFC fighters behind St. Pierre , Hughes, Penn, Sanchez and Parisyan, Fitch has garnered favorable attention among critics and hardcore fans, but he hasn’t completely shaken the “unknown” title off of his name. With his upcoming bout on UFC 68 being slated as an undercard bout, and hence, not a PPV guarantee, the shadow, for now, remains cast upon him.

Regarding his current level of exposure, Fitch says, “It’s not hugely important to have a lot of people watch you, but it’s nice, it’s exciting, but I don’t have to have it. I think a lot of guys do it just for the fame and to be in the spotlight. If the spotlight wasn’t there I’d still be doing this. But the money” he pauses a moment, “it’s good to pay the bills.”

His opponent for UFC 68 this Saturday is Luigi Fioravanti, Fioravanti sports an overall record of 11-2 and is 2-1 in the UFC. Following his unanimous decision loss to Chris Leben in his UFC debut at UFN 4, Fioravanti has won four in a row including a KO victory over Solomon Hutcherson at TUF 3 Finale and a TKO over Dave Menne at UFN 8. Known for his heavy hands, expect Fioravanti to keep the fight standing where he can finish the fight.

“He hasn’t fought really tough guys, no one with huge name recognition or big wins.” says Fitch of his opponent, “Not to take anything away from him, he’s kind of a sleeper in that he is still a very dangerous opponent. I think a lot of fighters might take him for granted but he still only has one loss, still has very heavy hands. I don’t think he’s a top 10 guy but he could very well give me a hell of a fight and rank right up there afterwards. I consider him a very tough opponent. I kind of go into every fight now thinking my opponent is the best in the world.”

Despite the collegiate wrestling background and the comfort that gives him on the ground, Fitch feels he is more than capable of handling himself on the feet. With the strong base of fighters at AKA, Fitch has spent a significant amount of time honing his stand-up game during training.

“We try to exploit weaknesses and build defenses against [opponent’s] strengths. Luigi is extremely heavy handed so one of the things we’ve been working on is keeping everything really tight with my striking. Not getting loose, not chasing, not dropping my hands, which is something you should be training anyways but we double it to make sure we don’t get caught. I think that technically I’m a better striker but the power factor, man, it only takes one punch to change the course of a fight, so I can’t really say who’s the better standup fighter. He’s got more power and more experience in the ring standing and throwing.”

Of course, if things go wrong on the feet, Fitch always has his ground game, where he feels his wrestling and jiu-jitsu compliment each other.

“I use a hybrid jiu-jitsu style. I take what I learn from [BJJ instructor Dave Camarillo] and I come up with my own stuff that incorporates a lot of the wrestling background that I’ve had throughout my life. Jiu-jitsu gives me outstanding control and positioning. I use the two together so I can posture and deliver a lot of damage with the ground and pound.”

Fitch sees himself as the number five guy, behind St. Pierre , Hughes, Sanchez and Parisyan, and hopes that a victory over Fioravanti, will lead to a fight with Karo Parisyan. “That would be a crazy fight, both of us don’t stop moving, don’t stop fighting. It would be non-stop action” He insists, however, that his mind is not on Parisyan, that he is fully focused and ready for a battle with Fioravanti.

“From bell to bell I come out and I fight, always pushing forward putting pressure on my opponents. If I’m not striking or grappling or doing something I don’t feel comfortable. It could be a really good scrap, people should get their money’s worth.”

As for 2007, “Hopefully this will be my breakout year. Hopefully I’ll fight mostly on PPV, maybe on Ultimate Fight Night. Basically this is the year when the fans get to know who I am and I position myself in the top 2 or 3 in the division and put myself in a nice position to fight for the title next year.”

Will Jon Fitch step out of that far-reaching welterweight shadow and into the minds of an ever-growing legion of MMA hobbyists known as the average fan? The UFC weekend warrior? He’ll be one step closer to finding come Saturday night.

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