WSOF 6 Primer: Jon Fitch – “I’d like to think I’ve got another five or ten years left in me.”
Pleasantries and Musings
e spoke early Sunday evening, our appointment arranged by a go-between and confirmed by a brief text exchange, and there wasn’t much preliminary chatter before I dove into the questions. This was Jon Fitch, after all. He’d done thousands of interviews before. I didn’t want to waste his time. He has a fight coming up this Saturday at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, FL – the second bout he’s had outside of the UFC since parting ways with them early this year and signing with the World Series of Fighting. His first bout didn’t go that well. Rehashing it here is unnecessary. Needless to say his opponent from that night, Josh Burkman, is headlining this weekend’s proceedings and, while Fitch still remains on the main card (not having him on the NBC broadcast would be ludicrous considering how valuable a fighter with his notoriety is), it still is a step down, prestige-wise, from what I was sure he’d grown accustomed to.
While researching questions, I’d gone by his website and noticed that it hadn’t been updated since the Burkman match. No fight results, new T-shirts, video blogs, open letters to fans… nothing. Where the hell was this guy? His falling off the grid could have been attributed to the fact that this is the first time since 2009 that he’s fought three times in one year and he just wanted to get focused – he seems like the kind of dude who’d separate himself from the hullabaloo when it gets to be too much, but I had to ask.
The only recent press I’d found, I mentioned, was the one-off quote that had been making its way around the MMA media circle: the Palhares thing, where he said that if he were offered a fight with the overaggressive presence-of-mind-deficient Brazilian it would be the first time he’d turn down a fight, ever.
“Yeah, it’s funny how people jump all over one little… that was like one sentence out of a 30-minute interview and everybody jumps all over it.”
It’s all spin, I offered. Nowadays the immediacy internet journalism offers often trumps the well-crafted, time-consuming stories that our more meticulous forbears put together. It’s click bait; Ad revenue borne of out-of-context kitsch.
“It’s just weird to me that’s such an important, hot topic – the guy’s repeatedly risked fighters’ careers over and over again with no sign of remorse,” he said. “That’s pretty cut and dry of me, I think. It could be punches or elbows. I mean, I could use the example of Mike Kyle. If Mike Kyle had done that a couple more times, it wouldn’t have been any different of a situation.”
The incident he’s referring to was a World Extreme Cagefighting event back in 2006. Kyle illegally soccer kicked his opponent Brian Olsen in the face and proceeded to punch his head repeatedly, despite referees Josh Rosenthal and Herb Dean trying to restrain him. Kyle appears to have rectified his in-cage behavior since.
Here’s something you may not know: Jon Fitch does all his own web work. He doesn’t have some hired hack to do upkeep and correspond with his fans. The reasons his site’s been down? His computer broke and he couldn’t update it from his house. The spurt of YouTube activity fans had seen previously was the result of him not being able to do much else due to injury.
In the time between Fitch has remained busy, putting together a training facility in Syracuse, NY (Pacific Health Club, where he’ll be teaching throughout the upcoming year), spending time with his wife and 19-month-old son, Mason, and preparing for a baby on the way (he doesn’t know whether it will be a boy or a girl, but he’d like to – he likes to prepare for things).
Introspection and Mazzagatti
Immediately after the match with Burkman was over, the entire MMA community was in an uproar. Part of it was that Jon Fitch, the man who famously had said – and had until then proven valid his assertion – that he purposefully gave up his neck for chokes to bait his opponents into giving up advantageous position, had been put to sleep by what appeared to be a basic, albeit tight, guillotine choke. It was shocking. There was another even more audible contingency who blasted the perpetually criticized referee, Steve Mazzagatti, who had been officiating the bout and appeared to be completely unaware Fitch was out. By the time he’d stepped in to break up the action Burkman had turned Fitch over and released the hold of his own accord.
It was far from the first time Mazzagatti had been in hot water. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the subject, and although some came to the ref’s defense, there was a cacophony of those who were calling for his head on a pike.
Fitch (who a little less than seven years ago submitted Burkman himself) set the record straight about what happened and why he got caught:
“It was a nicely placed choke, very nicely placed by Burkman,” he said. “I was just looking to do something bigger than just win the fight. I think that all the circumstances and all the pressure around all the stuff that happened in that time period just kind of messed with me a little bit. I’m a pretty strong person mentally and I don’t let things get to me but when you have a family depending on you and all that going on, it gets to you, and I let it affect me. I’m not happy that I let it affect me, but I’ve made plenty of changes to not let that happen to me again. I’ve been working on my mental strength again and getting back to more visualization and just a lot more of the prep stuff I just kind of backed away from in that time period.”
Well, if he wasn’t preparing, I asked, what was he doing?
He sounded exasperated.
“You know, I think there was so much frustration with where I was with my previous employer that I was almost like, ‘what’s the point of doing all this work if it’s not going to get me anywhere?’ And that’s the wrong thinking and it became self-destructive.”
I had to ask him about Mazzagatti. Many who watched the fight lauded Burkman for his sportsmanship in letting go of the hold before any real damage could be done. Despite the great display of class, however, it was still unnerving to see. Where the hell was Mazzagatti? The often-maligned referee didn’t even look like he was on the correct side to see what was going on. I said he was incompetent. Fitch, surprisingly, immediately came to the ref’s defense.
“Well, I give Steve plenty of props,” he said. “You know, when the ref goes backstage before the fight like they’re all supposed to – I’ve had refs in all my fights do that except on one occasion – they come back and they talk about where the back of the head zone is for them, because each ref has their own specific things that they do and say, they have their commands, and you need to develop that relationship before the fight. I’ve had Mazzagatti ref my fights before, and what I do every time is I sit the refs down and I say, ‘Look, I’m really good at defending chokes, you might think I’m out, you might think I’m in danger – just let it go.’ And that’s what I told him before that night, as I told him previous nights, as I’ve told every other ref I’ve had. He did exactly what I instructed him to do.”
So they had a rapport! But wasn’t it dangerous anyway? Despite this revelation that Mazzagatti was honoring Fitch’s request to keep his distance and allow him time to work out of a choke he’d deflected countless times before, wasn’t it still putting a fighter’s wellbeing at risk?
“You know, they’re going to revive you,” he said quickly. “They’re not going to hold the choke on you for five minutes. They’re going to revive you. I have no problem with getting choked unconscious and having a couple minutes to be woken back up. It’s not the same as sixteen unanswered blows to the head or something.
“It’s no big deal, I’m a big boy. I’m a professional. I know what I got into when I started this sport. I signed the dotted line on my contract. I know the risk of death and permanent injury every time I walk into that cage – every time I walk into practice. I’m not going to cower away from something that could happen to go wrong. I mean, this is the sport we play. That’s why people watch it. That’s why we get paid what we get paid.”
The Rubber Match
This Saturday, Fitch will be pulling for Josh Burkman, hoping both of them will go out and put on great performances en route to a rubber match for the WSOF welterweight title. There’s no resentment in his voice. Even when the media was trying to spin what was essentially dejection over being passed over multiple times for a deserved UFC title shot and then shafted on his rematch with BJ Penn into headlines such as “Jon Fitch Goes On An Emotional Tirade” and “Jon Fitch Furious with Rumored Georges St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz Fight,” Fitch was just clearly opining on the politics and money-prioritizing policies that pretty much rule nearly all combat sports.
“It would just be a spectacular rubber match, to put the belt up for it,” he said. “It would be great for the organization; it would be great for both of our careers. I think it would be great for the fans, too. I think it’s something that could really get built up, hyped and would be exciting. I think we’re both exciting fighters and I think it would be a great fight to see in a rubber match.”
As of this writing, Sherdog has reported that if both fighters win their respective fights a third fight between them for the WSOF welterweight title is next.
A New Home, an Old Home
Jon Fitch being cut from the UFC was somewhat of a game-changer for the organization. Sure, he’d lost his last fight (a prerequisite contractual condition the UFC uses to part ways with fighters on their roster) and had gone a disappointing 2-2-1 in his last five UFC fights, however this was still a guy with an overall 14-3-1 career with the UFC who was the #9-ranked fighter in the organization’s own official records. Suddenly, it didn’t matter who you were – if the UFC deemed you too expensive to hold onto and you lost a fight, look out (see: most recently Yushin Okami, who was on a three-fight losing streak before losing to Jacare Souza and being given the boot).
For Fitch, the WSOF gives him the opportunity to right his ship in a company presided over by someone far more empathetic to fighter issues: six-time Muay Thai World champion and fellow MMA fighter, WSOF president Ray “Sugarfoot” Sefo, who himself had actually competed in his own organization at WSOF 4, losing to Dave Huckaba by TKO in the second round.
“He knows what it’s like,” Fitch said. “He knows the practices are like. He knows what the training camps are like. He knows what personal things you have to go through and still show up and fight and perform. There are guys who have relatives, people they care about, dogs, get sick and die, and they have to deal with it and pretend nothing’s happening. They put on their game face and they go out and fight anyway. If people knew half the stories of what happened to some of the guys before the fight, or what’s going on in their training camps, they would freak out.
“As a fighter, you don’t want to talk about it – you don’t want to put it out there – because in this game you don’t want to show any sign of weakness at all. You don’t even want people to know. Before I fought Mike Pierce, my grandmother died and I couldn’t even go to her funeral because I was in training camp two weeks out from the fight, so I had to stifle my experience a little bit, stifle my grieving process, because you’re not even allowed to dwell in those waters. You have to pretend it’s not there in order to get through that fight. After the fighter, hopefully it doesn’t crush you, because it can and for some people, it does.”
Fortunately for Fitch, he’s had a support group to help him get through similar ordeals in his band of brothers at AKA. Fighters like UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, the aforementioned Mike Kyle, Phil Baroni, Luke Rockhold and current UFC lightweight challenger Josh Thomson are there on a daily basis, where Fitch serves as team captain. Training for his upcoming fight with American Top Team product and South Florida native Marcelo Alfaya, Fitch has taken a mixed approach to prepare for his well-rounded adversary.
“I got a lot of new training in with Ron Keslar [who just beat Jon “War Machine” Koppenhaver last week at Bellator 104] while I was out here,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great ground guys out here right now at AKA. We’ve always had really good strikers too, so I’m getting a good mix of both realms: guys who are big and strong, who can hit hard and have good footwork, and guys who have good ground work. I think his wrestling is his weakest aspect, probably, but you know, if I take him down he’s a handful on the ground.”
When asked for an AKA status report, he enthusiastically obliges.
“They’re doing amazing,” he beamed. “I mean, these guys are animals. I left for four weeks to go start coaching at a gym, a gig up in Syracuse at a new facility up there, and when I came back these guys… it’s like video games. They all leveled up! There were a lot of high level grapplers floating around the last couple weeks, I’m really sad that I missed out on a lot of them, because they’re all getting ready for No Gi World and Abu Dhabi.”
Josh Thomson in particular is someone Fitch says everyone should be looking out for.
“He’s just ridiculous on the ground right now. Unbelievable. From when I left to coming back four weeks later. Man, watch out in his fight with Anthony Pettis. If that goes to the ground, that guy’s getting submitted.
“I’m so happy and proud for Josh, too. This guy, he’s been fighting for like 15 years. He was done at one point because they dropped the weight class, you know. He lost to Yves Edwards – he’s winning the fight, tries to get fancy, does a spinning backfist, gets kicked in the head, knocked out, and they drop the weight class.
“I mean, he was going to go and do real estate after that, because what else are you going to do? Thank God for Scott Coker and Strikeforce starting to MMA shows instead of just kickboxing, because he stuck with it. Him and Gilbert Melendez… Oh my God, that trilogy, that’s probably my favorite trilogy ever.”
Optimistic About the Future
Jon Fitch made his professional debut on July 13, 2002 in Las Vegas, at Revolution Fighting Championship 1: The Beginning. The event was headlined by a bout between Kevin Randleman and Brian Foster and had on its undercard future MMA stars such as Chael Sonnen, Brian Ebersole and Jason “Mayhem” Miller. He was submitted in the first round by rear-naked choke by fellow welterweight standout Mike “Quicksand” Pyle. More than eleven years later, Fitch remains confident that he’ll see himself to the top of the sport once more.
“I’d like to think I’ve got another five or ten years left in me, because I still really enjoy what I’m doing, I’m still good at what I’m doing, and as long as my body holds up and I’m competitive I want to do it,” he said. “I think that’s really the biggest thing is my body holding up. If I have any of my nagging injuries turn into serious or debilitating injuries, then that’s a problem, but even if, eight years from now, I’m only fighting one time a year, if I can be competitive and win 90 percent of those fights, that’s what I want to do.”
You often hear of public figures lament the duplicitous nature of fame, its blessings and curses, the lack of anonymity, the constant demand to be “on” at all times. With social media and handheld recording devices in the pockets of almost everyone everywhere, there is more pressure put on those with any sort of celebrity status than ever before to appease everyone they meet. This all naturally comes with the territory, however it wouldn’t be surprising to hear someone – particularly someone whose profession requires of them an innate aggression – complain about these kinds of things. Not Jon Fitch.
“Me and Phil Baroni talk about it all the time, man, we love this lifestyle,” he said. And is that a tinge of wistfulness I hear in his voice? “I mean, I love it when people yell my name when I drive down the street. I love it when I go to a new city and people freak out because they don’t think it’s me, and it is me, and they want to take pictures. I mean it’s awesome! That never gets old. It never gets old.
“I’m at that age now where I know what I know, and I know what I feel, and if you don’t like it then you can go fuck off,” he laughs. “Honestly, I’m over trying to make people like me. You either do or you don’t. I don’t care.”
Jon Fitch will be fighting on the main card of World Series of Fighting 6: Burkman vs. Carl this Saturday, October 26 at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, FL. Tickets start at $25. Watch the prelims streaming online at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT and the main card on NBC at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.
Come train with Jon in person over the next year at Pacific Health Club in Syracuse, NY.