Unappreciated Toughness for 30 Years: Jon Fitch

Bellator 220 - Jon Fitch
Jon Fitch weighs in for his title fight against Rory MacDonald. (Photo courtesy of Bellator MMA)

Jon Fitch is the least appreciated MMA fighter in UFC history. Fitch tied all-time great records, dominated the welterweight division, fought champions, legendary toughness, trained Khabib Nurmagomedov at AKA, and yet, Jon Fitch’s fights rarely made it to broadcast, he never got along with the UFC president Dana White, never held a UFC belt, and retired with permanent injuries, unappreciated by the MMA community.

Jon Fitch Building His Toughness

“I started wrestling at nine. I’ve been banging heads for a long time.” Before going on his legendary UFC run Jon Fitch began training wrestling in just the fourth grade and would become a high school standout with his developed skills. He went on to wrestle for Big Ten Purdue University, and was a team captain in Division I NCAA, proudly representing Indiana, which only recently opened up to the online gaming industry, allowing for MMA betting. Over his five years with Purdue, his collegiate wrestling would bring him a record of 45-51.

Looking up to other wrestling and MMA greats a young 24-year-old Jon Fitch said his favorite athlete was Mark Coleman. Coleman used a smothering top position style of wrestling that hugely influence Jon Fitch’s MMA style. Coleman was the inaugural UFC Heavyweight champion, a PRIDE 2000 Tournament champion, and is considered to be the grandfather of Ground and Pound.

In 2002 Jon Fitch transitioned to MMA using his smothering style of wrestling. The year was not a bright post for MMA, the UFC still being in its dark ages not allowed on pay-per-view television. But Fitch still took the risk. Jon Fitch describing the early 2000’s MMA scene, “It was the Wild West — we had this fight but we didn’t get paid. ‘What do you mean you didn’t get paid?’ ‘Yeah the promoter took off.’ People don’t believe it. Driving to another state, weighing in on a bathroom scale. Never seeing your opponent, then being told at the last minute, ‘Yeah, we have a guy for you.’ That was common. I don’t think I signed a contract before I got to the UFC. By that time I had 13 fights.”

Jon Fitch Under-Appreciated in the UFC

Once competing in the UFC that is when Jon Fitch was mastering his technique and finding his biggest success. But after 7 consecutive victories in the UFC none of his fights had made it to broadcast. This was also an era in which prelims were not broadcast on FaceBook or FightPass. He was a smothering, dominating style fighter and UFC did not want to promote a fighter who would grind out decisions against everyone. The UFC was essentially forced to show his fights only because he kept winning.

Jon Fitch’s first UFC fight that made it to broadcast was at UFC 82. This fight would be Fitch’s 8 th consecutive UFC win which tied him with Hall-of-Famer Royce Gracie’s all-time record. The man had been the first UFC fighter since Royce Gracie to win 8 consecutive victories and the UFC showed little interest in broadcasting his fights.

UFC 87

At UFC 87 Jon Fitch was given his shot to compete for the Welterweight championship against the Canadian-born Georges St-Pierre. It was a major milestone for Fitch. Now he was fighting in the main event for a title, he had a shot at greatness and the UFC could not push him around now.

“Everything he threw landed,” Fitch admitted years after the fight. Georges St-Pierre put an exclamation mark on this fight defeating Jon Fitch via unanimous decision. It is considered one of St-Pierre’s most dominating performances scoring 3 knockdowns and out-struck Fitch by nearly 100 strikes. Fitch had legendary grit and toughness and never was knocked out in the fight and always tried to push forward.

Jon Fitch Down but Not Out

Despite having a major loss in a title fight Jon Fitch had legendary toughness and grit. Quickly he got back to his winning way in the welterweight division and made it look easy. He picked up five consecutive wins including a win over the number 3 ranked welterweight Brazilian Muay Thai Striker Thiago Alves. Alves at the time was also on a 7 fight win streak at welterweight before losing to St-Pierre. Between Alves and Fitch, the two had cleared out the entire division. However, Fitch did what he what he always did. Smothering, dominating wrestling, with toughness, he drowned Alves and won a unanimous decision.

UFC Legacy

If Georges St-Pierre instead chose to keep his career as a garbage man it would be for certain that we would be comparing current welterweight king Kamaru Usman to Jon Fitch’s vice grip on the welterweight division. Jon Fitch deserved to be considered one of the all-time great sat welterweight alongside those like Matt HughesUsman, and St-Pierre.

Jon Fitch is tied with Kamaru Usman with 13 wins at welterweight. Fitch and Usman have nearly identical control time and control percentage in the same amount of fights. To add, Fitch is ranked fifth overall in total strikes landed in UFC history. Record breaker and record holder, a dominant fighter, what will this earn you with the UFC?

Fallout with Dana White

Quarrels between Dana White and Jon Fitch are as notable as Fitch’s fight career. Jon Fitch was cut from the UFC more than once. The first time was in 2008 over Fitch not wanting to grant the UFC his likeness rights for the UFC Undisputed video game. White said, “We’re looking for guys who want to work with us and not against us, and frankly I’m just so [expletive] sick of this [expletive] it’s not even funny.” An agreement was reached behind closed doors.

The second time Fitch was cute was in 2013. Fitch said he felt his back was against the wall at that time, “If I didn’t win I was going to be fired.” After a one-loss streak, the UFC cut Jon Fitch and the two kept fighting in headlines over treatment and work environment issues. Fitch said White and the UFC was a “hostile work environment,” which the UFC refuted with White responding, “Jon Fitch is so full of s–t. He’s f—ing delusional. First of all, he had every opportunity that anyone else had. After Georges St-Pierre beat the living s–t out of him, did we treat him differently or anything?”

Life after UFC

Jon Fitch was 35 when he was cut and would have a record of 7-3-1. In this time he fought standouts such as Rousimar Palhares, Rory MacDonald, and defeating Jake Shields, Paul Daley, and Yushin Okami. During this period Fitch was not in his athletic prime but was frequently able to outwork his opponents with his experience and grit. At age 38 he won and defended WSOF/PFL championship, and was struggling, “[In] 2016 I won a world title and I was depressed and suicidal. Then my marriage fell apart. I was in a position where I was like, ‘How the f–k did I get here? … Am I failing towards success, or is my ego going to surface and kill me?’”

Training and Injuries

“I can’t straighten my arms. I’ve lost an inch in reach, and that’s not a good thing. But it’s fun.” Jon Fitch’s legendary toughness likely have led to physical struggles. The man was nearly 40 years old and had been competing since he was 9. He was notable in fights due to his grit. During his later UFC career, he had major knee and shoulder injuries. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Not only in the cage but in the gym as well. At AKA San Jose Fitch would have been training with Josh Koscheck, Daniel Cormier, Josh Thomson, Mike Swick, Luke Rockhold, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. UFC double Champion and Olympian Cormier said former UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov picked up a lot from working with Fitch, ‘And he paid attention. He paid attention to the way Cain [Velasquez] trained, he paid attention to the way I trained … [Jon] Fitch, everybody. He paid attention and he adopted those habits.”

Reitrement

After nearly 30 years of wrestling and MMA in 2020, Jon Fitch officially announced his retirement. In that time the man set UFC records that still hold to this day. Between MMA and collegiate wrestling Fitch has had 139 matches, not including fights with the UFC. And what does he leave behind as a legacy? He struggled with injuries, his personal life, and Dana White. But he rarely struggled in the cage, dominating with his top position wrestling style is where he flourished most, that’s where he carved his home, copying the style of great Mark Coleman. With injuries and damage he body gave up before his will ever did; Jon Fitch with his toughness would have kept fighting for another 100 matches if his body let him.

Today Jon Fitch is a trainer at AKA, has multiple books, he’s very active on his YouTube and podcasts, and has virtual training sessions on his website.

“I think fighters are always going to find a way to fight,” said Jon Fitch, “Whether it’s physically, or somewhere else, it’s gotta be some kind of fight … I set my goals so high. I mean I did great, things turned out awesome … I don’t know if it matters, though. The fact that I’m happy now is what matters.”

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