Josh Burkman became the first man in more than a decade to submit Jon Fitch. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
A reputation takes a lifetime to build and seconds to destroy. In the case of Josh Burkman’s revenge on Jon Fitch, it took 41 seconds, to be precise.
Over a decade, Fitch diligently worked his way up the ranks to become an Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenger and one of the best 170-pounders to ever put on the gloves. Along that journey, he developed a reputation for being nearly impossible to submit and more precisely, in the words of his American Kickboxing Academy training partners, “unchokeable.” Time and time again in Fitch’s hard-wrestling career, he would stick his neck where it did not belong and escape unscathed.
Not on June 14. Not at World Series of Fighting 3. Then and there, Burkman buried “Unchokeable Fitch” in less than a minute and authored Sherdog.com’s “Submission of the Year” for 2013.
Fitch and Burkman were not strangers. They had met back in April 2006, in an undercard bout on a UFC Fight Night event headlined by Stephan Bonnar and Keith Jardine. The upstart Fitch, in his second UFC appearance, used his grinding style to perfection, wearing down Burkman and rear-naked choking him for the tap with three seconds left in the second round. It was an early signpost on Fitch’s way to an eventual UFC welterweight title shot and establishing himself as one of the best 170-pounders in MMA history.
Even so, seven years is a long spell period, never mind in the MMA universe, where time can often fly in mind-bending ways. In June, a Fitch-Burkman rematch was not a UFC product but that of fledgling WSOF. Fitch was controversially released from his Zuffa contract after he was manhandled by Demian Maia at UFC 156 in February. Meanwhile, Burkman -- a fighter who had bitten the dust in the UFC in late 2008 after losing four of five -- was an impressive 7-1 since his release and was fresh off a devastating beatdown of fellow UFC veteran Aaron Simpson seven weeks earlier.
The circumstances of the rematch were quaint, but in spite of recent performances, Burkman was a +300 underdog; and certainly, if there was a submission to be had, it would be snatched by Fitch. It was not that Fitch had never been tapped out before; he lost his pro debut in July 2002 by rear-naked choke to Mike Pyle -- coincidentally, also in Las Vegas -- at 205 pounds. That incarnation of Fitch was a novice with little submission experience competing two weight classes above where he would come to shine. The fighter into which Fitch morphed, on paper, seemed to have a copacetic style to wear down Burkman and potentially tap him on any occasion.
So it was that the American Kickboxing Academy fighter tried to pressure Burkman immediately, obviously hoping to get him on the mat quickly, tire him out and proceed as he had in their first encounter years earlier. Just 20 seconds into the bout, Fitch backed up Burkman to the cage and reached for the clinch behind a lazy right hook. He missed, giving Burkman the chance to fire a left hook that grazed him and then a right hook that dropped the former Purdue Boilermaker wrestler on the canvas.
Their first fight suddenly seemed like a lifetime ago, perhaps not even important. Burkman’s experience showed, flurrying on Fitch intelligently. When Fitch rolled into a desperate takedown attempt, Burkman did not continue flailing or take the bait by trying to turn the corner and take Fitch’s back. Instead, he quickly worked a front headlock, sinking the blade of his right forearm under Fitch’s neck and standing up to finish.
Fitch had defended many a choke before and not all of them with perfect technique. Part of what made him so historically hard to tap was his ability to combine the solid technical grappling taught to him by Dave Camarillo with the hard-nosed tactics that might be ill-advised for most but are an important part of the MMA landscape. For instance, we know that it is not “correct” to slam one’s way out of an armbar -- ask Jon Jones about it, perhaps -- but we understand the value in slamming a man, instantly wrecking his offense and forcing him to the defense.
In this split second, with his head still ringing and his fighting autopilot taking over, Fitch tried to elevate the Utah native. He clasped his hands around Burkman’s thighs and tried to slam his way out of danger. Unlike so many other times, he failed dramatically.
“Right when I went on my back, I pretty much knew that I had the choke, especially being able to get around that angle and trap his leg,” Burkman told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” program. “Then I felt him fight it and then I felt him go limp, and when he went limp, I just wanted to make sure that he was out. When I really tightened it, he didn’t move and he just fell into it. I knew he was done.”
Fitch turned around Burkman’s body 180 degrees but could not elevate it. Burkman sucked him flat to the mat, the oxygen running slower and slower to his brain. Burkman landed in half guard, but he did not fret. In the same expert vein as Urijah Faber or Jake Shields, “The People’s Warrior” torqued Fitch’s head and neck to the inside, turning his left hip over for the necessary leverage. Fitch had no say in the matter anymore; he was unconscious.
“When he grabbed my leg, I knew that his hands weren’t in the right place to fight the choke and I knew I could sink it in by falling to the angle,” Burkman said. “I was in the moment and it just felt right.”
Fitch could only confess afterwards.
“I got a little overconfident in my choke defense,” he said. “He locked it in too tight. It was a mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away.”
As for the finish … yes, we really should discuss the finish. It all happened so fast. Twenty seconds of feeling out one another was followed by an almost equal measure of sudden insanity. Did Burkman really just drop Fitch? Did Burkman really just follow up and choke Fitch unconscious? Usually, it is the victim’s conceding tap or the referee’s intervention that snaps us back to reality, letting us know that this potential mirage is in fact concrete reality.
Fitch was out cold, so there was no tap. Referee Steve Mazzagatti had, unfortunately, not accurately diagnosed the situation. On this night, Burkman was the sole arbiter of the cage. He rolled Fitch’s limp body onto his back, let him flop onto the canvas and then stood over his supine foe. For a moment, Burkman stared out into the Las Vegas crowd with palpable intensity, as if laser beams would shoot forth from his eyeballs. Instead, he thrust his right fist straight in the air in jubilant defiance, his monument on the grave of “Unchokeable Fitch.” Despite the moment looking like pristine badassery, Burkman rolling over Fitch and relinquishing the choke on his own was predicated on something much more decent.
“Seeing him with his wife and his kid, there’s a person outside of this sport and people who love them and care about them,” Burkman said. “I would hate for my wife or my kids to ever have to see me in a bad position and [an opponent] make it worse. That was a big reason for letting go.”
While inappropriate, it seemed fitting that his 20 seconds of shock-and-awe even paralyzed the referee. Fitch went more than a decade without being submitted and did not pass that time by fighting scrubs. In his 18-fight UFC tenure, Fitch spent just under four combined hours in the Octagon, defending all 27 official submission attempts tallied by FightMetric. Who knows how many more submissions-in-chrysalis he shut down with punches to the face from top position?
It was a brilliant submission for a host of reasons, not only because it came against a great grappler with a penchant for escaping submissions. A guillotine choke does not necessarily seem like a great candidate for the top submission in any given year, yet this was a holistic MMA submission. In a straight grappling match, the odds of Burkman half-guard guillotining Fitch are fairly negligible. However, this is MMA. Burkman dropped Fitch, instinctively and fluidly transitioned into a wrestling position he had trained his entire life and then took a perfect calculated risk, spitting in the face of historical precedent. It was also one of the year’s most notable upsets -- a genuine MMA moment.
This guillotine was not Burkman’s first brush with a “Submission of the Year.” Back in 2007, he was on the receiving end of Dustin Hazelett’s award-winning diving armbar in the UFC -- a win that was supposed to represent the ascent of a young grappling ace over a respectable veteran. Six years later, Hazelett is retired and Burkman is taking year-end laurels for choking out a man who not long ago was a pound-for-pound stalwart.
However, the greatest moment in Burkman’s career was not an omen of breakout success. Four months later, at WSOF 6 in Coral Gables, Fla., Fitch and Burkman were both back in action, with hopes of setting up a rubber match between the two. Fitch squeaked by Brazilian Marcelo Alfaya by split decision, while Burkman was choked unconscious by a fourth-round triangle from Steve Carl in a bout for the promotion’s inaugural welterweight crown.
Burkman’s quick stumble only reminds us how difficult it is to find consistent success in MMA and reinforces the impressive nature of Fitch’s “untappable” run. Stumble or not, for a brief moment in time, Burkman found himself on the right side of history, the right side of this year’s finest submission.
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