Jon Fitch has put down roots with the World Series of Fighting. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Only seven men have won more Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts than Jon Fitch, so it came as a surprise to many when the company handed the American Kickboxing Academy representative his walking papers as part of a roster purge on Feb. 20.
Fitch will make his first appearance since his release on Friday, when he meets Josh Burkman in the World Series of Fighting 3 main event at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The 35-year-old Fort Wayne, Ind., native has not fought outside the Octagon since a July 2005 victory over Jeff Joslin. Sherdog.com will stream the entire undercard live and free.
A perennial contender at 170 pounds, Fitch compiled a 14-3-1 record within the UFC, losing only to champion Georges St. Pierre, the top-ranked Johny Hendricks and 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Demian Maia. He claims he did not receive direct notice of his release and admits his relationship with UFC brass was oftentimes icy.
“I only got wind from management; they said I’d been cut,” Fitch told Sherdog.com. “There were no theatrics or anything, just a message; but then, the [UFC has] never really talked to me at all during my entire time with them.”
Fitch wasted no emotional energy on the UFC’s decision. Within weeks, he agreed to a four-fight contract with the World Series of Fighting. He views the organization in a completely different light from the one who set him free.
“They are going all in, going out of their way to make sure people know my fight is happening, that I’m headlining and that I’m with their organization,” Fitch said. “It’s pretty cool to really get the push from a company like that. They are going after top fighters, whether a name or someone they want to develop, and are doing a good job of giving fighters the opportunity to control their own destinies. Seems strange, but I even feel a major shift with the press; it’s like they feel unshackled and can ask me anything.”
Having captained the Purdue University wrestling team, Fitch began his MMA career as a heavyweight. However, after a loss in his professional debut, he moved to San Jose, Calif., to train with the American Kickboxing Academy, slimmed down to middleweight for seven fights and eventually settled at 170 pounds in 2006. Fitch supplemented his traditional work at AKA by earning Level IV Modern Army Combatives certification.
“I did it to get my foot in the door,” he said. “I’ll probably teach more after my fighting career is done.”
Fitch this month celebrated his 10-year anniversary with the American Kickboxing Academy and claims he has never felt the need to train elsewhere.
“The weird thing about AKA is, we have so many team members and associations with sister gyms,” Fitch said, “so we regularly have visitors coming in, new guys, well-versed in the fight game, bringing new blood and competition into the gym.”
In his promotional debut with the World Series of Fighting, Fitch confronts a familiar foe. He submitted Burkman with a second-round rear-naked choke at UFC Fight Night 4 in April 2006. Even so, he views his forthcoming bout with “The People’s Warrior” not as a rematch but as entirely different fight against an evolved opponent. Burkman will enter the cage on a four-fight winning streak, having put away UFC veteran Aaron Simpson with a first-round knee and follow-up punches in March.
“He has switched his stance; he is now predominantly a southpaw,” Fitch said. “He’s gotten better in all aspects, he’s put in work over the years and I respect that. If I was the same fighter I was years ago, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble, but I don’t think he’s put in the level of work and made the improvements that I have.”
Fitch expects to win but has made no plans beyond his rematch with Burknman.
“I’ve learned in the past not to look past anything or look too far into the future,” he said. “I’m just focusing on one fight at a time.”
The World Series of Fighting contract provides Fitch with some flexibility.
“As long as they keep me busy, it is exclusive,” he said. “Otherwise, if they can’t find an opponent for several months, then I’ll have the option to fight outside of the contract, probably in Asia.”
Despite some criticisms levied against him over his grinding, wrestling-centric style, Fitch has carved out quite a career for himself. According to FightMetric figures, he ranks second on the UFC’s all-time list in total strikes landed (2,185) and third in takedowns landed (58).
“I’m a martial artist; I stand by that,” Fitch said. “I do this to improve myself daily. I want to become a better fighter every day. I want to become a better person every day, to do more for the community [and] be a voice for those who don’t have one. I try to embody what it means to be a martial artist.”