Jon Fitch: Failure, Triumph, Ego and Wisdom

By Jacob Debets Jan 13, 2019
In the spring of 2000, in the aftermath of his worst-ever college wrestling season, which saw the Purdue University physical education major earn just eight wins against 31 defeats, Jon Fitch started documenting his workouts in a journal to keep himself accountable. In the opening chapter of his new book, Failing Upward/Death by Ego, he describes this undertaking as a way of re-committing himself to his craft, internalizing a more positive mindset and escaping the pitfalls of partying and toxic relationships. “You can lie to others,” Fitch reasoned, “but you can’t lie to yourself.”

Fitch’s initial journal entries, set out in first quarter of the book -- itself the first volume in an eventual four-part series -- are brief but revealing. He obsesses about his weight, his diet and his wrestling and weight-lifting routines, reiterating his goals (“need to get stronger,” “kill the beast”) whilst chastising himself for his shortcomings (“I ate way too much last night. I’m a f---ing pussy, I have to stick to my diet.”). Between the entries, present-day Fitch runs a commentary on his life at the time, reflecting on his formative experiences and setting us up for the parts of the journey -- both in the cage and out -- that we are more familiar with.

Fitch’s renewed focus paid off for the remainder of his college wrestling tenure, although the journal writing dropped off for a time. He had a winning season before he was forced into a hiatus due to a torn posterior cruciate ligament, was named team captain and earned the Red Mackey award in his senior year, a scholarship that entitled him to a year of tuition-free grad school and put off a transition to the “real world” that the twenty-something was dreading. A restless college graduate unwilling or unable to settle down into the drudgery of a nine-to-five teaching job, Fitch ultimately set his sights on making his name in MMA, which the rest of the book, and the accompanying journal entries, are dedicated to.

Throughout the book, Fitch reflects that the sport -- still in its infancy in 2002 when he made his professional debut -- was a “key to an alternate universe that looked nothing like Ft. Wayne, Indiana,” and takes us on a journey through MMA’s formative years in California, USA. It’s an entertaining -- albeit bumpy -- ride.

Illustration by Chadwick St. John/courtesy of Jon Fitch

Putting Pen to Paper

Failing Upward/Death by Ego is more than a professional athlete wanting to share his training philosophy and set the record straight on his career.

14 years after he first stepped into the cage, Fitch achieved the goal he first set for himself as an angst-ridden, free-wheeling young man: He won a world title, out-working Joao Zeferino to capture the vacant World Series of Fighting welterweight championship in April 2016. But having reached the top of the mountain, Fitch was overcome with emptiness, battling depression and suicidal thoughts in the midst of a marital breakdown. At his lowest point, Fitch sought answers in the journals he’d diligently kept during his 2000 off-season and from 2003 onwards, vowing to trace his steps back and re-discover his passion for the the sport. That search ultimately drove Fitch to begin publishing those entries, first on his website and now in his first book.

It is an autobiographical odyssey that doubled as a form of therapy for the now 40-year-old, and as far as MMA books go, Fitch’s candor, insight and authenticity make it a refreshing and at times confrontational read for anyone interested in the sport’s history. Fitch reveals to us his humanity, disclosing the internal monologue that framed his path from that 8-31 season to the genesis of his storied career in the cage.

A Hero’s Journey

Speaking to about his journey, both through the canyons of depression and from the re-branded Professional Fighters League to Bellator MMA, which he now calls home, Fitch elaborated on his motivation to write the book, and what we can expect in the subsequent installments.

“Man, I’ve just been through a lot personally over the years.” Fitch said. “[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?’ So I went back and started from the beginning. Because there were times when I had less, and my life was harder, but I was happier. I kind of wanted to go back and see what was going on, where did my mindset change?

“[The process of writing the book] helped out a lot”, he added. “Reading about my focus, and my energy, my attitude about things. I didn’t have anything yet, I was just happy doing the work. I think as time progressed on and I wanted the [reward] from the work. That became a major problem. I think going back through the book, and reconnecting with my passion for the sport… I think that really helped a lot. There’s so much negativity around the sport that for a while, I just got negative.

“The journal was therapy for me, and I also I think it’s really cool to tell the story about where we came from,” he continued. “This is what happened, and how it happened. Some people’s stories about what happened back then are so crazy and people don’t believe it. 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.”

Fitch’s voyage, from Purdue University in Indiana to San Jose, California where he sharpened his tools at the now-famed American Kickboxing Academy, to a series of small MMA shows littered across the United States and abroad where he built his record, has no shortage of familiar faces. Names like Chris Leben, Nick Diaz and Jason Von Flue pop up as possible opponents throughout his journal entries in 2003, whereas Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez are adversaries on the jiu-jitsu circuit. Other figures, like Bobby Southworth, Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick, make Fitch’s acquaintance on the mats at AKA.

“When I was writing those names in the book, I didn’t know who those people were.” Fitch said with a laugh. “I had a grappling match with Jake Shields and I didn’t know who he was… I beat Shields on points then submitted Gilbert Melendez two weeks after I popped a rib. That was a surprise, I’d forgotten that.

“There’s more stuff going on in the next books,” he added. “The fame kicks in, there’s more money and travel; bigger fights. There’s going to be some cool and some crazy stuff for sure. Stuff that I’ve forgotten about.”

In between his accounts of workouts and fights, Fitch’s 2003 entries are littered with ruminations about his future, his girlfriends and missed opportunities. Most of the time, the wrestler turned cage fighter sounds every bit the headstrong 26-year old, with a laser-like focus on the new frontier of unarmed combat; elsewhere, he laments his loneliness, failed relationships and financial insecurity.

That juxtaposition between an insatiable appetite for future challenges and a sense of dejection and injustice about his present reality is a recurring theme throughout the book, and, as Fitch explains, is also the inspiration for its dual titles.

“I used to watch Rocky and Bullwinkle back in the day, and I remember they used to talk about how the [show] had two names,” Fitch said. “You didn’t know which way it was going to go. That’s basically the idea, which way was it going to go for me: Am I failing towards success, or is my ego going to surface and kill me? That’s the underlying idea behind the title. The front cover, by one of my Internet friends [Chadwick St. John], is me fighting my shadow.”

In the second half of the book, Fitch makes his first contact with the UFC, the organization that would come to define his fighting career in more ways than one. Compiling a 14-3-1 record after his UFC debut in 2005 and eventually challenging Georges St. Pierre for the 170-pound crown, Fitch was controversially released from the promotion in 2013, and the following year he was named as a plaintiff in a billion-dollar antitrust lawsuit against the company that is still ongoing.

Before all that that though, Fitch was nearly a contestant on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the reality TV program that is credited with saving the UFC from bankruptcy and launching the company -- and the first generation of fighter-contestants -- into the mainstream consciousness. In fact, as he documents in the book, he made it all the way to the airport, where he was flying into Vegas to begin shooting, before being receiving a phone call informing him there’d been a last minute change of plans.

“I feel like if we were to make a movie, like one of those flash-back scenes where one thing changes in your life and your life would have been great -- That would have been one of those things if I’d gotten onto The Ultimate Fighter” Fitch said. “I probably would have won, but my ego probably would have gotten humungous. It probably would have led to a bad downfall. Looking back at it, reading these journals. If I did get that spot, and won that tournament, my head could have gotten huge at that point. It could have been a much worse outcome than what I’ve come into.

“For one, the mother of my children, we probably wouldn’t have stayed together,” he added. “We had just gotten together when [TUF] happened. If I would have taken off for eight weeks … I can see reading through these journals that I had some struggles with ego. Let’s pump this guy up full of money, with everybody kissing his ass. How is he going to handle that? You think he’s going to be humble? Being honest with myself, I don’t know. I don’t know if I would have handled it appropriately.”

Nowadays the ego has been put in check somewhat, and when Fitch looks to his future, he’s brimming with cautious optimism. Last year, he vacated his WSOF/PFL welterweight title and jumped ship to Bellator, making his successful debut opposite Paul Daley in his adopted hometown of San Jose. The victory set him up to challenge welterweight champion Rory MacDonald in the first round of the welterweight grand prix, which will go down in March or April of this year.

“[Rory’s] tough,” Fitch said. “But I don’t think he’s a better striker than me, I don’t think he’s a better wrestler than me or has better jiu-jitsu than me. He’s very durable, great cardio, so I have to fight smart. I just have to keep it on him, and keep on him every exchange. It’s a very winnable fight.”

When asked what happens after that fight -- and in particular whether a loss could spell retirement -- it is clear he’s thought about the answer before.

“I don’t necessarily know what happens [after the Rory fight]” he said. “My hope is that I can end with a bang and then I’m satisfied. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I hope it does. I would love to fight this tournament, win it, move up and fight Gegard Mousasi, win the 185-pound title, and then be done. I think that would be the most satisfied I could be… if I get to there, and I’m still like ‘Man, I want to continue,’ I don’t know what then… who knows, maybe I’ll talk a bunch of smack and finagle a fight with Tyron Woodley or Ben Askren. That would be fun.”

Fighting will very possibly be in Fitch’s future for the coming year, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hustling on the side. In addition to his budding writing exploits, he produces content on Patreon, recently started a podcast with comedian Kris Tinkle and is currently laying the groundwork to open a virtual gym.

“I’ve always thought about becoming a gym owner, teacher, coach” Fitch explained. “But the business side of me… I started crunching numbers and I don’t like the looks of having a spot in San Jose and paying those numbers. Then there’s beef between gyms. I want to go in the future and make it more saleable. A digital, online gym; I teach through online content, blogs and seminars. Then I travel to host seminars, where people come to me for like four days. That’s the long game.

“I think fighters are always going to find a way to fight,” he continued. “Whether it’s physically, or somewhere else, it’s gotta be some kind of fight. That’s kind of where I’m focused, to see if I can shift that mindset somewhere else. To put the energy that I put into fighting into another avenue, another platform. I need to find that passion; maybe it’s writing. I don’t know.”

Before letting Fitch go, there’s one last question: What does present-day Jon Fitch think the 26-year old writing that first book of journal entries would have thought about his career?

“I think I would have been pretty happy with what I had accomplished” he said. “But at the same time, I wanted so much more for myself. I set my goals so high. I mean I did great, things turned out awesome. But back then, I was kind of an a--hole. I wouldn’t have taken any less than The Best Ever. I don’t know, it’s hard to say… I don’t know if it matters, though. The fact that I’m happy now is what matters.”

Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at
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