“You’ve got to beat a legend to become a legend and I think it’s one of those wins that’s gonna elevate my career and my status in this sport as one of those names that’s not to be forgotten.”
The UFC record of welterweight contender Jon Fitch speaks volumes. 14 fights, 13 wins, with the only loss coming via five round decision to champion Georges St-Pierre in 2008.
Yet in conversation with Fitch, there is little talk of numbers, wins, streaks, or title shots. What the Fort Wayne, Indiana native focuses on obsessively is getting better, of tweaking everything in his life to become MMA’s version of Nirvana – the perfect fighter.
“After the loss to St-Pierre in the title fight, I had to take a couple steps back and restructure what I was doing and who I am as a fighter,” said Fitch. “And that comes with growing pains because getting it done in training isn’t the same as getting it done in the fight. We’ve progressively seen moments of greatness in my past fights in the last two years, but they haven’t been right where they need to be yet. I think all the work and everything I’ve been working for is gonna come together in this fight with BJ Penn.”
BJ Penn. It’s a name synonymous with the sport of mixed martial arts, and to the fighters in the UFC, getting a fight with the former two-division champion is a sign that you’ve made it. Fitch, headlining UFC 127 this weekend against “The Prodigy,” agrees.
“I’ve always been about getting the toughest fights possible and BJ Penn’s a huge fight,” he said. “It’s a big honor to get a headlining fight in Australia, and I’m just focused on the positive things. BJ Penn’s such a dangerous opponent that he’s the only person I’m thinking about right now.”
That means he’s not looking forward to the title shot that UFC President Dana White said the winner of this weekend’s bout will receive or about the five fight winning streak that has seen him beat Akihiro Gono, Paulo Thiago, Mike Pierce, Ben Saunders, and Thiago Alves in succession following his loss to St-Pierre. What he will address though is the idea that his lack of finishes equates to a lack of excitement.
At the announcement of the Penn bout in December, Fitch said “I am a homerun hitter who has hit a slump. But in my slump, I am still beating top guys pretty easy. Now with the improvements I’ve made in the gym, the slump is over and I am going to hit a homerun on BJ Penn.”
Beating top level competition on a regular basis shouldn’t be considered a slump, and you’ll never equate Fitch with an Albert Pujols if we’re talking baseball comparisons, he is certainly a Tony Gwynn when it comes to consistently ripping singles and doubles to the gap. But as Fitch explains, he’s not reinventing the wheel here, he’s just taking what he does and lifting it to another level. In the process, he thinks the fans will like what they see.
“It’s more of what I’ve been doing, more refined, more pressure,” he said. “It’s tying everything together, having it flow more smoothly, and it will be more appealing to fans without me having to step out and be somebody other than myself.”
The work in the gym is also eliminating mistakes one by one. That may be the most important aspect of this camp as he prepares for Penn.
“He (Penn) is slick and someone you can’t make mistakes against,” said Fitch. “He’s made a lot of people make mistakes in the past and he’s punished them for it.”
The most recent example is UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, who Penn knocked out in 21 seconds last November. It’s not much for Fitch to go by when it comes to breaking down recent Penn form at 170 pounds.
“It’s hard to take a lot out of a fight that’s 21 seconds long other than you’ve got to be sharp from the first bell with BJ. But I’m not gonna weigh too much on that fight.”
There is enough tape on Penn at 170 to get a decent read on what he brings to the table though, and Fitch and his team have been poring through the Hawaiian’s bouts with Hughes and St-Pierre, as well as lightweight bouts against Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, and Frankie Edgar to paint a complete picture of the fighter who will stand across the Octagon tomorrow night.
“You’ve got to look at all the fights where BJ’s had success and all the fights where he’s had failures, and look at what his opponents were doing to have success against him and what his opponents were doing to fail against him, and try to steer clear of those things and try to implement the things the other guys were having success with,” said Fitch.
If that sounds like a vague response, it is, with Fitch opting not to reveal whether any welterweight’s blueprint for victory is Penn’s 2009 loss to St-Pierre. He’s keeping everything close to the vest, and understandably so. This may be the biggest fight of his career, because a win gets him another title shot and a loss forces him to regroup and start again. And it’s probably even more than that, considering that Penn began his career in the same American Kickboxing Academy gym that Fitch calls home.
“When I first got there, it was like all anybody over there talked about was BJ for a while,” said Fitch. “It’s like the older brother thing where you say ‘hey, I can do this stuff too, why are you still talking about this guy?’”
Fitch laughs, but he wants this one – bad.
“It’s huge,” he said. “You’ve got to beat a legend to become a legend and I think it’s one of those wins that’s gonna elevate my career and my status in this sport as one of those names that’s not to be forgotten.”