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Jon Fitch on Toughness

“My favorite guys on the football field weren’t quarterbacks, they were the middle linebackers who did all the dirty work,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to that and always respected that. Even in my video games I always pick the tough characters. There’s just something about it.” 

Jon Fitch has never heard his father complain. Even when Mike Fitch would smash his hand with a hammer or cut himself with a saw while woodworking, there wouldn’t be anything more than a slight grimace, then right back to work.

Those unspoken lessons have never been forgotten.

“I don’t think you can necessarily teach toughness, but you can definitely learn it,” said Fitch. “I think just growing up and seeing my father and the way he was, and my family, I think I got a lot of toughness from him.”

Even as a child, Fitch, the future welterweight contender, gravitated not towards the flashy, but the gritty, in life.

“My favorite guys on the football field weren’t quarterbacks, they were the middle linebackers who did all the dirty work,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to that and always respected that. Even in my video games I always pick the tough characters. (Laughs) There’s just something about it.”

But as Clint Eastwood famously said in the movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’, “tough ain’t enough,” so when Fitch made it onto the Purdue University wrestling team, his inherent toughness was enhanced by technical skills that he absorbed like a sponge and a deep look into the mental side of competition. It was here that he learned how to use what he learned from his father to gain a decided edge in competition.

“I think a lot of my experiences wrestling at Purdue, they really break you down and build you up and show you what it means to be tough and teach you how to break other people,” he said. “I learned a lot about the mental game and how important it is that when you’re at your breaking point, to know and realize that your opponent is probably at the same point and sometimes you need to turn it on and take it up a level and not shut down.”

Yet there would still be trials for Fitch, ones that continue to this day, as he battles the opposing voices that find a home in everyone’s head.

“Maybe you have a bad day sparring or in a grappling session and immediately after you’re like, ‘I suck, I should quit, I’m awful, I don’t know why I do this,’” he explains. “But five minutes later, your attitude starts changing and you start saying ‘screw that, whatever. I’m not going out like that, I’ll be better next time and I’ve got to improve.’ It’s like you have two personalities. You’ve got the weenie on one shoulder and the tough guy on the other and they have these little battles with each other.”

He laughs as we go through a number of ways to describe the rival of the tough guy, and since we’re on a family website, we finally settle on ‘weenie’. Well, both voices were out in force on July 13, 2002, the night of Fitch’s first mixed martial arts match against Mike Pyle. Submitted at the 2:35 mark of round one, Fitch was discouraged by the defeat, wondering if his career would be one and done.

“I’m like ‘I suck, what am I doing, I have no idea what I’m doing here,’” he said. “I didn’t even show up with the right kind of mouthpiece, I didn’t bring a cup, I didn’t have a corner, I didn’t even know what I was doing. So the weenie’s on one shoulder saying ‘you don’t even belong in the sport; get a real job, you’ve got a college degree.’ But then on the other shoulder, the tough guy starts speaking up and says ‘forget that weenie, you’re not going out like that. You can’t let that be your fighting career, that one fight. You’ve got to find a way, you’ve got to do better, you gotta do this again and try harder and work harder.’ Luckily for me, the tough guy on my shoulder is the one that wins out 99 percent of the time.”

Apparently. Since that defeat, Fitch has won 25 of 28 fights, with one no contest. Included in that slate are 12 UFC wins. But it’s the lone loss in 2008 against UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre that once again proved that Fitch may very well be the toughest hombre not only at 170 pounds, but in the game.

“In my fight with GSP, I never stopped moving forward or going at him and he never felt the feeling of me breaking at any point in that fight,” said Fitch, who lost a five round unanimous decision in his lone title shot. “But there are definitely times when guys break and a lot of times they look for a way out. I think a lot of submissions come from this. You put a knee down on them, you’ve got positioning on them, they’re starting to get tired in the second or third round, and they stop defending the choke as well as they were in the first round.”

And with nearly a lifetime of wrestling and eight-plus years of MMA, Fitch has developed a sixth sense in competition when it comes to knowing the precise moment when he’s broken an opponent.

“Something I definitely developed at Purdue is being able to tell when a guy breaks,” he said. “There’s a definitive moment that you can kinda smell on the guy when he’s mentally broken. It’s a good feeling - it’s when you know you’ve got the fight, that’s when he’s shut down and being desperate. Everything he does is gonna be one desperate move to try to win instead of an accumulation of techniques or pressure.”

Since the loss to St-Pierre, Fitch has done something only a handful of top-tier fighters can do – get better after a defeat. Four wins have followed since August of 2008, and Fitch’s performances have become so dominant that he has received criticism for them. Not surprisingly, that’s not a concern for him.

“There are a lot of ways to look at that,” he said. “One thing is that the guys that make the most noise about that, I call them the one percenters. They’re the one percent of the population of fight fans that claim to be fans of the sport, but they’re all over the internet, they’ve got 20 different log-on names and they’re just there complaining. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’re a fan of the sport. I watch the Colts play and if they win a game 9-0, I don’t complain the whole time saying ‘they only put nine points on the board, they suck, I’m never watching them again.’ It’s a football game and I watch and enjoy every snap of the ball and every play that they’re doing, regardless if it’s a 50 point game or if they only scored nine points. If they’re winning, I’m enjoying that, and if they won 9-0, the defense must have played a helluva game. I think we’re still at a young stage in the fight game and people are still used to seeing pro wrestling and kung fu movies. They want to see the flying spinning back head kick knockout and they want to see the Undertaker pull out whatever. (Laughs) They want to see these make believe fantastic things, but you’re either a fan of the sport or you’re not.”

True fans do appreciate what Fitch brings to the table, as the lines waiting for his autograph or picture at the UFC Fan Expo or at other appearances demonstrate. To him, those are the 99-percenters.

“Those are the guys that pay for the Pay-Per-Views, buy the t-shirts, and not the ones supporting illegal pirating. Those fans love me and enjoy watching me fight.”

And whether you do or not, he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing, regardless.

“You kinda have to be a mental juggernaut and just keep working,” he said. “I’m always trying to get better, always trying to develop my skills and improve myself. I’m always focusing on growing and self-improvement and not caring about what anybody else is doing on the outside.”

On Saturday night, Fitch returns to action to revisit a fight he had in 2006 against Thiago Alves. The Indiana native won the first time around and he expects to do it again, especially now that the prize this time is another shot at the welterweight title. It’s a big fight, the kind he craves, and where he delivers his best performances because it’s on nights like these where the toughest prevail. And Jon Fitch is one tough guy.