Yesterday, the UFC announced it was cutting 16 fighters from the roster. Some of the cuts were not too surprising. Some of them were.
And one of them was downright shocking.
Jon Fitch, who was been a top 10 welterweight contender for more than half a decade, has been given his walking papers by the promotion where he fought 18 times. It was a stunning decision considering Fitch competed on a UFC card just a few weeks ago, in an entertaining (if one-sided) decision loss to Demian Maia. I don’t think anyone in the MMA media saw this one coming, especially yours truly – but maybe they should have.
And as I sit here, still trying to wrap my head around this move, I find myself going back-and-forth on a single, simple question: was cutting Jon Fitch the right decision?
Let’s flashback to that ancient time known as 2008, when Jon Fitch was the #1 contender to UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre. Sadly, we may remember this time as the peak of Jon’s MMA career, which is even more bittersweet when you remember how his eventual title fight with GSP went down.
For 5 straight rounds, GSP put a beating on Fitch that was so severe, it would have carried serious jail time had it happened on the streets. St. Pierre hit him with jabs, hooks, uppercuts, plenty of kicks, and even a spinning backfist. He dropped him repeatedly. He took him down at will. He turned Jon’s face into something resembling a plate of raw meat with two eye holes. It was perhaps the only time GSP went the distance and drunk, TapouT-wearing meatheads had absolutely nothing to complain about.
And Fitch kept coming back for more.
It was one of the gutsiest performances from a fighter I’ve ever seen. I was something of a Fitch supporter coming into the fight, but once it was over I knew: I’d be a Jon Fitch fan for life.
Anyone who’s seen the excellent documentary “Such Great Heights”, which focuses on Fitch in the lead-up to his 2008 bout with GSP, knows how much that opportunity meant to him. I always assumed as a fan – and I think most folks assumed, too – that Fitch would one day find his way back to a UFC world title fight.
That’s not very likely now.
So was cutting Fitch the right move? My initial reaction was something along the lines of “aw Hell no!”, so let’s explore that argument for a moment. Jon is 24-5-1-1 as a pro, which is an outstanding record for any fighter, in any division. And take a glance at some of the names on that resume: Thiago Alves (twice), Paulo Thiago, Ben Saunders, and Diego Sanchez stand out as names in his win column. Some fans may roll their eyes at that list of names (don’t they always), but all those guys were all top-10 welterweights when Fitch beat them.
Jon opened his UFC career with 8 straight victories, before running right into the brick wall named GSP. But after that loss, he rattled off 5 more consecutive victories. In fact, Fitch is one of the winningest fighters in UFC history, with his 14 wins putting him only 4 back from all-time leader Matt Hughes. He’s also been a staple of the top-10 rankings for as long as I can remember. Hell, the UFC’s own rankings – released only a couple of weeks ago – have Fitch as the #9 welterweight fighter in the world.
So cutting Fitch must be a travesty then, right? Well, not so fast.
I’ve already covered Fitch’s incredible run of victories in the UFC. Unfortunately, that run doesn’t include the last few years. It started in 2011, when Fitch fought to a draw against former lightweight champ BJ Penn in a fight many expected Fitch to take handily. The fact that BJ was fighting outside his natural weight (many consider 155 to be BJ’s true home, not 170) and coming off back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar only served to dent Fitch’s stock further.
Then his stock plummeted (along with Fitch himself) when Johny Hendricks knocked him cold in a matter of seconds at UFC 141. Suddenly, the most durable welterweight in the division was looking up at the lights only moments after the fight began. It was a crushing moment for Fitch’s career – indeed, no single loss may have contributed more to the decision to cut Fitch than this one.
Fitch righted his ship with a decision victory over Erick Silva, before dropping his most recent fight to BJJ ace Demian Maia. That makes Fitch 1-2-1 in his last four fights, a record that doesn’t exactly scream top 10.
Then there’s Fitch’s well-known problems with UFC president Dana White. This is actually the second time Fitch has been handed his walking papers by the UFC – the first was in 2008, when Fitch’s decision not to sign over his likeness rights for the UFC video game led to an irate White firing Fitch. Lorenzo Fertitta swooped in the play “good cop” at that time, and Fitch was back on the roster in a few days.
Still, we know there are plenty of issues between the two men, ranging from pay issues to promotional and matchmaking problems. Fitch raised White’s (and many MMA fans) hackles when he told the media last year that he’d only be taking fights with world champions or #1 contenders from now on. For his part, Fitch watched a “guaranteed” title shot go up in smoke after he beat Thiago Alves in a #1 contenders bout in 2011 – with nary a word of explanation from White.
Instead, GSP faced Fitch’s AKA teammate Josh Koscheck. Fitch had to settle for BJ Penn – and the rest is history.
The big knock on Fitch has always been his style. His conservative, grinding wrestling attack is many MMA fans equivalent to watching paint dry, and it didn’t make him very popular in either the stands, or the UFC front office. The term “Fitching” has come to mean wearing down on your opponents with relentless takedowns and top control, landing pitter-patter punches, and waiting for the decision to go your way. In 24 professional victories, Fitch has 5 knockouts, 4 submissions – and 15 decisions.
But I truly believed all that was starting to change. In his last UFC victory against Erick Silva, Fitch won “Fight of the Night” honors in what was easily one of the most entertaining fights of 2012. His scraps with BJ Penn and Diego Sanchez – not to mention the beating at the hands of GSP – were fun fights that could entertain the most ardent of the “just bleed!” crowd.
And besides, shouldn’t Fitch’s 14 UFC career victories cancel out the fact that he’s oftentimes a bit dull to watch?
In a perfect world perhaps, but evidently not in this one. For his victory over Erick Silva, Fitch was paid $60,000 to show, and $60,000 to win (plus “Fight of the Night” bonuses). That’s over six figures for a fighter who, in the UFC’s opinion, is a troublemaker who mostly puts fans to sleep.
But in a world where Dan Hardy can drop four straight crushing losses, yet remain on the roster because Lorenzo Fertitta likes how he “wars”, surely there’s a place for Jon Fitch. At the end of the day, I would have kept Jon Fitch, paid him what he deserved, and promoted him like a guy who’s won 14 friggin’ UFC fights deserves to be promoted.
But that’s why Dana White is the president of the UFC, and not me. Because he can look at the balance sheet and make a calculated decision for the good of his company – while I watch “Such Great Heights” and wonder what might have been.