It is impossible to talk about the top welterweight fighters in the world without mentioning Jon Fitch. The AKA staple has been a perennial contender for the past five years, as he's dominated a collection of the division's best.
That being said, the 34-year-old former standout wrestler at Purdue University has found difficulty in his quest to reclaim a shot at the 170-pound title, where despite one of the best records in UFC history, Fitch's place on the divisional radar has fluctuated.
It was a situation the Indiana-born fighter was determined to change, and he took a big step toward accomplishing his goal at UFC 153. In Rio de Janeiro, Fitch derailed rising prospect Erik Silva in a three-round battle that earned both men Fight of the Night honors. It was a tremendous statement to make at the perfect time in his career, and his performance over the young Brazilian talent not only put him back into the win column, but also chipped away at the stigma of past criticisms.
"I give props to Erik Silva because of the type of fighter he is and that he wasn't playing to the judges or the referee," Fitch told Bleacher Report. "A lot of guys tend to hold on when they get taken down hoping to get stood back up, and he didn't do that. Silva continued to fight for the entire time. When you do that—you get a great fight. When both guys are just constantly trying to be offensive and push forward, you get a crazy awesome fight like that.
"I think a lot of times people play that game where they get taken down and think they can hold onto a wrist or elbow, keep their guard closed, the ref will see nothing is happening and things will get stood back up. Rather than actually trying to fight back to their feet or trying to get submissions. A lot of guys kind of shut down. They count it as a moral victory because they didn't get finished. They can hold on rather than continue to fight or try to win. There is a major difference."
Fitch will look to continue his climb back to title contention when he faces submission ace Demian Maia this Saturday night at UFC 156 in Las Vegas. The battle matches one of MMA's most dominant wrestlers against a competitor largely recognized as the most dangerous jiu-jitsu practitioner in the sport today. It is a matchup Fitch is looking forward to, and he's ready to to bring his unique brand of the grind to Maia inside the Octagon.
"[Maia] is very strong in some of the same areas I'm strong in as well," Fitch told Bleacher Report. "It should make for an interesting matchup.He has great transitions on the ground and works them into his submission game. He also uses his control to set up submissions, and I think that is going to present some interesting challenges."
Throughout his career in the UFC, Fitch has proven to be one of the most durable fighters when it comes to the ground game. He has one of the highest submission defense percentages in UFC history, and his ability to escape the most dangerous situations has only added to his reputation as one of the game's grittiest fighters.
While it is a badge of honor to be worn proudly, Fitch has put in the work to find comfort where others panic. What most fighters would call being in a bad position, Fitch uses a bait method to get his opponent to maneuver to set up a position change. Part of this comes from the experience required to become a black belt in guerrilla jiu-jitsu in addition to hours spent putting himself in the worst situations. The infamous "bounty" story is one example of the process.
"It is something I started with the B.J. [Penn] fight," Fitch said. "I had a black belt from Modesto come down and I put up 20 bucks if he was able to submit me. It pretty much started with him on my back every round and if I got out we would go right back to the starting position with them on my back. I tried to give him as many opportunities as I could and other guys as much opportunities as they could for them to submit me from there. It made me very comfortable with having someone on my back and confident in my submission defense from that position."
As a core member of the American Kickboxing Academy, Fitch has been an anchor for one of the most successful gyms in MMA. Over the years, the team has experienced tremendous success, with its fair share of pitfalls along the way. Following a brief shakeup among the ranks, the squad at AKA has experienced somewhat of a resurgence over the past several months.
Along with Fitch's victory over Silva, teammates Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez both captured big wins of their own. Those victories have everything moving in the right direction for the team, and Fitch believes the success will only continue.
"It's been really positive," Fitch replied when asked about AKA. "We had a little bit of a rough patch where we moved gyms and had some growing pains to get through, but we were able to come together closer as a team. We kept our mind focused on what we wanted, pushed forward, were able to get some big wins in big fights and we are looking to do big things in 2013."
In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, Strikeforce Grand Prix Winner and recent UFC convert Daniel Cormier described the excitement he felt watching Fitch succeed in Brazil. The energy carried over into the gym on the following Monday. Although Cormier had just started his training camp and wasn't necessarily in fighting shape, Fitch's victory inspired him to go all-out in the gym, leaving the former wrestling standout depleted for the rest of the week..
Following Velasquez regaining the heavyweight title by defeating Junior dos Santos at UFC 155, Fitch fell victim to similar circumstances.
"It's funny, because the same thing happened to me after Cain's fight," Fitch said. "I came back to the gym on Monday and had the craziest Monday ever, but the rest of the week I was dragging ass because I pushed so hard during that workout. I was so pumped and pushed so hard during that workout that I was broken down a little bit."
Becoming welterweight champion is certainly a career goal for Fitch, but the heated race toward the top isn't something he's necessarily paying attention to these days. While the upper tier of the division is perhaps more competitive than it's ever been, the former No. 1 contender doesn't concern himself with outside interference. They only thing on Fitch's mind is the fight immediately in front of him, and right now that opponent is Maia.
"The division kind of looks different, but at the same time I've changed my focus up," Fitch said. "I'm not really looking at anything else but the singular fight in front of me. It is a much better perspective and type of focus rather than having it run all over the place thinking about what this guy is doing over here or whether I'm going to get the winner or loser of a particular fight. It's just too scattered and I'm really not paying attention. I don't follow it. I'm looking at what my teammates are doing or focusing on the fight that I have coming up."
After suffering setbacks and lengthy time away from the cage due to injury, Fitch is ready to seize every opportunity that comes his way. From fighting at UFC 153 to the mega-card which is UFC 156, the 10-year veteran couldn't be happier to keep things rolling in the right direction.
"It's awesome to go from a good-name opponent to another big-name opponent right away," Fitch said. "To be put on a big card feels great. Rio was a big card, and the Super Bowl card is awesome. To be put on these big cards kind of shows (the UFC) has some faith in you to deliver."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.