For more than seven years, welterweight Jon Fitch built a reputation as one of the UFC's toughest fighters. He fought a who's who of the world's best at 170 pounds—and beat almost all of them.
Over the course of his tenure in the Octagon he went 14-3-1 with one no-contest. As records go, they don't get much better. But, in many ways, Fitch failed to make his way. His ground-centric style didn't make him any fans with the UFC brass.
He got just a single opportunity at the UFC championship. He failed to capture gold, though he extended champion Georges St-Pierre to five hard rounds. But instead of being a perpetual contender, he festered.
Worse, to maintain the status quo he had to be nearly perfect.
The first time he faltered, Fitch was cut from his UFC contract, despite filling a place in the promotion's own top 10 rankings.
In the last year, however, he's found his bearings. On Saturday, he fights the fearsome Rousimar Palhares for the World Series of Fighting welterweight championship. He took the time, however, to talk with Bleacher Report about the state of the sport and why, at 36, he's reinventing his process.
Bleacher Report: Thirty-six, 34, 12. That's your age, number of professional fights and number of years fighting. That's a lot of grinding. What keeps you coming back? What keeps you interested?
Jon Fitch: I enjoy myself. I like doing what I do. Ever since I was a little kid, all I've thought about was being a professional athlete. I always enjoyed working out and pushing myself physically and mentally as much as I possibly could. And I still enjoy doing that now that it's my career.
B/R: At the same time, you're just a little bit younger than me. I know a bit how you feel some mornings. Do you ever wake up thinking, "Man, I am too old to be doing this?" Do you have those moments?
Fitch: This is still such a new sport, still in its infancy. I don't think people have quite figured out how to train and how to do things properly yet. I think you've got a lot of experts in other fields who kind of think they know.
A lot of things have changed in the later parts of my career with the way I train. I think that's made the biggest difference. And not breaking my body down, not getting injuries. Even the mental anguish involved in breaking your body down to a certain point is gone.
B/R: I think there is room for growth in MMA. Doing this job, I've had the chance to see high-level fighters in boxing and MMA prepare for a fight. And in boxing, it's all about preparing that fighter to be his best, about him getting work. Whereas, you go into an MMA gym and it's dog-eat-dog. Even when a guy is two weeks out from a big fight, I've seen training partners looking for the kill in sparring.
Fitch: For a big part of my career, at AKA, we went so hard all the time. And it's not just about going hard. I still go hard, but it's more drill-focused. I do hard drills and technical drills instead of just doing live stuff.
I still spar hard twice a week and it's still 95 percent, 90 percent. We're going after it. But it's two times a week instead of three times a week. Even grappling or wrestling really hard, I've taken a step back too, replacing it with hard drills.
B/R: You feel like you're getting just as much from the drills as you did from going after it in the traditional AKA way?
Fitch: If you're doing a drill with intensity, you get more out of it, even more than five minutes of a live go. For example, doing five-minute gos for takedowns, the chances are you're going to hit maybe two to five takedowns. You're going to defend a couple of shots. But if I do a five-minute drill round, I may hit 50 double legs in that drill round. I can get a lot more out of it.
I can push myself further cardio-wise and I can get more muscle memory out of it. Because I'm doing more repetitions.
B/R: I know you've moved on from AKA, but I've been talking with my MMA colleagues and no one is quite sure where you are now. I know you were in Syracuse for a while, but the scuttlebutt is that people have seen you around Las Vegas. So where are you sitting right now? Where are you implementing these new ideas?
Fitch: We were in Syracuse from about Thanksgiving time last year to about mid-April. Then we went back to San Jose for a while. I trained there for the (Dennis) Hallman fight. And we moved, again, to Vegas in August.
B/R: So what are you doing out there?
Fitch: I'm training at One Kick's Gym with Nick Blomgren. He's trained a lot of high-level stand-up fighters in boxing and kickboxing. And I've taken on kind of a coaching role at his gym too. I'm going to be coaching a lot of his guys for the ground and the MMA aspect of things.
B/R: Very cool. So you have a chance to kind of set up your own shop and implement some of the things you've learned over the long, hard grind of a career?
Fitch: Exactly. Especially the last two years. I've really started to develop a systematic approach towards fighting. I'm making things simple. It's important to have a lot of technique, to know a lot of things that are out there. But everything can get confused. I think it's more important to have a strong base.
B/R: How do you mean?
Fitch: When you get to a position you should really only have two options—do I go left or do I go right? You shouldn't have 15 choices of technique. When you have too many choices you're going to have to think about picking the right one. And then you freeze. You lose that second that you needed to make your move.
B/R: That's interesting. For years, since Frank Shamrock, all we heard about in MMA training was diversifying. Adding to your skill set was the goal. But I guess your proposition is pulling back on that? Because you can only be really good at a certain number of things? Is that it?
Fitch: You can get really good at them. But it's about picking the right one at the right time, I think you need a basic frame of technique. A base level of knowledge you then build off of. It won't be the same. Each guy needs to create his own individual game based on his own attributes and things that he likes to do and things that he's good at doing.
It's very important to learn the individual arts, but that is for in between fights. I call that skill-set training. You go to a boxing class or you go to Muay Thai class, or even go to Thailand to train for a while. You put the gi on and train that.
But then when it's time to get ready for the fight, I think it's time to start building your individual game and your individual system, towards that fight and towards your opponent.
B/R: So you stick with this core technique, but occasionally when you do this skill-set training, you add something into your base framework?
Fitch: Sometimes you pick up a little extra. A little trick here or there. Something that fits into your game so you have another tool.
I explain it like this. You can have a whole warehouse full of weapons, but if someone attacks you need to get that weapon fast. If you have to run to the warehouse and look around, you're going to get killed. You're better off with a little backpack of weapons instead of that warehouse.
B/R: Like you might have that bazooka somewhere in a supply closet somewhere, but you might be better off pulling your pistol instead of trying to remember where you left it?
Fitch: Exactly. Don't waste time looking for the bazooka. Throw the grenade you've got on your belt.
B/R: I like that. So, when you fight this weekend, you won't be alone. Far from it. The UFC has multiple events. There's likely something else on the dial. This would have been heretical to ask in 2005—but is there too much MMA on television?
Fitch: No, I think the problem is that some of the organizations have not stayed true to what fans really want. Fans want heroes. They're bored of the brand. They want a hero and want to follow that guy.
B/R: You're talking about UFC right?
Fitch: The UFC has kind of fallen away from that. They just push the UFC brand in your face. And people don't really attach to brands that way. Not in the fight game. They want to follow that individual. The people who have been released from the UFC, when they go somewhere else fans are going with them. They like the name. They follow the name. The person.
B/R: You can really see that most clearly in boxing. Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been promoted by Top Rank, Golden Boy and by his own promotional company. Fans don't care. They want to see Floyd Mayweather.
Fitch: They want to watch Floyd Mayweather. They want to watch the name. That rings true in all combat sports. People want to follow an athlete.
B/R: What do you make of the current MMA landscape?
Fitch: I think it's kind of exciting because of where everything sits right now. I think 2015 is going to be a very interesting year. UFC is still the dominant force, the monopoly over everything.
It's not even that the other organizations have put themselves into position to compete. I think UFC is kind of hamstringing themselves. They've put themselves in a really bad situation by allowing many of the name fighters that people want to watch and support to go.
Now they have a whole crew of people no one has ever heard of, who they haven't been introduced to in the right way, so the fans aren't really following them passionately.
B/R: You get the feeling, in the last week, that they're a little bit desperate.
Fitch: They're jumping the shark. They're pulling in random famous people like this pro wrestler guy in order to try to bring fans in. I think it's stagnant. People really want to see somebody get built up, know that name and follow that name around.
B/R: There is some precedent for them having major success with a pro wrestler like CM Punk though right?
Fitch: Brock's an outlier though. Lesnar was a different breed. Because he was a very competitive amateur wrestler and national champion. If he didn't go the pro wrestling route, and gone MMA right away, he would have become one of the top dogs anyway.
B/R: Oh for sure. But do you think the UFC has to make this move because, like you said, they haven't done a good enough job cultivating the talent they already have in house?
Fitch: Yeah. It's never been about that. They've always tried to make it about the brand and keep even the biggest superstar's name beneath the brand name.
B/R: And that strategy has worked well, particularly when it comes to fighter pay. In the biggest fight of your career you fought Georges St-Pierre in the main event of a pay-per-view that sold an estimated 600,000 shows. Based on that number, the UFC probably made $15-20 million.
B/R: You made a rumored $34,000. Is that really what they paid you for that?
Fitch: I also got a Fight of the Night bonus. I walked away with probably $120,000 off of that fight because of the bonus. Still, that's pocket change compared to what they made.
B/R: So, at the end of the day, even after all these infamous locker room bonuses and all of that, you made $120,000 for a show that made more than $10 million easy?
Fitch: Yeah. And that's just the pay-per-view. It doesn't include food and beverage sales, the gate, or sales of the fight on demand or on DVD. Those things make that number way, way bigger. We don't even know what those numbers are. But we know they're huge.
B/R: Is that enough money? Do they pay fighters enough for what they do?
Fitch: I don't think it's a fair pay rate. But I think that's a common theme with all big business. I think all workers in this country are underpaid. Wal-Mart is a huge example. I read they pay their workers so little that people who work there full time have to go on welfare. I think each Wal-Mart store averages about $1.7 million in welfare paid to their employees.
How is that even possible? When you have a man and his wife working full-time to support a family, and you still have to be on welfare, it's not right. But it's a common theme across the world.
The people on top are making buttloads of money and they're barely paying their workers enough to survive.
B/R: Wow. That's true. We always ask fighters, "Hey, do you think you should unionize?" and discuss the plight of fighter pay. Like it's just a fighter's problem. Meanwhile, most people haven't had a raise in eight years.
Fitch: Exactly. But your living expenses have gone up. Gas has gone up. Housing. Rent. All those things have gone up. The pay hasn't gone up. But if you look at the profit margins of your employer, they're probably going through the roof.
It's worse now than it was in feudal England with kings and queens and peasants. The wealth disparity is greater now than it was back then.
B/R: So there's nothing necessarily unusual about the way the Fertitta brothers and Dana White run the UFC. They're just doing what big business does. The difference is, they're asking you to go out and get punched in the head.
Fitch: (Laughs). True. And on top of that we have a very short earning window. If I worked at a desk I could work 50 years.
B/R: I think people see a number like $120,000 and think that looks pretty good. But after taxes, and you pay management and trainers...
Fitch: And he's only going to make that kind of money for five or six years. Ten years if he's really lucky. Because you have to build up to that point. It takes a long time to get to that point.
B/R: But before you get to that point there's real struggle. And then they get out of the sport and have done such immense damage to their bodies that they can't even work. At least not a manual job. Not even getting into the potential issues with the brain.
Fitch: And then the next slap in the face is that they're opening up UFC gyms everywhere. You're not even going to be able to open a gym after you stop fighting. You can't compete with that. They have low cost and more stuff and a bigger brand name than you.
You're going to a have a little tiny rinky-dink gym and they're going to have cardio equipment, weights, saunas—and it will be cheaper for them just like it is for Wal-Mart. They'll put us out of business like we were the mom and pop stores around the neighborhood.
B/R: Maybe they can hire fighters to work in their gyms. Part time of course.
Fitch: Imagine going from fighting for titles to working part time and having to go on welfare and not having enough to pay rent. (Laughs).
B/R: Do you think people really understand how much some fighters they know from television really struggle? Living on friends' couches and barely getting by?
Fitch: They have to live in a house with a couple of other people or find places to stay. You fight three times a year for $10,000 a fight. Or eight and eight ($8,000 to fight and $8,000 to win—Editor's note) which is a common starting point for a lot of guys. After you pay your trainers and your other expenses, it's really not that much.
And you're lucky to be busy enough to fight three times a year. A lot of times guys are only fighting twice a year.
B/R: I'm sure because of what happened with the video game a few years ago, everybody asks you their sponsor and likeness related questions. I'm going to do the same. The UFC's deal with Reebok—is that just another way to control that fighter so that there's no way of making money independent of the UFC?
Fitch: Yeah. They're kind of making the managers irrelevant too. Because now the managers aren't going to make any money off of sponsors.
There are some guys floating around out there, that's all they do. They go out and find sponsorships for fighters. That's their hustle. They're out there cold calling different companies. Well, those guys are completely out of the business.
It's really nice for us guys not in the UFC though. Because all those sponsors, they're going to come our way.
B/R: You think it will play out that way?
Fitch: Oh, I've already been contacted by people. Like "hey, when this goes through we'll be talking to you."
B/R: This wasn't really a surprise was it?
Fitch: We all kind of knew. All of us outside the UFC were crossing our fingers. We knew the uniforms would open it up for the rest of us to make a little bit more money.
B/R: In 2007 Ken Shamrock came on The Ultimate Fighter and said, "I'm a leg lock man." And everybody laughed, because that was so out of touch. That was 1993's MMA. But here you are in 2014—and you're fighting a straight up leg-lock man, Rousimar Palhares.
B/R: How different has your training been for this fight? I have to imagine, besides basic defense, you've almost never had to consider defending a leg lock in preparation for other fights.
Fitch: It's interesting. I like the old-school angle of this fight. He's definitely a specialist. He's a master of what he does. His body and frame are built exceptionally well to do just that—to attack the ankles and legs.
A lot of guys just avoid the leg-lock stuff, either because they don't understand it or some people look down on the idea of twisting on somebody's leg and they don't want to learn how to do it. It's really interesting that he's specialized in this one thing. But it works for him. He's good at it and he's able to utilize it.
B/R: Is it hard to train this? Because things can go bad quickly, especially if you're training a heel hook or something. How do you mitigate that risk?
Fitch: You have to have good training partners and not people who crank on things. There's a difference between cranking on it and catching it, holding it and making the guy work out. You have to be selective with your training partners for sure.
B/R: Do you think sometimes with leg locks, and I know this is true with me, that people tap early because they're scared.
Fitch: Yes. I'd say 90 percent of leg taps are what I call panic attacks. One of the biggest one of these I've ever seen was Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar. I don't think that kneebar should have made him tap. I think he was fine. I think his leg was far enough out to be fine.
But he panicked. Because it's scary. Leg locks are scary. There's no gradual pain. It's fine, fine, fine, snap. Something's broken. When you are in a choke, it's like there's a timer on it. You just slowly go out. With an armbar, there's a timer on it. Because as an arm gets extended, you start to feel the pain.
But the leg lock really panics people, because you don't see it that often. And they don't understand the bio-mechanics of it so they're not sure when they're fine and when something's going to get broken. And there's the factor of "you're fine until it breaks."
B/R: Do you think, to be a great fighter, you almost have to be an expert in human anatomy?
Fitch: That's a good question. When I was at Purdue University, I studied PE and history. And, as part of the PE program, they had you take some hard classes to weed out the lazy people. So we had to take a bunch of pre-med biology classes.
So I did have anatomy and physiology and labs where we learned to take things apart and reanimate a frog's heart with adrenaline. All kinds of crazy stuff you'd never expect a PE teacher to have to learn, but it's really hard and it gets rid of the riffraff.
B/R: I'll bet they never imagined one of their students would apply those lessons quite the way you have.
Fitch: (Laughs). I had a bio-mechanics class too. You learn how people walk and how the bones and ligaments work. It really did give me a great base of knowledge for how to hurt people and even cutting weight and cardio and stuff like that.
B/R: Even with your level of experience, at school and otherwise, considering what happened at the end of your UFC tenure and the Josh Burkman fight, do you still feel like you have something to prove to people?
Fitch: I don't care about proving things to people. I'm proving things to myself. I was mentally in a bad spot the last few UFC fights. I started thinking, "What's the point?"
What was the point of working so hard, of winning all those fights, what's the point of busting my a-- in training if they were going to keep their thumb on my f---ing head and their foot on my throat? To never get a chance to raise up.
It kind of broke me a little bit mentally. But after the Burkman fight, when I woke up I think I really woke up. I remembered why I got into this, why I was doing this, and I was able to put all that other stuff to the side.
B/R: You sound ready.
Fitch: In the last few fights you've seen Jon Fitch with his physical and mental strength back where it was in the beginning. Now I've added my knowledge to that physical and mental strength—I think I'm unstoppable right now.
Jon Fitch battles Rousimar Palhares for the World Series of Fighting welterweight championship Saturday at the McClellan Conference Center in Sacramento, California. The evening's NBCSN-broadcast main card kicks off at 9 p.m. ET.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer. His books include Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling and The MMA Encyclopedia. All quotes were acquired firsthand.