Grinding to the Finish

By Ben Duffy Apr 26, 2019

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To anyone familiar with Jon Fitch’s body of work, it comes as no surprise that he is a bit of an obsessive. After all, he came to mixed martial arts through that most notoriously workaholic of sports, amateur wrestling, and only a few months ago, he published a memoir based in large part on his old workout journals. It says much of Fitch’s obsessive chronicling that the memoir in question is subtitled “Book One,” and he claims two more volumes are in the works.

That drive to improve himself and that compulsion to master his craft have carried over to his now nearly two-decade-long fighting career. What does the compulsive preparer do when he has seven months to prepare for an opponent rather than the customary three or four, as is the case with Rory MacDonald, his counterpart this Saturday at Bellator 220? The same as usual, Fitch maintains, only more of it.

“When you have a [fight] date lingering out there ahead of you, it definitely helps keep you on schedule. I kind of had the same situation when I was getting ready to fight Jake Shields, because that one kept getting pushed back,” he said, referring to the New Year’s Eve meeting with his fellow welterweight legend under the World Series of Fighting banner in 2016. “I used the time to make sure my body was strong, make sure my body was healthy and start formulating my game plan and getting myself prepared.”

One reason for the long leadup to this fight is that it was announced as part of the ongoing Bellator MMA welterweight grand prix and was then put on hold while MacDonald moved up in weight to challenge Bellator middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi. MacDonald’s dreams of becoming Bellator’s first two-division titleholder were dashed, as he lost via second-round TKO. Fitch watched the one-sided beating but claims he is not drawing many conclusions from it regarding his own upcoming date with the “Red King.”

“I didn’t put too much into [that fight],” Fitch said. “The size difference was large, and Mousasi is a bad dude. He’s one of the best out there. I think he’s a severely underrated fighter. Anytime you have two fighters that are similarly skilled and one has the advantage of 15 [or] maybe 20 pounds of muscle, the bigger guy is probably going to win that.”

While Fitch is obsessive in training and game planning, he is not exactly cloak-and-dagger in discussing those plans. Perhaps at age 41, with 38 (sorry, make that 39) professional fights under his belt, he figures his opponents know what is coming, and that more often than not, they’re unable to stop it. When asked about MacDonald’s recent assertion that Fitch “can throw really hard hands, but he chooses to grind people out with his wrestling,” Fitch acknowledges the observation but disputes the idea that it is due to preference.

“Yeah, it’s not necessarily that I choose to,” Fitch said. “I like to grind it out because I like to make my opponent work, but I take the path of least resistance. It just so happens that the majority of guys I fight are really easy to take down.”

Fitch elaborated, using the same blunt self-assessment that characterizes his memoir, “Failing Upwards/Death by Ego,” which notably opens with his resolving to bounce back from a dismal 8-31 sophomore season at Purdue University. “I’m not an NCAA Division I champion,” he said. “I’m not an All-American. I [was] an above-average wrestler, but I wasn’t a standout, but because of the timing, the setups and the techniques that I use, I’m an absolutely fantastic MMA wrestler. I usually can take guys down really easily, and they aren’t very good at getting back up. So why would I put myself at more risk, when there’s a path of least resistance that can give me the victory and let me beat the other guy up? Why sacrifice brain cells throwing hands and getting hit in return when it’s so easy to take guys down?”

One X-factor going into the forthcoming fight is the state of MacDonald’s nose. Memorably obliterated in the final round of his incredible war with then-Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Robbie Lawler in 2015, in nearly every fight since then, MacDonald’s nose has either been badly damaged again or has informed an apparent reluctance to engage with his usual aggression on the feet. Interestingly, considering Fitch’s forthcoming nature and what an open book he appears to be on just about any topic, it seems he is a bit tired of discussing MacDonald’s embattled snout.

“Mm-hmm, that’s what I keep being told,” he said with a laugh. “I’m getting the feeling that people think I’m just fighting Rory’s nose. The amount of focus that most people are putting on it, it feels like I’m not even fighting a guy, I’m just fighting a giant nose. I mean, it’s part of his face. What else am I going to aim for, his forehead? You’ve got that triangle in the middle of your face: the nose, the nerve under the nose and the chin, and that’s what you’re aiming to punch anyway. So, yeah, it’s probably going to come up, and I’ll be trying to hit him in the face, but it’s not like I’m Luke Skywalker at the Death Star -- you know, trust The Force, close your eyes, throw one down the middle and, hey, I blew up the Death Star by hitting Rory in the nose.”

In other words, while Fitch is well aware of the dynamic in play, it does not change his strategy, not even to the point of considering testing his opponent on the feet for longer than he otherwise might.

“Why would hanging out on the feet be any better than putting him into the fence and elbowing the crap out of his nose?” he asked. “But again, it’s the path of least resistance. If it turns out to be easier to throw down the middle and hit him in the face than to take him down, that’s what I’ll do.”

Fighters who have a fight booked are usually reluctant to talk about potential future matchups, and understandably so, since it could be seen as a sign of underestimating the opponent in front of them. However, in the context of a bracketed tournament, Fitch knows exactly what awaits the winner of his tilt with MacDonald: a June booking at Madison Square Garden against Neiman Gracie, the undefeated scion of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s royal family, who recently dealt fellow undefeated prospect Ed Ruth his first career loss in their opening-round encounter. Without looking past the task at hand, Fitch admits the prospect of fighting Gracie in the second round is an attractive one.

“It’s a good opportunity,” he said. “It’s a quick turnaround and I’d be getting more money. I’d be the champ [if I beat MacDonald to advance], so there’s a pay bump. It’s in New York at Madison Square Garden, so that’s awesome. He’s got the Gracie name, so that’s awesome, too. There are a lot of positives about it. I’m not thinking too hard about it right now, but I’m sure not upset about the possibility.”

On the topic of his career beyond the grand prix, Fitch seems to feel the pull of two different forces: the wish to secure a graceful exit from the sport while he is still competitively relevant and the desire to make the most of the time that remains to him before that exit. Those goals are not incompatible with each other, so the result is not stress or conflict but a steady tension that keeps Fitch’s nose to the grindstone.

“I would like to have fought sooner,” he said of the long layoff necessitated by the grand prix and MacDonald’s middleweight detour. “It’s sand going through the hourglass, and the older you get, the less you have left. I’d rather get more fights in while I can. I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 45.”

While Fitch is by his own admission in the final years of his fighting career, he remains a relevant competitor. He is on a five-fight winning streak against some credible opponents, and a win over MacDonald would make him the reigning and defending Bellator welterweight champion, likely vaulting him back into the Top 10. This sets Fitch apart from most of his fellow 40-something UFC expats in Bellator; the organization is well-known for booking fights such as Quinton Jackson-Wanderlei Silva 4 and Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen, which offered paydays for the fighters and a certain nostalgia for a certain subset of fans but had no real competitive impact. Fitch understands the appeal of those “masters’ tour” matchups but claims not to share it.

“For me, it’s about fighting at the highest level,” he said. “Things could change in a couple of years, I guess, but I doubt it. In my mind, I’m pretty made up about wanting to fight [only] at the highest level. If I’m not fighting at that level, the amount of money being made doesn’t seem worth the amount of damage being done to your body. I’m here to fight the best guys. If I can’t do that anymore, then it’s time to move on.” On the topic of moving on, Fitch -- the father of two boys, age 7 and 5 -- admits that fighting takes a toll on more than just a fighter’s health.

“It’s hard not just on me but on my kids,” he said. “Not knowing when I’m going to fight again, waiting around in extended training camps, not being able to plan vacation time, it’s just not that worth it, I think, if I’m not competing at the highest level. At that point, I’d rather go and become successful at something else that doesn’t involve getting punched in the face and gives me more time with my kids while still making me money.”

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