Despite having wins over MMA ironman Shonie Carter and the previously undefeated and highly touted Brock Larson, and an undefeated streak that spans that last three years, he finds himself in the role of underdog .
Jon Fitch: "He Fights Like Nobody's Business"
There's probably no fighter competing on the upcoming Ultimate Fight Night card that has the combination of incredible talent yet relative obscurity that Jon Fitch can claim. Despite having wins over MMA ironman Shonie Carter and the previously undefeated and highly touted Brock Larson, and an undefeated streak that spans that last three years, he finds himself in the role of underdog (overwhelmingly if you believe some polls) for the second time in as many UFC appearances.
It's not a role that bothers the Indiana native and former Purdue wrestling co-captain. A rising star from the rising team known as the American Kickboxing Academy, Fitch, a purple belt in jiu-jitsu under Dave Camarillo, is known around the gym for his "first in the office, last to leave" training habits, leaving little time for him to even hear about fight polls or his opponents' interviews. He feels he has the advantage in just about all areas of the fight game when he faces Josh Burkman on April 6th. To those who don't know much about Fitch, it may sound like he's riding a wave of confidence that could die out before it hits the shore. But to those who know and train with him (the interviewer included) it appeares to be a fair assesment.
Finding time in his training schedule to get this interview was tough, but one week out from his fight (once the hard sparring ends) he sat down with On the Mat.
OTM: Tell us about your background in wrestling.
Fitch: I started wrestling in the fourth grade, pretty much got my butt kicked until I was an eighth grader when I started working out hard, and lifting. I finally started winning and really enjoyed wrestling. I was a two-time (high school) state placer in Indiana (for Carroll High in Fort Wayne) and walked on to Purdue. I wanted to wrestle Big-10 because it was a
tough conference, but I didn't have too many schools recruiting me other than Division II schools and West Point, but once I found out West Point didn't have any girls I didn't want to go there (laughs). I struggled early, I worked harder than anyone else but my technique just wasn't there. I put way too much pressure on myself and worried too much about losing instead of improving.
Toward my last two years I started to focus and started winning. I blew my knee out my junior year and that was a huge setback; I feel I could have been an All-American my senior year if I wouldn't have missed have a season my junior year. The experience I lost...really hurt me. Senior year was really good, I just fell a little short. Lost two very close matches at the Big-Ten (finals) and barely missed qualifying (for the NCAA tournament). I stuck around for another year as a grad assistant, and that's actually when my skills really started to take off because the pressure was off and it was fun again.
OTM: Was it Tom Erikson that got you into MMA?
Fitch: Yeah, Tom Erikson was assistant wrestling coach, he's a good guy to have in your corner when you're competing. He used to have guys like Mark Coleman and Gary Goodridge come into town and I'd jump in and help them train when I could. Talking to Gary about the business end of it and the amount of money he was making made it really appealing. What I didn't realize was the lighter guys don't make much. He was telling me things like 70,000 a fight and I thought 'Hell yeah I'll do this.' I figured I'd only need to fight once a year. But as I got more involved I realized that wasn't the case.
OTM: Tell us about your training when you first started to fight.
Fitch: Man, there was nothing. I actually joined a club senior year that was basically a bunch of traditional martial artists that were nice guys...but introverts. I joined that to try to get people to show me something, but they didn't really have anything I could use. But I used it for a workout. When I was a grad assistant I was scrambling around just for guys to workout with. I remember one time I was training for a fight and we lined up like eight guys in the wrestling room and they would work in with me as I submitted each one. We were three minutes into a round and none of them could go anymore because they were too tired. I was like 'Man, I gotta get somewhere else.' And I was by no means a submission expert. I barely knew what a triangle was, what an armbar was, I knew nothing about positioning and couldn't pass guard to save my life. But against these guys I was mauling them because my little bit of knowledge was more than anyone in the area had.
OTM: So that brings us to how you came to AKA.
Fitch: Dewayne Zinkin, of Zinkin Entertainment, was looking for college wrestlers who were interested in fighting. (Zinkin manages many of the fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy). He talked to Tom Erikson who said 'yeah, I got a guy who's planning on fighting.' I actually fought that summer and we talked, and he said I had some potential but to get a few more wins under my belt. I fought out in Minnesota later that year, and Sean Sherk, who was with Zinkin at the time, saw me fight and called Dewayne either that night or the next day and said 'yeah, this kid's an animal, he'd be a good investment for you.' So the next week Dewayne sent out a contract and I signed with them.
OTM: And when did you move out to San Jose to train at AKA?
Fitch: I moved out here on May 20th, 2003. I came out (the previous) November for a week and saw what AKA had to offer, and I saw what training could be like. Before I was just putting on handwraps and hitting a heavybag, that was my standup. (At AKA) I was getting beat on, submitted, I sparred for the first time--I had like six or eight fights and I had never even sparred before. The day after my last final from grad school I packed up everything I had in my Buick Regal and put my dog (***interviewers note***: the infamous Bricks) in the front seat and drove out to California.
OTM: You said to me before that your career really started when you got out here...
Fitch: Yeah, I look at everything before as amatuer, or amatuer-ish, I never had professional trainers or training until I got out here. That is when I consider my career as really starting.
OTM: Describe training at AKA, and who you train with the most.
Fitch: The last few fights I've been training a lot with Josh Koscheck. We've been fighting on the same cards, fighting similar guys. (Mike) Swick from the moment I got here we've trained a lot together. Trevor Prangley, Josh Thomson, "Crazy Bob" (Cook) when he's not being "Lazy Slob." Dave Camarillo, when he finally came to the gym, that was really huge, he transformed my ground game. I went from being a controlling wrestler on top, became a submission threat, started passing a lot of people's guard. Bobby Southworth has been a great help, and we also get a lot of surprise guests, guys like Eugene Jackson, Phil Baroni, Forrest Griffin. Even Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez come down and train with us and they are great guys to work with.
That's one of the reasons I came out here. I was like 'if things don't work out at AKA, I can drive a half-hour and workout somewhere else.' Luckily this gym has turned out to be something incredible. I think in this next year we're really going to pull ahead and stand out from a lot of the other gyms out there around the country. Here there's, how many different World champions? There's so many different trainers I can work with here, for standup, submissions, even wrestling and now I'm helping to teach and train...there's a lot of knowledge floating around.
OTM: Who are your main trainers?
Fitch: Bob Cook, Dave Camarillo, Lynn Schutz, they have really built the foundation of what I am. Kind of think of it as building a house. They poured the concrete, insultated it, put the roof on it. And now you've got Javier (Mendez) helping me out, he's painting the house, and putting the shingles on, even Teddy (Lucio) he's doing some gardening for me (laughs). It's just great, we've really turned this gym into the team concept for training.
OTM: So who has been your toughest opponent so far?
Fitch: Well I have to give credit to the fighters that have beaten me. I'm a different fighter now, but I have to give them credit.
OTM: You haven't lost since you went to AKA have you?
Fitch: No I haven't.
My toughest fight has been the (Jeff) Joslin fight. Give him credit where credit is due, he's very strong, in great condition, very good on the ground and good standup. But I had no idea what I was getting into. I had heared he was a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, and that was it. So I figured I'd go in there and stand with him and knock him out. What I thought was going to be a first round knockout for me ended up being a three round bloody ass war. I'm sure we'll see each other again, I hope we do, because then it will clear the air because a lot of people are upset with the decision and I'd like a chance to really train for it. Not to take anything away from Jeff, he's a really great fighter and I know we'll see great things from him in the future.
OTM: And your biggest victories are?
Fitch: The two big victories for me are of course the Shonie Carter fight, that one opened my eyes, and made me think 'I might be ok at this, I might be able to compete with these guys.' And of course the Brock Larson fight, because he was undefeated and I was the underdog. Everyone said 'oh, this guy's an animal, he's 16-0 and he's going to walk through (me).' And I went out there and handled him for three rounds. I still feel horrible that I didn't finish him. I missed some opportunites there. But now every fight is going to be my toughest opponent.
OTM: Now everyone seems to think you're the underdog against Burkman.
Fitch: Yeah, that's true, even though I think I'm better on the ground, I have better wrestling, better cardio, better standup, I think I have a more impressive record as far as the guys I've beaten.
OTM: Have you heard any of the stuff he's said in interviews?
Fitch: No, I don't really go on the internet anymore, I'm too busy in the gym training. I don't even care. People tell me clips and bits of stuff, I don't care. To me he's just a name on a piece of paper, someone I have to go through.
OTM: Does the fact that he was on the Ultimate Fighter show motivate you more to beat him, considering you were a plane ride away from being on that show?
Fitch: No, I mean I'm motivated to do well regardless of who I'm fighting. I'd like to have a moment in the alley with a couple producers from that show but other than that I don't care. Those guys are just taking advantage of opportunities they were given just like I would have or anyone else would have.
OTM: So then do you care to go into detail about almost being on the show? (Season One of Spike TVs Ultimate Fighter)
Fitch: Yeah, it's been long enough that I don't think they can sue me over it. Basically I was signed and ready to go, set everything up to be gone for two months, packed my bags, was at the airport and had about 15 minutes to go before my flight and I got a call from Las Vegas. It was one of the producers. They called me up and said 'oh, we need you to not get on that plane. We reformatted the show and we don't need you anymore.' And I was like 'are you kidding me?' I kind of went off on the phone on him, I was like 'I quit my job, I'm lucky I even have a place to stay, what the hell am I going to do?' And he was like 'oh, you quit your job? Well uh, don't get on the plane. Bye.' And that was it.
And I had to go have them pull my bags from the plane, call my girlfriend to come pick me up, and for the next two months I had to explain to people why I wasn't on the show. You know, I had people who threw me a going away party. I spent a good month of hard training because we figured we'd be fighting on the show. It's kind of a slap in the face, especially considering some of the guys they did keep for the show. I'm a big believer in skill over personality; I think we should let the sport of MMA sell itself. Let great fights and great fighters sell it, and not great looks. I want to be known for being a great fighter and not because I have a loud mouth.
OTM: That seems to be the hard road these days.
Fitch: Yeah it is the hard road, but you know the hard road always pays off the best in the end.
OTM: So I'll just tell you one thing Burkman said in a recent interview, that basically he was wanting to fight someone that can kick his ass.
Fitch: (Laughs) Careful what you wish for, that's all I can say to that.
OTM: So how long were you a fighter before you finally let your parents know what you do?
Fitch: (Laughing) Oh man, they just found out last July, so a good three years.
OTM: Did they take it well? Didn't they worry enough about you wrestling as a kid?
Fitch: Yeah, they took it alright. I think they are unsure about it, but they don't say much about it, just 'don't get hurt.'
OTM: Is there anybody you'd like to fight?
Fitch: I want to fight everybody at 170. Line em up. I think that's even more important than having a belt, seeing if you can beat everyone else. The only person I'd really like to fight is myself, because that's the only way to find out how good you really are. But that won't happen until they allow cloning.
OTM: Any sponsors or people in general you want to mention?
Fitch: My website, www.Fitchfighter.com . Zinkin Entertainment, they're doing a great job representing everybody. Other than that, I'm only getting paid by sponsors for one time things, like their name on my shorts and t-shirts. Until they are paying me monthly I'm not going to mention anyone. So any sponsors out there looking to get mentioned in a lot of interviews, it can happen for ya.
OTM: Anyone else you want to mention?
Fitch: I want to say congradulations to Chris Fleeger and Ben Wissel, both Purdue Boilermakers and All-Americans this year. Chris took second for the
second time and Ben placed seventh. I'm proud of them, they're both studs, they came in when I was a senior and I helped bring them into the program. I made them drink and I drew on them when they were passed out (laughing) and I got to haze them a bit, and now they're kicking everyone's ass and I'm pumped for them.
OTM: Anything else you want to add?
Fitch: Nah, just want to say thanks to all my trainers, and that's it.