Jon Fitch at the Crossroads: End of the Line as a UFC Contender

On July 5, Jon Fitch takes on Rousimar Palhares Jake Shields Josh Burkman in the tiebreaking rubber match of their epic rivalry. Fitch, one of the sport’s most dominant grapplers, is No. 9 on the list of fighters with the most wins in the UFC. Despite this, he is appearing in the World Series of Fighting 11 main card because of the UFC’s preference for newer, exciting and more marketable fighters.

Jon Fitch, speaking to Bleacher Report, had harsh words for the promotion’s strategy: “They want more of that soap opera drama, more of that 50-50 stuff on the feet. It takes too much to think about that complex grappling stuff.”

There was a point in time when many viewed Jon Fitch as the second-best welterweight in the world. Between 2003 and 2010, he boasted 21 wins with a single loss to then-UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. After losses to Johny Hendricks and Demian Maia, Fitch was cut from the UFC in February 2013. Fitch seemed to validate the UFC’s decision when he lost his WSoF debut to Josh Burkman.

At the time of his cut over a year ago, Fitch spoke out, calling the UFC a “hostile work environment” and saying he was neither wanted nor appreciated by the promotion. Most importantly, Fitch told MMAJunkie.com that many other UFC fighters were unable to vocalize their criticism because they were “absolutely terrified because the fighters to [the UFC] are just meat to be replaced easily.”

The UFC has made it a long-standing policy to place heads on the chopping block and deftly drop the axe. Besides Jon Fitch, a number of elite fighters have been cut over the years for one reason or another, including Matt Lindland, Yushin Okami and, most recently, Jake Shields.

In Martin Scorsese’s epic 2002 movie Gangs of New York, the character of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting speaks the lines that illustrate the power dynamics of the fight game:

You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.


For every transgression against the promoter’s whims, there must be swift consequences that reaffirm the pecking order. When Jon Fitch refused to sign away his lifetime video game likeness rights, he was cut from the UFC in November 2008. Fitch quickly caved and gave in to the UFC’s demands, but not before he became an example that helped coerce many UFC fighters into compliance.

In October 2012, Fitch was one of the first fighters to acknowledge the reality that sponsorships and appearance fees were drying up. The situation has not improved, as he tells it: “Seven years ago, I could make as much in sponsorship as I would make for my win bonus. You’d get three paychecks if you won—your win, your show and your sponsorship. Nowadays, you’re lucky to get 10 percent of what you used to get in sponsorship.”

Fitch attributes sponsorship money falling off a cliff to the oversaturation of shows spreading sponsorship money thin, the UFC’s sponsor tax and the prevalence of weak management lowballing its fighters.

“You had a lot of idiot ‘managers’ join the program who didn’t know what the hell they were doing and started selling sponsorships for like 250 or 500 bucks. Well now those sponsorship companies aren’t going to go back to the same amount they were at—$2,500 to $5,000.”

***

As the marketplace stands, the UFC enjoys considerable clout compared to competing promotions. Not only does the UFC have the most recognized organizational titles in the sport, but a select few names on its roster earn multiples of what other organizations pay due to revenue from pay-per-view shows. The road to riches is laid out to all new UFC recruits: “Follow our plan, consistently win and watch your fortunes rise with our organization.”

In many ways, Jon Fitch surpassed expectations when he won eight fights in the UFC to earn his first title shot. After losing to Georges St-Pierre in August 2008, Fitch put together a four-fight win streak where he was promised a title shot if he beat Thiago Alves at UFC 117.

I asked if he had any guarantee of the title shot put in writing before the bout; Fitch explained that “there was no paperwork, but we were told before that it was for a title shot.”

Fitch beat Alves via decision, yet the reward failed to materialize. Without any true world titles governed by third-party rankings, MMA fighters are often strung along at a promoter’s whims in order to gain their shot at recognition.

Some fans and media members place the blame for Fitch’s situation solely at his feet and insist that had he fought in a more exciting style, he would have won the popularity necessary to earn the promoter’s favor:

Not only is Fitch overestimating his worth, he's also remained frustratingly ignorant to why he's not making more money.

There's a reason why fighters like Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, Donald Cerrone, Michael Bisping, and even Josh Koscheck are constantly pushed by the UFC and heavily backed by loyal sponsors. Fans simply want to see them in action.

Win or lose, those fighters go full broke, constantly working to finish their opponents.

Fighters like Dan Hardy and Chris Leben epitomize the exciting brawls that fans love, but whether that style is sustainable or makes for good brain health post-retirement is another matter entirely. Hardy is also an example of a fighter who enjoys considerable favoritism with Zuffa, having dropped four fights in a row and not being cut from the promotion; he also scored a gig as a member of the UFC’s Europe and Middle East commentating team earlier this year.

As the situation stands, Fitch is concerned about the purity of what some no longer define as a sport. “I’m worried that if we don’t start taking MMA back towards a sport, we may just go full-on entertainment. Then what exactly is an MMA fighter? Why aren’t they just paying reality stars to fight?”

***

At 36 years of age, Fitch faces stark realities at this juncture of his career. He struggled in his last WSoF bout, winning a split decision against the unheralded Marcelo Alfaya. Part of his woes are tied to finances, as he moved to Syracuse, New York, last year to run the MMA section of a state-of-the-art gym.

Fitch earned a steady salary and benefits at his new job, and claimed that teaching his mostly inexperienced charges helped refine his technique. However, there’s no replacing the roomful of killers at American Kickboxing Academy, and Fitch has moved back to California in preparation of facing Josh Burkman.

As it stands, time is not on his side. Even if he does clean house in WSoF, would he be accepted back into the cutthroat world of the UFC?

“It doesn’t sound like [the UFC] would have me back,” says Fitch. “What needs to happen is we need similar success from Bellator, WSoF, even ONE FC. When these shows become more of a presence and can pay comparable numbers.”

As the current landscape stands, Bellator is on an upswing with its recent pay-per-view debut at over 100,000 buys. WSoF is happy to rehabilitate fighters like Anthony Johnson and Andrei Arlovski for the UFC to sign but has also renewed a multiyear broadcast deal with NBC and is slated to have the July 5 WSoF Daytona Beach, Florida, show air on the main NBC network. ONE FC continues to make inroads in Asia, with American wrestler Ben Askren adding to the promotion’s value and name recognition in North America.   

There’s still talk of UFC uniforms, which would radically change the current sponsorship model and could further impede fighter earnings. Despite this, fighters and managers have few mechanisms push back from within and fear ending up blackballed. Still, the road to riches exists to give UFC stars like Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey and Chael Sonnen a fat bankroll in exchange for their compliance. They don’t earn Floyd Mayweather Jr. money, or even Manny Pacquiao money, for that matter, but the carrot is there to encourage enterprising fighters to make sacrifices today in exchange for a potential windfall in the future.

Tossing aside fighters who aren’t aligned with the UFC’s goals is a hallmark of the promotion. Fitch and recent WSoF signee Jake Shields were far from the first to be cut and won’t be the last. Sadly, even as Fitch’s time in the UFC has expired, he still serves the promotion in a key capacity: He is a stark reminder of what happens when you don’t play ball.

***

Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here

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