Fitch the fighter still struggles to entertain
There is a constant debate over whether UFC is sport or entertainment. And the answer is both. The question has always been where one begins and the other ends.
This week the debate has come back in spades, coinciding with the return of the man whose plight is a prime example of both sides of the debate, Jon Fitch. Fitch is currently ranked No. 9 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings. His 13-1-1 record is the second best in UFC history behind Anderson Silva for fighters with 15 or more fights. He’s generally considered the No. 2 ranked welterweight in the world behind Georges St. Pierre, the only man who has beaten him since 2002. It’s a ranking he’s held in many people’s view for most of the past four years.
But nobody would know that based on the lack of promotion for his fight Friday night at UFC 141 against one of the greatest collegiate wrestlers of the past decade, former Oklahoma State two-time national champion Johny Hendricks (11-1). There wasn’t a whiff of mention of the fight on the UFC Countdown show. And when it came to the news conference, neither man was there.
The company made the decision to only promote two fights for Friday’s night’s show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem heavyweight showdown, and a lightweight grudge match between controversial talkers, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Nick Diaz.
[Related: Rules don’t apply to UFC’s Brock Lesnar]
When St. Pierre went down and underwent reconstructive knee surgery, one would argue that Fitch should have been the first person considered for a match to determine an interim champion. He’s got a 26-3-1 career record, and two of those losses were in 2002, beyond ancient history in a sport such as this, when he fought as a light heavyweight, a weight class someone of his frame has no business fighting in.
Instead, the fight to create an interim champion Feb. 4 in Las Vegas went to Carlos Condit vs. Nate Diaz. And while some would call it a snub, it was probably more because Fitch was already slated for this fight, Diaz was getting the shot at St. Pierre on Feb. 4, and Condit had a shot at St. Pierre fall through when St. Pierre suffered a previous injury and was also already scheduled for the Feb. 4 show. But with a win against Hendricks, Fitch should at least get a shot at the interim champion.
Although Fitch, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff, doesn’t consider the interim title the real thing, he wants it.
“If you have the interim belt, you’re guaranteed the first shot at GSP when he comes back,” he said. “That’s the enticing part of the interim belt. There’s no more leapfrogging. It’s, ‘Hey, I’ve got the other belt, now we have to fight.’
“Obviously, I think [Condit and Diaz] are tough fighters, but they both have holes in their games and there are a number of guys who would give both very good fights. I think Hendricks would put up a good fight with both. Guys like Jake Ellenberger and Mike Pierce, guys with good chins, good cardio and really good wrestling would be big threats to both Condit and Diaz.”
The flip side of Fitch was said by Dana White on Wednesday in an interview with MMAfighting.com, somewhat in response to a comment by Fitch that he feared MMA was turning into pro wrestling, where the guy who talks the best gets the most promotion and becomes the biggest star, regardless of wins and losses.
White noted that fans say, “If I want to fall asleep and can’t get to sleep, I put in [a tape of] a Jon Fitch fight.”
Of course, MMA has to be both a sport and a business to survive. Regardless of records, the business will collapse if fights are promoted that nobody wants to see, as the scrap heap of dead promotions over the past five years will attest to. On the flip side, promoting personalities who can’t fight may provide impressive early returns, but it will also create a short shelf life, as the plight of K-1 in Japan when they went in that direction showed. It has to be run like a business, but maintain the trappings of a sport.
[Related: The UFC’s top five stories of 2011]
Hendricks is a wrestling legend in Oklahoma. He was a three-time high school state champion, won the NCAA title in 2005 and 2006, and in 2007, went 56-1, with his only loss in the NCAA finals.
“He’s the best wrestler that I’ve ever fought, but he’s not the best wrestler I’ve faced,” Fitch noted. “I face better wrestlers than him on a daily basis at the gym (the AKA gym includes Olympian Daniel Cormier, NCAA champions like Josh Koscheck and Mark Ellis, former All-American heavyweight Cain Velasquez). Anything he can bring, I’ve seen better already and I’ve seen for a number of years.”
Plus, wrestling in MMA is different than wrestling on the collegiate mat. Hendricks has not been a dominant wrestler in many of his fights, but what he does bring is aggressiveness and great conditioning from his former sport, that has allowed him to start slower and finish big in a lot of his fights.
“I think he’s not as smooth in the transition from striking to wrestling as some others are,” Fitch said. “Guys like me and Georges St. Pierre, we don’t have as high collegiate credentials. Georges doesn’t have any, but his ability to blend standing and wrestling makes him a good MMA wrestler and makes me a good MMA wrestler.”
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• UFC reinstates a penitent Miguel Torres after joke about rape
• Michael Jordan gets engaged to model girlfriend
• Yahoo! Year in Review: Standout news of 2011, top 10s and more