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.
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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.
He was having trouble with his neck and shoulder going into the fight, and even more coming out of it. A few weeks later, he thought the neck issues were bad enough to get checked out, as the pain was radiating from the neck to the shoulder. An MRI showed a bone spur in his neck, an injury considered minor, and he was relieved to find no neurological damage. But that didn't answer the question of why he was hurting, so a second MRI was ordered on his shoulder, which showed he had been training on a torn rotator cuff, and he had surgery May 5. For all the people who argued Fitch wasn't treated right by UFC, they went more than out of their way to send him to the best doctors and make sure he had the best treatment possible.
He's been back training hard to where he hasn't even thought about the injury until the past few days.
"I forgot I even had shoulder surgery until the last week-and-a-half," he noted. "It keeps coming up in all of my interviews. It's not an issue.
"I've had my arm Kimura'd in practice. It's healed. I'm all ready to go."
Fitch went into the Penn fight the lightest he ever had, following a vegan diet he praised as the best diet for a fighter, even though there was concern among his coaches that he was losing too much weight. He's modified it slightly, putting back some of the weight he lost that will make him bigger for the fight, even if makes the weight-cutting process a little more miserable.
"I eat meat on Saturdays, but that's about it," he said. "It's a vegan diet except one day a week. I felt pretty good in that [Penn] fight, but my walk-around weight was three or four pounds lighter. I don't know if it had as much of an impact, but I'm not as comfortable at the lower weight. I like things to be repetitive so I'm back at the weight where I want to be. Eating the meat helps a little bit more than protein shakes."
Fitch, 33, gets frustrated by the criticism about not finishing fights when he keeps winning, noting his most recent opponents – Thiago Alves (last finished by Fitch himself in 2006), Ben Saunders (only finished once in his career at the time), Mike Pierce (never been finished in a 17-fight career) and Paulo Thiago (never finished in a 17-fight career) – aren't the easiest guys to put away.
While Fitch is a 5-to-2 favorite against Hendricks based on his standing in the sport, this is an interesting style matchup. Fitch's style is based on taking opponents down and beating on them with annoying shots from start to finish. In most fights, his Division I pedigree has made him the better wrestler, but at least based on the sport of wrestling, he looks to be at a disadvantage.
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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."
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