Whoever first said "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," obviously hasn't seen the fan reaction to Ultimate Fighting Championship contender Jon Fitch.
In mixed martial arts, how one wins is nearly as important as winning itself. World-class fighters generally compete only three times a year, and thus get few opportunities to make a good impression.
Despite a brilliant record that includes a 13-1 mark in the UFC, Fitch hasn't always made the best impression on fans, who aren't thrilled with the way he wins. That's a bad position in a non-team sport, where there is no one else to take the spotlight away.
Fighters are individual contractors who, in essence, need to sell themselves to the fans.
Not everyone does it the same way. Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre has become one of the sport's top attractions by parlaying his brilliant athleticism and record, his movie-star looks and his classy demeanor into a pay-per-view-selling machine. Former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar is the unquestioned biggest draw in MMA, becoming so largely because of his size and the nasty, snarling WWE-style persona he's created that makes some fans love him, others hate him but makes nearly all want to see him.
But even though the UFC has done a masterful job of making its brand bigger than any one fighter, certain stars' appearance on a card inject life into it. And when a fighter who doesn't enthrall the crowd is on top of a card, pay-per-view sales can lag.
Fitch meets former lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn on Saturday in the main event of UFC 127 at Acer Arena in Sydney, with a shot at the 170-pound belt on the line. The arena sold out quickly, so Fitch's presence atop the card clearly didn't hurt it. The pay-per-view sales, though, won't be known until well after the bout.
It's rare, though, that such an elite fighter like Fitch has yet to win the public's acceptance this far into his career. Fitch's resume is as good as just about anyone who has ever competed in MMA. Other than his five-round loss to St. Pierre at UFC 87 in 2008, he has rarely lost so much as a round in his UFC career. He has beaten an elite roster of opponents, from Thiago Alves twice to Paulo Thiago to Diego Sanchez, smothering them and rendering them almost totally ineffective.
Few things, though, raises the ire of a UFC crowd more than a Fitch takedown followed by a long period in which Fitch pins his opponent to the ground. The fans get ornery quickly when they see Fitch mauling an opponent on the ground and not going for, or being able to get, a finish.
And so Fitch, who is arguably the most dominant MMA fighter in the world other than St. Pierre and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, faces the daunting task on Saturday of having to defeat a superstar opponent like Penn while trying to look good at the same time.
Or does he?
Some in the media may feel that way and, certainly, thousands of fans do, but Fitch hasn't let the often negative reaction impact his performance. And it seems unlikely he'll do anything out of the order with a major fight at hand and a title bout in the offing. He'll do what he has to do to win and deal with the fallout, if any, later.
"I don't really want to waste any time thinking about anything other than fighting B.J. right now," Fitch said. "He's just a dangerous opponent and he's been around for so long. If I don't give him full attention and full focus, that would be a huge mistake."
It's not like Fitch doesn't have the skills to be one of the game's most exciting fighters. He has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Dave Camarillo and was a Division I wrestler at Purdue. And though he's not known as a striker – it's one area where, on paper, Penn seems to have a solid edge – Fitch's power is nothing with which to fool around.
He appeared on the television show "Mythbusters" in 2008 and was asked to punch his way out of a sealed coffin, as was done in the movie "Kill Bill." Laying flat on his back and with only three inches to punch upward, Fitch generated 1,400 pounds of force.
This isn't a guy you want hitting you flush on the chin.
And if his offensive skills aren't enough, Fitch proved his toughness forever with the way he managed to hang in against St. Pierre at UFC 87. St. Pierre battered Fitch in the first round with his striking and badly closed Fitch's eye. But Fitch fought on and actually improved as the bout progressed.
He was a mess at the postfight news conference in the Target Center that night in Minneapolis and said then he hoped his performance would have ended once and for all the complaints about his style.
"What else do I have to do to prove to people, to get a little love?" Fitch asked after the bout. "I won eight fights in a row and then laid my whole heart and soul out in a five-round fight with the world champ. If that doesn't win [the media] over, nothing will."
Since losing to St. Pierre, Fitch has won five in a row, defeating Akihiro Gono, Thiago, Mike Pierce, Ben Saunders and Alves. All five bouts, though, have come by decision. He hasn't finished a fight in nearly four years, since he choked out Roan Carneiro at UFC Fight Night 10 on June 12, 2007.
At that stage, he was 6-0 in the UFC with three finishes. Subsequent to submitting Carneiro, Fitch has gone 7-1, going the distance in all eight matches.
History would suggest that Fitch and Penn are going to go the full 15 minutes on Saturday. It would be surprising if the crowd didn't boo loudly at least once. At Fitch's win over Alves at UFC 117 his last time out, the crowd booed nearly start to finish.
It has to be tough for an athlete to compete that way. It's human nature to want to hear the cheers and be accepted by the crowd. The temptation has to be strong to temporarily scrap the game plan and go for a risky, highlight-reel move. But Fitch is successful precisely because he's able to block out the crowd and focus on his game plan.
And so, though he didn't ask for it, here's a free piece of advice for him: Don't worry about the boos. Concentrate on winning Saturday. Worry about looking good the next time out.
- Jon Fitch