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No-frills Fitch eyes second run at the top

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Jon Fitch will find himself in a dual role at UFC 100. He'll be fighting Paulo Thiago as one of five live matches on the pay-per-view event, and he'll be an interested observer in Georges St. Pierre's welterweight title defense against Thiago Alves.

Fitch (22-3, 1 no contest) is the consensus third of the top three welterweights in the world right now. He defeated Alves via second-round stoppage three years ago, and lost last year by decision to St. Pierre in a five-round title match.

The Indiana native is in an interesting position as a win over Thiago (11-0), would give him 17 wins in his last 18 fights, dating back six years, which should put him as the top contender. Should Alves defeat St. Pierre, since Fitch handed Alves his only UFC loss, he would be the logical next contender.

Should St. Pierre defeat Alves, it is possible UFC would go with someone else for the next title match, since St. Pierre scored a one-sided win, with scores of 50-43, 50-44 and 50-44.

But that's a chance Fitch is willing to risk. "I’m not going to predict the winner," said Fitch. "But I hope GSP wins. I want to fight him for the title. I made technical mistakes the last time."

Fitch has long been in a unique position in the UFC, a company built on making stars. The former college wrestler has won nine of ten, but has only been marketed heavily once during that run, in the weeks leading to the St. Pierre fight.

Being a self-professed "grinder," beating people up and winning decisions, as he’s done in five of his nine UFC wins, has made him lose ground to more flashy fighters in the race for hype.

UFC president Dana White even once said that they had missed the boat on promoting him, particularly as he at one point had tied the company record for consecutive wins with eight (Anderson Silva has since broken the record with nine).

Even though Fitch lost to St. Pierre, just hanging in for five rounds and taking a beating that would have made most fighters mentally break increased his popularity. Still, he went from the main event to a non-televised prelim match, a controversial decision at the time by UFC, for his most recent fight on Jan. 31, where he won a decision of Akihiro Gono.

But such things don’t seem to bother him, and rather than complain, he says he prefers it that way.

"At least I know my fans are my real fans," he said. "The guys who get the benefit of the machine getting behind them, their fans can turn on them. They get built up and people get false expectations. When they want to push you, they’ll push you. And the fans can see through it. When they build someone up like they’re Jesus, the fans will turn on them when they can’t walk on water."

But his match with Thiago is on the main card at the biggest MMA event ever in North America. UFC can market it as something of a grudge match, since Thiago, a consensus top-ten ranked fighter, knocked teammate Josh Koscheck out of title contention with a first-round knockout on Feb. 21 in London, England.

"He’s a lanky guy, and guys like him always pose a threat," said Fitch. "He’s got good submissions. The plan is don’t get hurt early, don’t get tired, and be ready to go three rounds."

If he beats Thiago and has his way, he’s targeting early 2010 for a title shot, and if he could make the choice, would like it in Indianapolis.

Fitch grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. MMA events have drawn well, particularly in Evansville, for more than a decade. Commission regulation of the sport in the state goes into effect July 1.

UFC has been in talks with Conseco Fieldhouse officials about running a show. Fitch thinks the goals should be bigger, in particular the retractable-roof Lucas Oil Stadium, which holds 70,000 fans.

"I guarantee the first time in, they’ll sell it out," he said. "You’ve got Chicago two hours away. Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis are all within five or six hours."

While Fitch would like to fight more frequently, he knows just being guaranteed to be on UFC 100, which is expected to be the most widely viewed non-boxing pay-per-view event in history, was worth the wait.

"They’re all big, but UFC 100 is going to be special," he said. I was upset I had to wait so long to fight. I wanted to get in three fights by July, but being at UFC 100 makes up for everything."

Fitch's loss to St. Pierre had its silver lining, as it gave him the impetus to go to Thailand for all-out Muay Thai training last fall, as much for a change of atmosphere as to test his own limitations. He noted he could have hired a coach from Thailand in the U.S., but it was testing himself in the sweltering heat and humidity every day that was a key to his month-long trip. The elements were so tough, he said the first week was like nothing he had ever experienced before.

As for a potential rematch with St. Pierre, though Fitch was dominated, he sees evidence that a second fight would go differently. Fitch points to two of the five rounds being close, and the fact he bloodied St. Pierre late.

"I think I won the second round," he said. "And the fourth round was close. If I fought technically better I would have won that round. I lost the first and the third, and cut him in the fourth bad enough to where one more good shot that would have opened the cut could have stopped the fight."