ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jon Fitch doesn't fight with the same electricity as fellow welterweight Georges St. Pierre. He doesn't have champion Matt Serra's charisma. Nor does he have Karo Parisyan's flashy moves.
But unlike the other stars of the 170-lb. division, he's on a winning streak that puts the rest to shame at 14 and counting.
"The UFC has the deepest 170-lb. division in the world," said Fitch (15-2, 1 no-contest). If you're in the UFC and you think you're at the top of the heap I want to fight you."
The former captain of the Purdue University wrestling team continued his methodical ascension up the ranks with the biggest win of his career Saturday night. Fitch took a split decision over Ultimate Fighter poster boy Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez at UFC 76 at the Honda Center.
Cecil Peoples scored the bout 30-27 Fitch; Marco Rosales had it 29-28 Sanchez; Richard Bertrand judged it 29-28 Fitch. Kevin Iole scored the fight 29-28 Sanchez and I had it at 29-28 Fitch.
"I was very surprised with split decision," said Fitch, whose last loss was to Wilson Gouveia in 2002. "I don't think I completely dominated and destroyed him, but I thought I had dominated him enough to get a 30-27 score."
In Sanchez, Fitch was facing a fighter at a crossroad. The Ultimate Fighter 1 winner came into 2007 on a cresting wave of momentum. But Sanchez suffered his first career loss to Fitch's American Kickboxing Academy teammate, Josh Koshcheck, in April, then split with Greg Jackson's camp in his hometown of Albuquerque.
Saturday night was the debut of the new Sanchez, who trains at the University of Jiu-Jitsu in San Diego, and the change in approach was apparent. Sanchez eschewed the trademark striking that marked his early career victories and tried to take it to the ground with the top-notch wrestler.
Sanchez had his moments, and had Fitch trapped in a guillotine for much of the first minute of the third round. For the most part, though, Fitch was able to hold off his opponent.
While round one was close, Fitch was able to thwart the bulk of Sanchez's takedown attempts without much effort.
"That's kinda what we expected," said Fitch. "We thought he was going to come out really aggressive right away. He was coming off a loss and he waned to finish it off as quick as possible."
Round 2 went to Fitch in a decisive manner, punctuated by a big slam in which he more or less plucked Sanchez off his back and took him for a ride, sending Sanchez crashing to the mat shoulders-first.
In the third, which most scored in favor of Sanchez, Fitch managed to pop out of Sanchez's near-submission and immediately assumed top position. But Fitch spent much of the rest of the fight fending off Sanchez's attempted submissions, including a mid-round Kimura and an attempted leg triangle in the waning seconds.
"I have a primary plan, a secondary plan and a third plan," said Fitch. "First was to stand up and bang it out, then we went into the clinch and I was more powerful when I went to the ground. Especially after he caught my kicks I was more comfortable and it was easier on the ground."
According to CompuStrike, Fitch connected on 59 percent of his strikes (47 of 79) to 56 percent for Sanchez (18 of 32).
So Fitch remains unbeaten in the UFC, getting his hand raised after all seven of his octagon encounters while facing stiffer and stiffer competition each time. Of course, there is a logjam ahead of Fitch in the division. Serra is defending his welterweight title against Hughes in December, then St. Pierre will get the next title shot some time in 2008.
But that's all details, as far as Fitch is concerned. "I want to fight the best guys in the world, no matter If they have they belt," he said. "If they do, that would be nice. I just know that when I get done, I want to be able to say I fought all the toughest guys and took them all on."
Sanchez was gracious in defeat, and hinted a drop to the lightweight division could be in order.
"I feel that he beat me fair and square," Sanchez said. "I was close, but close isn't close enough. All fighters go through losses, I'm just going to have to come back stronger."
"I'm contemplating in my mind if I'm going to drop to (1)55 or not, because I'm a smaller welterweight. I could do more powerlifting and put some more weight on or I could lose some weight."