It was the biggest win of a career defined by fortitude and consistency, and with his decision victory over Erick Silva at UFC 153 last night (Oct. 13, 2012), Jon Fitch reminded everyone the reason he's still one of the toughest outs in mixed martial arts (MMA).
Hence, the return of the "Fitch Conundrum," which is that curious situation in which an elite contender is probably an odds-on favorite to beat virtually any other contender, yet is nowhere near to getting a title shot because of the fact that he's already been significantly bested by the sitting champion.
Rich Franklin also suffered from this problem after two losses to Anderson Silva. In Ace's case, he was able to shuttle back and forth between middle- and light-heavyweight as a kind of utility infielder, helping Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fill out cards and take any fight offered him.
For Fitch, he's simply going to have to keep facing high-risk, low-payoff opponents like Silva until he cannot be ignored.
Such as the case during Fitch's initial UFC title run, where he went undefeated (8-0) in the organization and plowed through a series of tough foes -- including Thiago Alves and Diego Sanchez -- prior to his challenge of champ Georges St. Pierre in 2008. Smashed en route to a five-round decision loss, Fitch won fans for his gritty display, refusing to break in a bout where "Rush" pretty much did hit him with the kitchen sink.
Since then, it's obvious that Fitch's style and past management squabbles with the UFC have placed him on the outs with the organization, who go to no great pains to hide those issues. All of this has been eminently unfair to Fitch, who soldiers ahead, knowing that only way he's getting fair billing and payoff for his efforts is to keep winning.
The intent of Saturday night's match up was obvious -- get Fitch, a seemingly fading star after his blowout knockout loss to Johny Hendricks -- while he still had name value as a former title challenger, and feed him to Silva, a veritable wrecking machine, fighting on his home turf in Brazil, to boot.
But, you have to love how Fitch derailed all that with his insane conditioning and toughness, wresting himself out of a terribly compromising rear naked choke position in the second. Once he escaped that, any long-time Fitch-watcher knew there was no question he'd come back, just like when he pulled the same trick in the second round of his bout with B.J. Penn.
Fitch isn't a glamorous starter, but he's always strong at the finish, and against Silva he delivered a brutal final round, hammering the Brazilian with a ruthless series of strikes and refusing to let him escape from the mat. Fitch is ideally built for five-rounders, which is probably why the UFC won't give him any anytime soon, lest he spoil yet another apple cart.
Ideally, I'd like to see him take on the winner of the Dec. 8 Rory MacDonald vs. B.J. Penn bout. A MacDonald victory, which is what most expect, would place "Ares" in a position where he's really got to face someone at Fitch's level. The irony is that MacDonald is a training partner of St. Pierre and has expressed considerable reluctance to fight him.
But, the problem is that MacDonald can only wait so long.
Fitch would offer one helluva test. Also, if Penn turns the unlikely trick of beating MacDonald, a Fitch rematch is the kind of parallel-track old-school rematch the UFC tends to get some promotional mojo out of without shaking up the main rankings too much (see Forrest Griffin vs. Rich Franklin, and Forrest Griffin vs. Tito Ortiz II and III). Fitch is Fitch, and that means he's very likely going to get his way if it comes down to a test of conditioning and heart.
Against most of the stacked welterweight division, that's reason enough for the UFC to think long and hard about whom they match him against next.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst