September 17th, 2011. An important, memorable night for MMA fans. Not because of Alan Belcher's amazing performance after what seemed like an endless injury layoff. No... It was because only 53 seconds into the main event at UFC: Battle on the Bayou, we were all reminded that nobody is a sure winner when it comes to mixed-martial arts. Fraser Coffeen was the only staff member here who picked Jake Ellenberger to defeat Jake Shields, and even he foresaw a decision occurring. After all, the only time Shields had ever been stopped was 11 years prior in what was only his third professional fight. Less than a quarter of our fellow Bloody Elbow brethren had faith in Ellenberger when choosing their MMA Playground predictions. The only way anyone could rationalize a possible loss for Shields was the unfortunate death of his father during his training camp.
Well, I'm sure we all remember what actually took place that night. Shields was thrown to the ground before attempting to score a takedown of his own. After clinching with Ellenberger, he found himself suddenly on the receiving end of two huge knees, and was battered on the ground to a TKO finish before he could collect his senses. It all lasted a fraction of the duration that it took for Bruce Buffer to introduce the two fighters.
Of course, this isn't the only situation in the history of MMA where a huge underdog triumphs, or a fighter makes reality of what is perceived to be impossible. On the contrary, this sport is so volatile that it occurs quite often. Thiago Alves just submitted Papy Abedi last night with a rear naked choke, after going 26 previous fights in his entire career without any true submission win. With the nature of the sport, having so many ways to win or lose, tied in with fans' "What have you done for me lately?" mentality, unpredictable things are bound to happen.
If you're still reading, by this point, you're trying to figure out what this has to do with Jon Fitch. Fitch was the #2 welterweight for years until Nick Diaz did something he couldn't by defeating BJ Penn. Jon has an upcoming fight with Johnny Hendricks December 30th at UFC 141. This will be the most dangerous fight he has ever had in the UFC, even moreso than his title fight against Georges St. Pierre.
Now this is just my humble opinion, but it would seem that Fitch's success in the UFC isn't exactly welcomed with vast appreciation from Zuffa. It's no secret that he's the exact type of fighter that has caused people to give up on the sport prematurely. His rematch with Thiago Alves was supposed to earn him a title shot, but after that didn't come to fruition he was matched up against Penn and couldn't do enough to eke out the win. For only the second time of his impressive 15-fight UFC career, he'll be entering the Octagon not coming off of a victory. This means winning at UFC 141 is just as important as his rebound fight after being decimated at the hands of GSP.
Unfortunately, stylistically, this is a horrible fight for Jon Fitch. Almost every single UFC victory Fitch has claimed has been at the hands of a fighter with weak wrestling fundamentals. The best wrestlers that Fitch has defeated are Mike Pierce and Diego Sanchez. The fight with Pierce had a tense moment where Mike actually had an opportunity to defeat Jon, but failed and inevitably ended up on the wrong side of the scorecards as so many other of Fitch's opponents have. His draw with BJ was largely due to Penn's offensive wrestling that was on display in the first half of the contest, and his loss to GSP was obviously influenced by it. Hendricks comes into this fight with impressive collegiate wrestling credentials (2-time NCAA DIvision 1 National Champion, 4-time All-American, 3-time Big 12 champion) that could really be the difference-maker in this match.
If Fitch is unable to implement his gameplan, one that is a lot easier to predict than to actually defend against, then it becomes a matter of whether or not Hendricks will choose to strike or look to go for takedowns himself. Fitch really isn't that bad of a striker when it comes to the basics, but has nowhere near the amount of power in his punches as Hendricks. Jon showed off a great chin against GSP, but if he's forced to trade with a guy who can do more damage striking, he could find himself on the wrong side of a decision, or worse, finished for the first time in 9 years.
If Hendricks can take him down, it gets even more interesting because of how little we've actually seen Fitch work off of his back. Perhaps we can see if his Guerilla Jiu-Jitsu black belt helps him when having to work from a bottom position. Escaping BJ's back mount twice in their fight was pretty remarkable, so I'd expect Hedricks to not try to advance position recklessly, but rather focus more on damaging ground and pound.
Fitch is also coming off of a shoulder injury, which makes this even trickier. His gym, the American Kickboxing Academy, is known for their workhorse attitude, but shoulder injuries in combat sports can be one of the most difficult to rehabilitate completely..
If for whatever reason, he can't get this fight down to the mat, I predict he'll end up on the wrong side of a decision. That's exactly what Zuffa wants, and why this is the most dangerous and important fight of his career. With a loss, he could possibly lose his chances of another title shot for years, and even worse, be relegated to the preliminary card in his next fight.
Even if Fitch does pull off another typical grinding decision victory, what has he really gained? Hendricks is quite the step down in competition from Penn when looking at their résumés, so it's a lose-lose fight for Jon. That is, unless he can achieve something he's been unable to accomplish in the past four and a half years - finish an opponent.