Fitch, an AKA product and the longstanding number-two-man to Georges St. Pierre, has always been surrounded by a buzz ... both good and bad. In the timeless "sport vs. entertainment" debate, he's often inserted as an argument for the former, which has created a rift with fans: some knock him for fighting safe, not finishing and relying on control, others don't give a sh*t because he wins and that's the point.
Regardless of his methods, the former Purdue wrestler gets the job done. He's a tenacious and hard-nosed takedown artist who plants almost everyone on their ass and makes no apologies if fans don't dig it. Transitioning from D1 wrestling to MMA, Fitch adopted Dave Camarillo's "Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu" philosophy, which is the grappling coach's custom-tailored ground fighting system that combines and adapts Judo, wrestling and BJJ to MMA's unique environment.
Excluding the decision against GSP and losses to UFC-caliber fighters Mike Pyle (rear-naked choke) in his first fight and Wilson Gouveia (KO) in his fourth, Fitch has cleaved through everyone else in front of him. He mounted a nine fight surge after Gouveia and won eight (with one No Contest) to earn a UFC contract. There, a simple list of the fighters he's overcome says it all: Brock Larson, Josh Burkman, Thiago Alves (twice), Kuniyoshi Hironaka, Luigi Fioravanti, Roan Carneiro, Diego Sanchez, Chris Wilson, Akihiro Gono, Paulo Thiago, Mike Pierce and Ben Saunders, along with a draw against B.J. Penn. That's thirteen wins in fifteen fights with one loss to an untouchable deity and one draw with a former lightweight and welterweight champion. Egads. Give the man some respect.
Facing this unshaven leviathan is Johny Hendricks, one of the select few who might have the credentials to match Fitch's grappling maelstrom. Hendricks was a two-time national D1 wrestling champion, a four-time All American and three-time Big Twelve conference champion at Oklahoma State University. In high school, he secured three state titles and one national championship.
Additionally, Hendricks holds a black belt in BJJ and has made impressive strides with his boxing. If superior wrestling credentials (on paper), a better submission grappling rank and more accomplished striking sounds like the perfect amalgam for Fitch's proven style, Hendricks agrees. "I think I might have solved it," he told UFC.com.
While the match up variables appear to favor Hendricks, his sole career loss -- a decision against Rick Story at the TUF 12 Finale -- is the best tangible evidence to refute that. Story successfully laid out the kind of high pressure grind-fest that Fitch is famous for. All other accolades in all other sports go completely out the window in the context of MMA, and Fitch has been the perennial king of contenders for a damn good reason.
Match up analysis in the full entry.
Despite being fairly one-dimensional, Fitch is ridiculously durable, reliable, consistent and resilient. The only real signs of mortality he's exhibited (again, other than against GSP) was eating a third-round flurry from Mike Pierce that wobbled him slightly. I've heard a few claim that Fitch's stand up is under-rated. I'm not really buying into that and would deem it average at best, but Fitch definitely has a fine-tuned ability to transition back and forth with boxing and takedowns.
His footwork and timing are exceptional and generally allow him to dart into contact-range completely unscathed. His intelligence and composure are also laudable assets, as you'll rarely see him taking unnecessary risks or stuck in a bad position as a result.
I can understand the fan's cacophony over Fitch's excessive rate of decisions. I cannot, however, stomach the notion that he's "boring" or "lays on people" as he's unquestionably aggressive and active. Sure, he's a position-first fighter but it's no coincidence that your chances of winning dwindle in a horrible position and skyrocket from dominant positions. When it comes to avoiding damage, imposing your will, rendering your opponent helpless and winning, few are better than Jon Fitch.
It's up to Hendricks to forge the right weapons from his wealth of abilities. Since the fight starts where Fitch is weakest, the southpaw's crisp boxing will dictate his fate. With heavy emphasis on evasive footwork and never over-committing, Hendricks has the speed, power and technique to give Fitch hell on the feet.
He typically keeps his punches basic and simple with few kicks, which is a wise selection for one aspiring to fend off takedowns. By restricting his punches to one-twos with an occasional hook or uppercut splashed in, Hendricks should have the ideal stance, balance and hand-position to sprawl and snake in under-hooks to defend Fitch's enveloping takedowns. Of course, common sense would imply that his wrestling background will be a suitable fallback if he is tied up, but I'm not sure Hendricks wants to play with fire and think he'd be wise stay in open space and work his hands whenever possible. Anytime Fitch has hands on you, he is either dominating or about to, so I'd encourage Hendricks to put all his eggs in the face-punching basket and only use his wrestling and BJJ to enable free movement.
I think there's a direct correlation to the wrestling savvy of Fitch's past opponents: he's trounced everyone he could take down with ease, but the three fighters who could hang in the wrestling department had the most success. GSP is ... well, he's GSP. The other two are Diego Sanchez and Mike Pierce, who both lost two rounds soundly but mounted substantial comebacks in the third. Additionally, it was their auxiliary weapons -- Sanchez's BJJ with two late sub attempts and Pierce's stiff combinations -- that nearly sealed the deal.
For this reason, I'm going out on a limb with a nod for Hendricks. I don't think he can contend with Fitch's wrestling despite his glossy credentials, but he should be stalwart enough to keep a good amount of the fight standing, where the speed and accuracy of his boxing will vault him ahead on the cards. I'm well aware that, scoring-wise, the distorted view that a fighter is still being effectively aggressive and in control when he's failing on takedown attempts makes this even riskier.
My Prediction: Johny Hendricks by decision.