Jon Fitch has been one of the top Welterweight fighters in the world for at least the last half decade. Tasting just 2 career losses in his UFC tenure since he debuted for the promotion in 2005, he had been the perennial second best in the world even after his failed bid at Georges St. Pierre's title. Fitch was on his way albeit slowly to vying for a second shot at the champion, when he was stunningly upset by the heavy handed Johny Hendricks in December of last year.
"Honestly, there’s zero bad taste from that fight because, at the end of the day, it was mission accomplished." Fitch told MMA Weekly Radio.
"I shouldn’t have fought that night. I had no business fighting that night. I had a second degree MCL tear; my mind wasn’t in the fight. The only reason I stepped through that cage door is because I needed the money ... I had a pregnant wife and two mortgages. If I didn’t fight, I probably would have had to retire and get a day job. I did what I set out to do in that fight. I have no negative feelings towards that fight at all."
A draw with BJ Penn earlier in 2011, and a shoulder injury he'd been recovering from in the interim had sidelined the former Purdue University Wrestling Team Captain longer than he would have liked, and the inactivity came at a cost.
"We don’t make millions of dollars as it is, but if you’re not fighting, you’re not getting paid, so things have been a little bit rough in the bank account ... It can go away in a flash. We get paid okay money. It’s not great money. We’re not making NFL or NBA money; we’re making okay money. But if you’re not fighting, you don’t get paid. So that okay money is gone and now you have (expletive) money".
Even with a remarkable demonstration of loyalty from his sponsors, Fitch is only just getting by:
"I have some really good sponsors and they’ve really been helping me out. Without them, I probably would have had to get another job because money has been tight. It’s just the environment we’re in right now, we don’t have sponsors throwing tons of money at us on monthlies because the economy just doesn’t really allow that now."
It's hard to think of any other long term 'second best' athlete in modern pro sports to be suffering the financial burden Jon Fitch has been. The second best in Golf, Tennis, Formula 1, as well as the typical stick and ball sports both in North America and around the world, have rarely if ever been in a similar situation of struggle even when they start to slide down the rankings. Athletes can run into problems through mishandling of their fortune, and this shouldn't be ignored, though Jon Fitch doesn't strike you as the sort who would spend money frivolously.
And while Fitch maintains money is still Okay, but not great, few other pro athletes in the sports I've highlighted have the cost of training eat so much out of their personal income when compared to top 10 UFC fighters. Working to achieve a top 10 place in any commercially successful pro sport should come with the benefit of training costs being covered in their entirety when that level is reached.
Fitch does recognise that the UFC doesn't reward fighters on the same performance criteria as other sports, realising winning is not enough.
"Priorities have changed and things I’ve had to accept. I think I was kind of just stubborn with wanting this sport to just be a sport, kind of like an amateur sport. Well, it’s not, it’s an entertainment industry and at the end of the day, the people who get the opportunity are the people who sell tickets. It doesn’t matter who you beat, it might matter how you beat them, but if people see you as boring and you don’t sell tickets, you’re not going to get opportunities ... It doesn’t matter how many times you win. It doesn’t matter who you’ve beaten. All that matters is: do you put butts in the seat? With that acceptance and my priorities changing towards me needing to take care of my family, me needing to make money, you have to make those changes, you have to adapt and evolve into the system that’s there."
The situation of reaping optimal financial reward through having to play the UFC's 'entertainment business' game is a tricky proposition. The 'second best' in other sports often get second place standings from a league or tournament format, and with that an established reward and recognised ranking. UFC don't rank their fighters, and there isn't a universally agreed upon rankings in the media, even with the attempt of a consensus rankings here at SBNation. Even if there was, people like Dana White can be quick to dismiss how wrong they are, despite the whole process being subjective to begin with. It's possible UFC prefers it this way, as any official ranking they give a fighter could be used against them when it comes to negotiating new contracts.
UFC moves away from sporting legitimacy with their approach to rewarding fighters for their achievements, but it's an unfortunate necessity given the Pay Per View business model, which isn't going anywhere as long as television rights fees are comparably minimal to other broadcast sports.
With a strong emphasis on entertainment and selling tickets, an attempt to keep the brand of higher value than any one athlete, an obvious imbalance in revenue sharing with the talent, and their current 'like it or leave it' position of power over fighter contract terms, UFC acts far more like the 'WWE of MMA', and not the 'NFL of MMA' as Dana White would like to have you believe.
With a fighter like Dan Hardy showing how many chances UFC can potentially give you by fighting and promoting yourself a certain way, perhaps other fighters would be willing to risk and put themselves out there more. Jon Fitch will have the opportunity to so with his upcoming bout with Brazilian phenom Erick Silva at UFC 153.
"I know the kind of fireworks this fight can bring and that means dollar signs ... So fireworks, fans loving it, that all equals dollar signs at the end of the day."