The year was coming to a close, and Jon Fitch had started to think that maybe his fighting career was wrapping up along with it.
This was 2016, the same year he won the WSOF welterweight championship, the first title of his career. But a few days before he was set to defend it against former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields at WSOF’s year-end event in New York City, he was sitting around his hotel room, waiting to find out whether or not the New York State Athletic Commission would even clear him to fight.
He was having “some issues” with his MRI, he said. More specifically, he was having issues with his brain. It felt fine, but a scan had revealed some scarring. He even went to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, where they put him through a battery of tests, analyzing everything from his blood to his speech.
“I kind of freaked out, because I got stuck by myself in a hotel room in New York, not knowing what my future was,” Fitch (30-7-1 MMA, 0-0 BMMA) told MMAjunkie.
He eventually received a clean bill of health and get cleared by the commission, though not until the week of the fight. He was told that his brain wasn’t of immediate concern after all, but what worried Fitch was a little lower down.
After beating Shields via unanimous decision, Fitch admitted in a post-fight interview that his training and performance had been hampered by chronic neck injuries. The last doctor he’d seen about him had told him, in no uncertain terms, that he needed to stop fighting.
Still, Fitch said, “retirement would be like cutting off an arm or a leg.”
So he did what fighters always do in that situation. He put it off, looked for alternative solutions, and even found some. He rehabbed his neck, mostly with “dietary changes and supplementation,” he said. He decided not to worry too much about the brain scarring. He fought again that June, this time for WSOF’s newly rebranded PFL promotion, and he submitted Brian Foster in the second round.
But when PFL began laying plans for its big push toward a season and tournament structure, with a $1 million payout promised to the tournament winners in each weight class, Fitch decided to look for the exit instead.
“There were just a lot of unknowns,” Fitch said. “There’s a $1 million prize, but we didn’t know how the payout was going to work, how the tournament was going to work. I didn’t like sitting around, not getting to fight and not knowing what was going to happen. I was promised a certain number of fights in a certain time, and then I asked them to pay me for the fights they owed me. Either pay me, give me the fights, or release me. They chose to release me, which was fine, because I was hopeful that I could get into Bellator.”
One big reason why was the presence of Scott Coker, the former Strikeforce boss and current Bellator president. Fitch had come up in the same Bay Area martial arts circles as Coker, and he had even attended the local kickboxing events he promoted in San Jose, Calif., before either of them was on the national MMA map.
“I’ve seen him do a good job as a promoter, and everybody I know who’s worked with him, they don’t have anything bad to say about him,” Fitch said of Coker. “To be in the slimy business of fight promotion and not have anyone say anything bad about you, that’s a rare thing.”
It’s also an important thing to Fitch, which makes sense, given his history. This is the same guy who was once fired from the UFC for refusing to sign away his likeness rights for the UFC video game. It’s also the same guy who’s been vocal in his push for collective action in recent years. You don’t have to ask Fitch how he feels about labor issues affecting MMA fighters in the current landscape. Just hang around on Twitter long enough and he’s sure to tell you.
But all this leaves Fitch with narrowing options at this point in his career. He turned 40 in February. He’s been a pro fighter for nearly 16 years. He fought for the title in the UFC, won the belt and then left it behind in PFL, and now finds himself signed with the only other sizable competitor in North America.
If it doesn’t work out in Bellator, where he makes his debut against Paul Daley (40-15-2 MMA, 6-2 BMMA) at Bellator 199 on Saturday, is there anywhere left to go?
For now, Fitch said, he’s just grateful to still be fighting, and to have an opponent with some name recognition among fans. But if he can beat Daley in their Paramount-televised co-headliner at San Jose’s SAP Center, he might soon find himself in the title picture at welterweight, which is right where he wants to be.
Some doors might be closed to him now, but maybe he can still add another championship belt to his trophy case before the ride comes to an end. And with the future always uncertain for a fighter in his 40s, why not sprint toward that finish line while there’s still time?
“I’m looking to enjoy myself and this part of my career,” Fitch said. “But I’d enjoy it way more with a belt around my waist.”
For more on Bellator 199, check out the MMA Rumors section of the site.