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Jon Fitch ready to resume title chase after shoulder surgery layoff

12/28/2011 02:06 EST | Updated 02/27/2012 05:12 EST
Eight months ago, Jon Fitch could barely move two fingers on his right hand in the wake of surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.

But even in the recovery room, the veteran welterweight was thinking about his comeback to the cage.

"I'm going to fight this year," said a groggy Fitch, still feeling the effects of the anesthesia.

On Friday, Fitch (26-3-1 with one no contest) makes good on that promise. The 33-year-old mixed martial arts fighter from San Jose, by way of Fort Wayne, Ind., takes on Johny Hendricks (11-1) at UFC 141 in Las Vegas.

A keen videographer, Fitch documented his rehabilitation in a 10-part series titled "Road to Recovery." The short videos show his gruelling comeback trail, starting with his trip to Los Angeles in early May to see the surgeon.

"Are you nervous," wife Michele asks as they wait outside the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic.

"A little bit," Fitch answers.

"Why?" she asks.

"Because I'm going to have one arm for like two months," he replies.

Hendricks marks Fitch's first fight since a draw with B.J. Penn at UFC 127 in February. Fitch started slowly but took control in the third round, laying a beating on the smaller Penn in a dominant round that prompted the draw.

Fitch, a former collegiate wrestler at Purdue, had had nagging shoulder problems for a while. But the Penn fight brought the issue to a head.

He had his labrum trimmed, a partial tear repaired, and scar tissue and bone spurs removed.

Fitch pulls no punches in his videos.

Just moving his fingers up the wall was a workout at one point. Another shows him with his head taped to a chair so he can stay still during a recovery treatment.

"I was pretty miserable. It sucked," he said. "It was awful, like not being able to work out of train or fight.

"And then me and the wife just moved into a new house that we were remodelling. But since I'm not fighting, I'm not making money, so we've got no money to pay for (the) remodel. So we're living in like a dilapidated house that's been gutted. That made it even worse."

Making the videos, which are available on YouTube, helped distract him and occupy the time.

Fitch was given the green light to start punching and lifting in mid-July. He was allowed to resume full training and sparring in early September.

Fitch, 13-1-1 in the UFC, has complained in the past about being overlooked in the 170-pound division.

He lost a title shot to Montreal's Georges St-Pierre at UFC 87 in August 2008 — in what GSP calls one of his toughest fights — winning his next five before drawing Penn.

The loss to GSP was his first since 2002. But a string of nine straight decisions in a sport that values finishes has perhaps slowed his climb to the top.

Still he has no complaints about meeting Hendricks, a former NCAA wrestling champion.

"I've been out for so long, I just really need to get in the cage and fight and get a good win under my belt," Fitch said. "I think Johny's a perfect fight for that. He's a very skilled, very tough opponent.

"It's going to be a difficult fight but it's a winnable fight and it's what I need to get myself right back and prepped to fight for those big title shot-type fights."

In Fitch's time away, other welterweights have moved up. St-Pierre was slated to meet Nick Diaz, then Carlos Condit, then Diaz only to be sidelined by knee surgery.

Now Diaz and Condit are due to meet Feb. 4 at UFC 143 to decide the interim title-holder.

Jake (The Juggernaut) Ellenberger and Canadian Rory (Ares)MacDonald have improved their position in the rankings. And Josh Koscheck, Fitch's teammate at the American Kickboxing Academy, remains a contender.

"With all the mixups and everything that's going on, there's quite a number of opportunities happening right now," Fitch said with a sigh.

His plan is to win Friday and stay in shape in case anything happens to Diaz or Condit.

Fitch believes he deserved the victory against Penn, arguing he did enough to win the second round.

"But it's my fault," he said. "I let the fight slip through my hands. I wasn't in it mentally, I didn't wake up until halfway through the second round and I paid for it with a draw.

"It sucks but I have to make sure I stay focused and don't let that ever happen again."

Fitch doesn't really know why his mind wandered other than he was "worrying about other things that I shouldn't have been worrying about."

"Not in the personal life. Personal life was excellent," he added. "But maybe professionally there were a lot of issues. But nothing I should have let affect me the way it did."

He started feeling pain after the fight, radiating from the neck. They did tests, eventually isolating the shoulder problem.

"I just had to take it for what it was and work on getting healthy,'' he said. "It wasn't going to do me any good to sit around and be mad or upset about all the things that were going on without me being around. Because I couldn't do anything about it. I had one arm."

He credits his wife for helping him stay constructive. Now he says he's "back in a happy place and doing what I want to do."

"I can't wait to get back in the cage.''

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