Fitch, Burkman cross paths again

Much has changed in the seven-plus years since Jon Fitch and Josh Burkman met in the cage: both are more seasoned fighters, experienced professional ups and downs and have new outlooks on life.

But each man intends to show just how much he has changed for the better Friday night during a welterweight rematch at World Series of Fighting 3 in Las Vegas.

The first fight, which took place during a UFC event on April 6, 2006, was dominated by Fitch, who won by unanimous decision. And while Fitch is prepared to face a more improved Burkman, he expects to dominate again during Friday night’s main event.

“You can’t put anything into [the first fight],” Fitch told ESPN.com. “This is a brand-new fight against a brand-new person. We’re both much better than we were back then. Our skill sets are much more developed than they were back then.

“But my skill set has progressed further. There will be a bigger gap between us than in the first fight, with where I am in my skill set, my career and my life right now. I’m peaking as a fighter, and the next four years will be the best of my fight life.”

Fitch (24-5-1 with one no contest) is excited to make his WSOF debut. And he intends to use this opportunity to change a negative perception fight fans have of him.

Despite being a perennial top-10 welterweight, Fitch has repeatedly come under criticism for putting on non-entertaining fights. But Fitch, a skilled wrestler who has relied heavily on this discipline to remain highly competitive in the welterweight ranks, proclaims that is about to change.

No longer hindered by concerns of being released by UFC, Fitch feels free to let it all hang out in the cage. He promises to be a more aggressive striker, especially while standing.

“I’m not going to be as reserved,” said the 35-year-old Fitch, who is ranked ninth among welterweights by ESPN.com. “I’m not going to be as fearful; I didn’t have a fight in UFC where I didn’t feel my job was in jeopardy. We got threats years ago about ‘if you lose this fight you’re gone.’”

Possibly being out of work after Friday night’s fight doesn’t cross Fitch’s mind. His thoughts are solely on defeating Burkman a second time and taking the next step toward becoming WSOF’s first 170-pound champion.

Competing in WSOF has given Fitch a new lease of life and professional MMA. He remains fully driven to being a champion, but doing so with WSOF will put him in position to make history in a unique way.

“I want to be the first, I want to be the best and I want to be the most memorable,” Fitch said. “I want to grow with this organization. And I want to help build it into one of the best organizations out there.”

To reach this goal, Fitch must first settle matters with Burkman. Despite Fitch’s very high confidence level heading into this rematch, Burkman is no pushover.

With a professional record of 25-9, Burkman also dreams of being the first man to wear WSOF's welterweight title belt. His motivation to succeed Friday night, however, goes much deeper.

Burkman became a father for the first time less than a year ago. The experience has changed his priorities and his attitude about being a professional fighter.

“Being a husband and a father has definitely made me grow up and expect the best out of myself,” Burkman, 32, told ESPN.com. “Now it’s not like I’m fighting for fun, I’m doing this to provide for my family and make a better life for my wife [Brandy] and my [8-month-old] son [Legend Joshua]. And that, at the end of the day, will bring out a new animal.”

As a mature family man, Burkman avoids the one mistake that dogged him during his previous loss to Fitch – taking the opposition lightly. While both were relatively unseasoned fighters when they first met, Burkman had two fights inside the Octagon; Fitch had one. And Burkman’s performances were more impressive -- a knockout and submission to Fitch’s unanimous decision win.

Under the circumstances Burkman had no reason to concern himself with Fitch, or so he thought at the time. In 2006, Burkman didn’t conduct himself like a professional fighter -- he didn’t study tapes of opponents or control his weight between fights. He struggled often to reach the 170-pound limit and it negatively impacted his performance against Fitch.

That was then. Everything about Burkman today screams professional mixed martial artist; it is the man Fitch must overcome during their rematch Friday night.

“I underestimated Jon Fitch [in 2006],” Burkman said. “And I probably overestimated my abilities at that point in my career. I didn’t know who he was. I wasn’t quite the student of the game then that I am now.

“I’m a real mixed martial artist now. That’s what people will see from me in my next few fights. And everything I do in my life is to become better at it.”