Burkman's sub of Fitch earns top honors

MMA Live Extra: Top 5 Submissions of 2013 (3:53)

MMA Live Extra reveals the Mid-Year Awards for the top submissions so far in 2013. (3:53)

Josh Burkman thought that guillotining Jon Fitch would be too risky to try.

So when he faced Fitch on June 14 at World Series of Fighting 3, Burkman made it part of his game plan to avoid using one of the first chokes learned by Brazilian jiu-jitsu white belts. He thought of it like this: Attempting to catch a guy with a reputation for being impossible to choke out and giving a guy who loves top position ... well, top position wouldn't be the best way to win their rematch.

A snapshot at the end of the fight says differently, of course. Considering the contest lasted only 41 seconds, with Burkman on the bottom and Fitch caught in a guillotine, you could say the plan went astray. Understandable, really, after seeing Fitch laid forcibly unconscious on the mat.

"A technical submission over Jon Fitch was definitely not what I was thinking how I would win this fight," Burkman said after being told his finish ranked atop ESPN.com's best submission list from the first half of 2013.

When he looked back on it a couple of weeks later, after the controversy surrounding referee Steve Mazzagatti's (in)actions subsided, the consequences of the victory hit home for Burkman.

"A win over Jon Fitch, in the way that I did it, helps me believe in myself and this comeback," he said. "I think my best years are ahead of me. I've been saying that for about a year and a half."

The 32-year-old Burkman won his fifth straight match and eight of nine since 2009, when he parted ways with the UFC after three years fighting in the Octagon.

One contest before signing on for the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Burkman was strangled cold by Jeremy Horn. “It happens in our sport,” Burkman said. However, the finish was controversial at the time because Horn spit on Burkman immediately afterward -- a reminder that when you’re out, there’s no such thing as defense.

Getting choked cold isn't easily forgotten, never mind the indignity that comes with being spit upon. Burkman responded by making the ins and outs of guillotines a strength. Eight years after the Horn loss, just a week before meeting Fitch in the main event of WSOF3, Burkman was in the gym training a couple of guys seeking insight into finishing guillotines. They particularly wanted to work on tightening up the hold at the finish.

This proved fortuitous. "So the lesson there is help others because it helps yourself," Burkman said with a laugh while driving home to Utah after a family vacation.

He may not have wanted to submit Fitch the way he was about to, but Burkman recognized the end of the fight when he saw it. The instant the determination was made to go to his back, Burkman knew he could finish the fight.

"I felt him make one last-ditch effort to get out of it, and when he did that, right after he got done, I tightened it and I felt him go limp," Burkman said. "I knew he was out. I double-checked. For me, I just wanted to let everyone know the fight was over because I knew that nobody knew yet -- especially if the referee is still standing up over you."

The point of a submission choke is to prevent sufficient blood from reaching the brain, which induces it to shut down critical functions. Referees are supposed be aware of this and watch closely, because the longer a brain goes without blood, the likelier it is to be traumatized. Mazzagatti didn't move to separate the welterweights, so Burkman released, rolled Fitch off him and stood with a loud exhale.

"I don't think there's anything quite like a knockout,” Burkman said. “But there's something about this choke that's the highlight of my career. I was glad the referee didn't step in and I was able to get up and celebrate the way I wanted to. As a fighter and mixed martial artist, you're trying to prove you can stop a guy, that your style of fighting is better than theirs. And any time you can put another person out cold, then you have definitively proved you were the better man on that day."

The next best:

No. 2: Kenny Robertson SUB1 via kneebar Brock Jardine: UFC 157 (Feb. 23). Officially it's listed as a kneebar, but this needs updating. Robertson nearly snapped off Jardine's hamstring with this unique finish.

No. 3: Ronda Rousey SUB1 via armbar Liz Carmouche: UFC 157 (Feb. 23). Ho-hum, another armbar for Rousey? No, not if you consider how deftly she negotiated her way to the arm. This was a pure finish for the UFC champion.

No. 4: Pat Healy SUB2 via rear-naked choke Jim Miller: UFC 159 (April 27). Although a postfight drug test for marijuana overturned the result, Healy beat the hell out of Miller before finishing him with an angry hand-to-hand rear-naked choke.

No. 5: Fabricio Werdum SUB2 via armbar Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: UFC on Fuel 10 (June 8). Circumstances matter more than skill sometimes, and Werdum's verbal armbar submission over Nogueira in Brazil certainly qualifies.