Rivera, Fitch rile foes in role change
You think you know a guy.
For Jorge Rivera and Jon Fitch, two of the main cogs in Saturday's Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view from Sydney, the run-up to their fights has been -- at least judging by as much as they've allowed us to know about them -- decidedly out of character.
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Reinvention is nothing new for athletes, particularly of the combat sport variety. But for two of mixed martial arts' steadiest, most understated performers, their respective decisions to move out of long-held comfort zones have not gone unnoticed.
By verbally and visually assaulting middleweight Michael Bisping, Rivera has taken a page out of the Chael Sonnen school of fight promotion. He's attempted to paint Bisping as a bumbling fool with a weak punch and even weaker heart, all while injecting "South Park"-style humor into a series of orchestrated YouTube videos.
Rivera hasn't minded in the past letting his fists do the talking, so the run-up to UFC 127 represents quite a departure for the Boston fighter. If Bisping's tone is an indication, Rivera, for better or worse, accomplished exactly what he set out to do.
"I'm a professional fighter," Bisping said. "I'm not an idiot in the schoolyard making up silly rhymes and jokes and making stupid videos."
Yet this exchange is exactly the sort of thing Rivera -- 38 and in the midst of a career-reviving three-fight winning streak -- hoped for.
"Jorge is a relic," charged Bisping, who owns a 20-3 record. "He's a throwback to the beginning of mixed martial arts. I'm a complete mixed martial artist and I'll show him that on the night and I'll do most of my talking then."
"I look forward to that," Rivera responded.
"And so do I," the Englishman finished.
Rivera, like Sonnen leading up to his bout last year against Anderson Silva, has used prefight verbal tactics as a means to an end. His intention: to goad the 31-year-old Bisping away from an effective hunt-and-peck style and into a brawl. And now it doesn't seem so implausible.
"Some of it was fun. Some of it was to get in his head. You see how he reacts and what's going on. I'm cool with it," said Rivera (19-7) during the final news conference this week in Australia.
Jorge is a relic. He's a throwback to the beginning of mixed martial arts. I'm a complete mixed martial artist and I'll show him that on the night and I'll do most of my talking then.” -- Michael Bisping, on what he believes is Jorge Rivera's failure to evolve as a mixed martial artist
"I'm looking forward to the fight," Bisping said. "I'm looking forward to correcting him on a few of his opinions. I believe he's massively underestimated me, and I'm looking forward to making a fool out of him on the night."
Fitch, 33, hasn't gone WWE on B.J. Penn (16-7-1), but he has opened himself up to the world by sharing more of his life online than ever before.
The uptick in his personality is less about selling than it is about timing, he said.
"A lot of guys were rushed to open themselves up, and the skill set isn't there," Fitch said. "Well, if people love you but you suck at fighting you're not going to be around very long. So I made sure that I got my skill set where it needed to be to stay on top and be on top for a long time. I feel I've got it to that point. Now I feel I have the opportunity to let people in a little bit and get to know me more."
Concentrating on one area of his fighting life -- the most important area, of course -- doesn't say much for Fitch's multitasking abilities, though it speaks to the dedication and seriousness with which he approaches his profession.
Winning has always been first on his mind, and without a particularly colorful style of fighting or flamboyant personality, Fitch (23-3) understands that getting a W -- which he's done for eight years, save for a 2008 bout against Georges St. Pierre -- is the most important ingredient for long-term success in a sport that rarely guarantees such things.
"It's more of a slow progress, but it's definite that I still gain a number of fans with every win, with every performance," said the No. 2-ranked welterweight in MMA. "I'm giving myself 100 percent in every fight. I'm doing everything I can to finish the fights. Whether it happens or not is not within my grasp within the last two years. But I plan on changing those things."
"Everything comes in stages and steps," Fitch said. "This was the time for this to happen. I'm embracing it now. Everything worked out perfectly, I think."
On Saturday in Sydney, perfect means victorious. That much, at least, hasn't changed.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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