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Grappling With Issues – 1/29/10

Which of Strikeforce’s two title fights are you more excited to see? What are the chances that Robbie Lawler and Melvin Manhoef make it out of the second round? Should Zuffa be concerned about low ticket sales for UFC 108? Why is there still an interim title fight when we know Brock Lesnar is coming back? And what kind of buyrate should the UFC expect for Lesnar’s return?

It’s time once again for Brendhan Conlan and myself to go six rounds debating the issues pertaining to this sport of MMA. We’ll be looking ahead to this weekend’s Strikeforce event in Miami called…Strikeforce: Miami. We’ll also discuss the impending return of the UFC’s biggest champion and the impact this should have. As always we encourage you to share your thoughts on any or all of the questions in the comment box below.

And now, in the immortal words of Cecil Peoples: Let’s Dance!

True/False – Manhoef vs. Lawler will make it to the second round.

Adam Tool: False. I’m not even sure it will make it past the second minute. Of course the last time I was sure a bout would result in a major slugfest, we ended up with Houston Alexander circling Kimbo Slice over and over again. Lawler might choose to try a more cautious gameplan, as Manhoef will obviously be looking to throw the big bomb early and often. If this bout somehow ends up on the mat then the edge would have to go to “Ruthless” Robbie, but that’s a fairly unlikely scenario. Both fighters are always looking for the knockout so it’s really just a matter of time until one of them gets it.

Conlan: True. I can’t knock Tool’s assessment, as the style of each fighter absolutely implies a first-round knockout should be a given when the two face off on Saturday night. However, as Adam alluded to, no result is guaranteed in the ring and history shows even two bangers with questionable chins like Alexander and Slice don’t always deliver an exciting or early finish. Reality has a funny way of mucking up match-ups where the manner of victory seems crystal clear before the fight takes place. I don’t suspect Manhoef and Lawler will paw at each other while circling for fifteen minutes, but I’m also not sure either man will rush into an exchange of blows because of what’s at stake. A loss for Lawler would be his second in a row and set him back even further in one of Strikeforce’s deepest divisions, while Manhoef isn’t particularly well-known by mainstream fans and you know what they say about “first impressions”. My belief is that the two may feel each other out for a few minutes and will partially negate the other’s primary attack based on the similarity of their approaches to combat, hence why I see the bout concluding at some point beyond the first frame.

Explain why the UFC 111 match-up between Shane Carwin and Frank Mir is still for a interim championship even though Brock Lesnar recently announced he’d be returning to the Octagon this summer…

Tool: This one is a head-scratcher. The only reason I can think to keep the bout the way it is would be because it was already announced before Lesnar made his “miracle” recovery. While the interim title doesn’t make much sense right now, it would make even less sense if it was announced after Brock delivered his news. While we now know that the real heavyweight champion is coming back, things were looking much worse in the weeks and months prior to last Wednesday.

The only other reason I can think of is that the UFC delivered such a lackluster card for their last trip to New Jersey (UFC 78) and they feel the need to make it up to their fans in “The Garden State” by featuring two title fights at UFC 111. After all, Carwin vs. Mir is a far better co-main event than Houston Alexander vs. Thiago Silva.

Conlan: I disagree with both of Tool’s points of reasoning though can’t fault him for making them, as I’m not sure there is any legitimate explanation for the decision to keep Mir/Carwin as a “championship” affair. I see it as more of an insult to fans in Jersey who felt slighted by UFC 78’s line-up than a means of placating them. The bout sells itself and doesn’t need a shiny, oversized belt-buckle’s involvement to make it interesting no matter what “DJ Paulie D.”, “The Situation”, or “Snooki” might tell you. And, with three more events taking place over the two month period before UFC 111, I refuse to believe there wasn’t enough time to wipe out the “interim” aspect to the heavyweight throwdown. Promotion for the event has barely even started as it stands today let alone a week or two ago.

If anything, I think Zuffa’s refusal to remove the imaginary title from the match-up was completely motivated by finance. It’s not as if the additional stanzas should come into play when determining the bout’s winner as the case might be were the athletes in a lighter division. Mir has only seen the third round once in his career while Carwin has never even seen beyond the third minute of a fight, so the interim-inspired fourth and fifth rounds of their bout will almost certainly go unused. Plain and simple, someone at UFC headquarters punched in a few numbers on a calculator and came up with a figure showing how the bottom line is increased when a belt is involved in a fight. It’s an angle they can use to sell extra tickets and PPV buys, not an attempt at putting together a better fight for fans or reward the involved fighters. In fact, I can say with near certainty that one of the first things the “interim champion” will say is that he doesn’t consider it a real title; that the true champion is Lesnar and only by beating him will the gold have meaning.

Official figures for UFC 108 showed 40% of the people in attendance received complimentary tickets. Should that be considered a cause for concern?

Tool: I don’t think so, because we need to look at the context. Obviously UFC 108 was made after Dana White’s deal with the devil had expired, and as such it was cursed before it even got started. Never before has Zuffa had to replace so many fighters due to injury, leaving them with a show that had next-to-nothing to offer the casual fan.

On top of that UFC 108 was held in Las Vegas, a town that obviously has the luxury of multiple UFC events during the year. With ticket prices averaging in triple digits and the economy still in the toilet, can you blame the UFC faithful in “Sin City” for deciding to skip this card?

The poor performance of UFC 108 is not a sign that the sky is falling, despite what some online sources might have you believe. The UFC was hit harder than ever before with injuries to their roster and they had to adjust as best they could. With their champions healthy and returning to action soon, we should see a continuation of the record growth exhibited throughout 2009.

Conlan: I’m not taking a “Chicken Little” approach to the topic because it still means 60% of the arena was sold out and, as Tool stated, tickets are anything but cheap in Vegas. He’s also spot-on in terms of breaking down the event’s injury woes. To keep it in context, UFC 98 (Machida vs. Evans, Serra vs. Hughes) was held at the same arena and only sold 1,000-1,500 more tickets than was the case at UFC 108.

I think it would have been more concerning had the UFC not filled leftover seats with complimentary tickets based on the perception of failure a half-empty arena might create in viewers at home. Additionally, though admission may have been free, the “comps” still bought concessions and merchandise so their presence created income a vacant chair can’t. How can either of those things be seen as a negative in comparison to the alternative?

Which of the two title fights at “Strikeforce: Miami” are you more excited to see?

Conlan: Though I feel Diaz vs. Zaromskis will be the more-competitive bout, I’ll be a bit closer to the edge of my couch for a few reasons when Santos defends her title against Coenen.

First, I think “Cyborg” is on the cusp of being a transcendent Mixed Martial Artist and fighters like that deserve to be watched on every occasion. No individual is invincible, as even her record indicates, but Santos has shown the same potential to dominate her division as any individual currently considered to be a top pound-for-pound fighter. While the level of her competition isn’t remotely the same as her male counterparts’, her talent can’t be denied and I don’t think it would be far-fetched to assume she might even beat a couple 125/135-pound men out there who have winning records.

Second, I know she and Coenen take MMA seriously, and while I have no reason to think Zaromskis is any different, I cannot help but question Nick Diaz’s dedication to being the best fighter possible or even attempting to portray himself as a professional. Recently Diaz took part in a conference call to promote his upcoming bout with “The Whitemare” and taped his participation from home. Throughout the video he is seen playing with nunchucks and a suspicious bubbling sound can be heard when he walks off camera. Though funny to an extent, his behavior and apparent indifference towards promoting the bout are ultimately damaging to MMA and disrespectful to both Zaromskis and Strikeforce. If his aspirations don’t reach beyond a footnote in the sport’s history thanks to a successful record and a couple of controversial moments, so be it. It’s his life, his right. I simply find wasted talent to be a sad thing and I’m disappointed his desire doesn’t seem to match the other characteristics that make him a great fighter (heart, skill).

Tool: I am eagerly anticipating both match-ups, but the welterweight title bout intrigues me just a bit more. I’m not trying to sell Marloes Coenen short, but I have every reason to believe that the women’s bout will be an absolute mauling courtesy of Cyborg. Brendhan is right in his assertion that Cyborg has the necessary skills to become the next dominant champion of mixed-martial arts.

With that in mind, I’m very curious to see how the Diaz/Zaromskis bout plays out. By now we know what Diaz brings to the table: peppering punches, an uncrackable chin, and oh yeah, he’s pretty good at jiu-jitsu too. Zaromskis made headlines around the blog-o-sphere last year when he head-kicked his way to glory in the DREAM Welterweight GP, but his American debut will be the biggest test of his career. Can the “Lithuanian Sensation” bring the heat and become the first man to knock Diaz out? Will these two stand toe-to-toe for five scintillating rounds? Will Zaromskis come out dressed as Akuma from Street Fighter II (again)? These are the questions burning brightest in my mind as I look forward to tomorrow night’s card.

Do you agree or disagree with the UFC’s decision to schedule back-to-back PPVs with multiple title fights?

Conlan: I would definitely take issue with the decision were Lesnar’s health still shrouded in mystery. However, as his return to the Octagon is already established for mid-2010, the interim belt Carwin and Mir will be fist-pumping for in New Jersey shouldn’t be viewed as a legitimate belt and therefore doesn’t take away from the limited number of UFC straps available to be defended. I think it’s important to utilize the promotion’s titles as best as possible by spreading their appearances out over the year instead of putting 4/5 of them up for grabs in a three-week period. It would take minor planning, and a little luck in terms of avoiding injury/illness, to feature a championship fight on every PPV while still giving athletes 3-4 months to recover between bouts. Not only would that make each belt appear to be more valuable, but it would also assist in avoiding questions about the strength of a card’s main event (see: UFC 110 for example).

Tool: As a fan it’s hard to disagree with the decision, although I’m curious to see if any of us become burnt out by too much MMA during the fortnight between March 27th and April 10th. Don’t forget that in the middle of UFCs 111 and 112 we’ll be getting another Fight Night leading in to the premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter.” We also can’t forget that that Fight Night is being headlined by the intensely intriguing Kenny Florian vs. Takanori Gomi bout.

UFC 111 is being headlined by Georges St. Pierre vs. Dan Hardy. I wouldn’t be surprised if St. Pierre’s stock with the casual audience has dropped a bit after his one-sided decision win over Thiago Alves last July. On top of that he’s facing a man that has never been in the main event before, and who has laid a somewhat dubious claim to the #1 contender status. The interim heavyweight title bout is much more compelling from a matchmaker standpoint, but as we’ve already discussed its hard to get behind another interim belt when we know Lesnar is on his way back. Neither of these championship bouts would break buyrate records on their own, so I can’t fault Zuffa for stacking them up.

The UFC 112 title fights are a bit more appealing, but they’ve still got their share of problems. Anderson Silva is starting to get back on the fans’ good-sides after his UFC 101 performance, but most people can still remember back to those baffling title defenses against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites. Along with that we’ve got a UFC middleweight title contender that has yet to compete in the UFC’s middleweight division. On the same card we’ll see BJ Penn, who has looked all but unstoppable at lightweight, facing Frankie Edgar. You can take those things I said about Dan Hardy and pretty much apply them all to Edgar. I like “The Answer” as a fighter but I also have to believe he doesn’t stand a chance against Penn.

Long story short, these four title fights are not the best bouts the company could try to sell to the PPV audience, but by pairing them up on these two shows they’ve given themselves a better chance to bring in a larger audience and increase their bottom line. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.

Give your estimation for the total number of buys Brock Lesnar’s return bout will bring in.

Conlan: The heavyweight champion has proven himself to be a draw unlike any other in the promotion, as all three of his 2008 appearances in the Octagon fell among the year’s top five buy-rates and his second clash with Mir in 2009 was watched by over 1.5 million households (though the figure was assisted by the talent he was surrounded with at UFC 100). His layoff from action has made him even more compelling to watch, in part because it will be interesting to see how he fares physically after such a long ordeal and in part because he’s a helluva fighter who hasn’t stepped into the ring since July 2009. Lesnar will either be facing an undefeated fighter who has equivalent power/size and a long list of first-round finishes (Carwin) or his professional and personal nemesis (Mir). Both fights sell themselves and would be easy to create interest in even if Lesnar’s innards had never skipped a beat. However, Mir is the definitely the best option in terms of being a “money” opponent. The former UFC Heavyweight Champion has been involved in an ongoing public war of words with the bulking Minnesotan for more than a year and the bout would serve as an all-important “rubber match” between the two.

All that being said, I see Lesnar’s return drawing at least 900,000 PPV buys with an additional 100,000-150,000 likely added to the total if Frank Mir emerges victorious at UFC 111.

Tool: Can’t argue with Brendhan’s belief that Lesnar vs. Mir III is the most appealing match-up from a casual perspective, but if you’re like me that’s not the match you want to see.

Since it was announced originally for UFC 106 I have been dying to see Brock Lesnar square off with Shane Carwin. This fight was discussed in detail leading up to UFC 106 and, when it was pushed back, UFC 108. Obviously things haven’t worked out well since then but things are starting to get back on track. I still want to see this fight and if I had my way I’d cancel the interim title fight at UFC 111 and schedule Lesnar & Carwin for the earliest available slot. As it is we’ll need to wait and see what happens in New Jersey before we can speculate on Lesnar’s next opponent. It’s also important to remember that Cain Velasquez or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira could get the call as well, depending on how everything shakes out.

Like Brendhan I’d probably figure in another 100,000-200,000 for the rubber match with Mir, but just Lesnar vs. anyone should pull down at least 1 million buys. The guy has established himself as the top draw in the company, and don’t think for a second that they won’t promote the hell out of his return. The return of Lesnar means big paydays for everyone involved, and that includes the advertisers whose products he may or may not trash live on the air.

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