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Grappling With Issues – 2/12/10

Where does Randy Couture rank in the light heavyweight division? How close is Paulo Thiago to earning a title shot? Did Nate Marquardt have a bad night or is Chael Sonnen really that good? Who should Matt Serra fight next?

UFC 109 may not go down as the best card of the year, but it did provide us with more than a few things worth talking about. We had a couple of fairly shocking upsets, several octagon debuts, and two UFC veterans scoring impressive wins. Now it’s time once again for Brendhan Conlan and myself to go back-and-forth on six questions facing the sport, and always we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Now, in the immortal words of Cecil Peoples…Let’s dance!

Buy/Sell – Paulo Thiago needs to beat the winner of Jon Fitch/Thiago Alves before being named the #1 contender in the welterweight division.

Adam Tool: I’ll say buy, although from a booking stand-point I wouldn’t rematch Fitch & Thiago again so soon. Thiago give Fitch a tough fight at UFC 100, but I really don’t think the result would change in a second meeting. I could be wrong, and Thiago may have gotten significantly better in the last seven months, but at this point I think another meeting between the two would only serve to kill Thiago’s momentum at this point. Besides, I think it’s best for all parties involved if he doesn’t have to face anymore AKA guys anytime soon. I would certainly agree that if the two were to meet again and Thiago got the win, he should absolutely be the #1 contender.

Should Alves emerge victorious at UFC 111 I wouldn’t mind seeing him matched up with Thiago. At this point it’s clear that Fitch and Alves are the #2 and #3 guys (respectively) in the welterweight division, so a win over either man should net Thiago (or anyone else for that matter) immediate title consideration. The only reason I wouldn’t want to see this fight is because of the inherent difficulty in discussing it, due to the fact that Thiago is one man’s first name and the other man’s last name.

Brendhan Conlan: I’m opting to “sell” on this topic, as I think there are plenty of serviceable opponents for him to face and, as already proven, a grinder like Fitch is definitely a threat to stymie the mystique currently surrounding the Brazilian. Alves is a better match-up stylistically for Thiago and isn’t in line for a title-shot even if he beats Fitch (it would be his first win since losing to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 100), so he’s certainly a suitable candidate for standing opposite Thiago inside the Octagon at some point in the next 3-5 months.

Another fighter who should receive similar consideration is whomever’s hand is raised when Josh Koscheck and Paul Daley face off at UFC 113. Both are in need of another major win before cementing their place as top contender and each match-up is ripe with marketability. It would be interesting to see “Kos” attempt to avenge his TKO loss – a stoppage some felt was premature – in terms of how he’d approach Thiago with a full camp in place and whether or not he’d choose to stand once the cage door locked. And Daley, though an underdog in my mind against the Ultimate Fighter OG, has enough “Semtex” in his gloves and silver on his tongue to sell any fight, let alone one against someone with Paulo’s arsenal of skills.

Was Nate Marquardt simply off against Chael Sonnen or was he exposed by the better fighter?

Tool: I think it’s a bit from column A and a bit from column B. I’m still not totally sold on Sonnen, as it was only a year ago that he was completely dominated by Demian Maia. He looked impressive this past Saturday, but he still lacks any real finishing ability and there’s still plenty of holes in his submission game. I give him credit for getting people to talk about him, as he’s clearly dominated most of the MMA media’s attention in the past few weeks.

Back to Marquardt though, I’m still not sure what happened. He was facing a one-dimensional opponent, had plenty of high-level wrestlers to train with, and he had the master tactician Greg Jackson in his corner. I couldn’t believe how wildly Nate was swinging in the opening minute of each round, as he was clearly leaving plenty of openings for Chael to shoot in. The closed guard obviously did little to help his situation on the mat and again I have to wonder just what the hell he was doing during his training camp. I understand that training and fighting are two different things but he had three months to prepare for fifteen minutes, and he really didn’t seem to be ready.

Conlan: Marquardt was absolutely exposed by the better fighter, at least in terms of his ability to defend the takedown and fight off his back. Sonnen may not have Nate’s jiu-jitsu or striking but his wrestling background is of an elite nature. He has the skill to bring most of his opponents down to the mat and the heart/will to keep going until his body quits on him. He clearly suffers when facing top shelf BJJers who can submit from the bottom but other than that he’s going to be a tough draw for anyone he steps into the cage with.

I was thinking about Tool’s questioning of what happened to Marquardt and why he seemed so ill prepared when a thought occurred to me. Who is the top submission-based fighter on Greg Jackson’s roster if not “Nate the Great” himself? Maybe Carlos Condit or Joe Stevenson? It seems to me they have a lot of wrestlers who prefer to strike or use ground-and-pound techniques, and I can’t help but wonder how Marquardt might have benefited off his back from the presence of a high-level jiujitsu specialist familiar with professional competition who close to him in weight.

What’s your take on the WEC’s foray into the PPV market?

Tool: I’m for it. Every time there’s a WEC event on Versus, the salary figures are released and various people complain about how the fighters aren’t getting paid enough. The reason they aren’t getting enough money is because the business model of putting all your fights on free TV isn’t a very profitable venture. The UFC guys make more money because the PPVs make a lot of money. More money getting pumped into the front office means more money trickling down to the fighters, and that’s certainly a positive step forward for the WEC’s future growth.

Conlan: I view it as a proverbial dip of the toes into a pool they’ll find is ice cold. I also think it was smart of WEC brass to book the event in Sacramento so the live gate brought in by Urijah Faber’s presence on the card will offset some of the financial losses I suspect the promotion will endure from a low buyrate.

Adam is correct in terms of the PPV market providing an opportunity for increased revenue and in stating WEC fighters should eventually benefit from a profitable situation. However, neither success or the fruits of it are guaranteed, and larger promotions with more star-power have attempted and failed at capturing a large enough audience to make PPV a worthwhile venture. Even the occasional UFC event suffers lower-than-expected numbers. I have no reason to believe a rematch between two lightweights who wouldn’t crack the UFC’s “Top 5” and a quartet of featherweights are going to succeed in drawing more than a minimal number of fans into spending $44.95.

Faber vs. Aldo should be insanely entertaining but is nothing special in comparison to the events WEC has offered for free on Versus. Why not make a true “superfight” using a catchweight to feature two of your company’s top dogs? Stick Brian Bowles in a non-title affair with Mike Brown and throw Miguel Torres in the cage with “The California Kid”. Why not bring in a couple UFC fighters to mix things up? Have Donald Cerrone fight Tyson Griffin instead of Ben Henderson. Those are just a few ways the event could have been made to feel truly special. Instead, it comes off as little more than a Zuffa experiment to me, and one I wager will be as successful in drawing PPV buys as Preparation A-G were in soothing one’s hind quarters.

If you were to rank the top light heavyweight fighters in the world, where would you put Randy Couture?

Conlan: I suspect Couture would land somewhere in the 10-12 range if I put pen to paper and ranked the sport’s top 205-pounders. “The Natural” is 5-4 over his last nine fights and 3-2 as a light heavyweight. His only wins at LHW in the past five years are over Mike Van Arsdale (who promptly lost his next three bouts before retiring), Brandon Vera (who arguably should have been given the decision win), and Mark Coleman (insert joke here). Regardless of the clout Couture’s name carries I can’t rank him higher than any divisional peer who has recently, and consistently, beaten reputable light heavyweights. The pool is too deep to consider any alternative.

Tool: I’m thinking along the same lines as Brendhan here, and I’d probably slot Couture around lucky number 13. The win over Coleman was the best we’ve seen from him since he came back from his most recent “retirement,” but this was obviously not the toughest opponent he’s had in that time frame either. I got a bad taste in my mouth from the Vera fight, so it’ll take at least one more big win at 205 before I’m ready to put “The Natural” in the top ten or entertain any serious talk about title contention. Fortunately it sounds as though the UFC wants to slot Randy in against Rich Franklin at UFC 115, and a win over the highly-respected Franklin could potentially launch Couture towards one more run at the gold.

Make your pick for Matt Serra’s next opponent.

Conlan: If I had my way his next opponent would be a lightweight, but since my plans for world domination have yet to work out I’ll say Serra will face the winner of Phil Baroni vs. Marcus Davis (rumored for UFC 111). Both men provide opportunities for Serra to showcase either his powerful striking or his grappling skills. Something just ain’t right when a high level jiujitsu practitioner hasn’t tapped an opponent out in a professional fight since Avril Lavigne had a number one hit in America. I like the idea of the brash East Coaster possibly returning to his Gracie roots based on the level of stand-up his opponent offers, and, being solid boxers with knockout power and suspect submission defense, Baroni/Davis fit the bill. Additionally, like Serra, they’re also veteran fighters who aren’t threatening for a title shot. That means the bout can sell itself on name value and the result won’t muck up the championship picture.

Tool: Normally in a question where I’m asked to name a fighter’s next opponent I’ll look over the current schedule to see who might be available in 3-5 months. This is Matt Serra we’re talking about though, and he’s fought once a year for the last six years. Assuming this trend holds up we can pretty much pick anybody we want from the welterweight division. In terms of the type of opponent I’d like to see, it would have to be a younger fighter that’s working his way up the rankings. If Serra wants to make another grab for the welterweight strap he’ll need to face one of the hungry future contenders looking for their big breakthrough performance. Names like Dustin Hazelett, Carlos Condit, and John Hathaway come to mind.

If I had to pick one fighter right now though, it’d probably be Ben Saunders. First off there’s the obvious back story between the two, as Saunders was on Team Serra during season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter and the UFC has yet to give us a coach vs. student bout after five years of the show. Second, it’s an interesting match-up stylistically as both fighters have backgrounds in jiu-jitsu but have primarily relied on their striking as of late. Finally, it’ll be one hell of a visual: the 6’3” Saunders staring down the 5’6” Serra. C’mon, tell me you don’t want to see that.

True/False – You were impressed by Demian Maia’s performance on Saturday.

Conlan: False. Showing a modicum of improvement in your striking and slightly out-grappling someone who isn’t on your level when things hit the mat shouldn’t merit the dropping of a single jaw. It’s par for the course, nothing more. Impressive would have been a first round submission over a slick BJJer like Dan Miller or a knockout win. Until Maia scores either thing he’ll continue to be a vanilla-flavored Mixed Martial Artist who, when drawing his opponents onto the ground, can use jiujitsu as his brush and paint the canvas like Monet.

Tool: I would also have to go false, although I’m willing to look at the positives. Maia was coming off of a devastating knockout and yet he wasn’t gun-shy, choosing to stand and exchange with Miller for most of the duration. Miller certainly represented a bad match-up of styles, as he had the wrestling pedigree to negate Maia’s takedowns. I had thought that leading up to the fight we might see Miller choose to test his own Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills against the abilities of his opponent, but that was clearly not the case. Like Brendhan said, Maia still needs to make himself a more complete fighter before he can really be considered a contender. On Saturday I believe we saw some crucial steps being taken in that process, it’s just unfortunate that it didn’t make for a very good fight.

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