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Grappling With Issues – 3/12/10

Are you excited or indifferent towards the UFC’s signing of James Toney? How do you think the UFC weighs the relationship between entertainment and sport? Has Miguel Torres lost his mojo? Will Strikeforce be looking for a new network to call home after their April event?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Thank you for stopping by to check out another edition of “Grappling with Issues”, a weekly smorgasbord of insight-and-opinion featuring myself and fellow 5 Ouncer Adam Tool. As always, we will be offering our thoughts on six subjects related to MMA. However, just because we staffers get the fancy set-up, please don’t feel precluded from dishing out your own thoughts on each matter in the comments section at the bottom of the column…

Buy/Sell – After being finished in consecutive fights, Miguel Torres has officially lost his mystique.

Adam Tool: Buy. He’s still got the necessary ability to be a major player in the bantamweight division, but it was only a matter of time before someone recognized the holes in his game (namely his lack of takedown defense) and exploited them. These losses should motivate him to get better, and I think it’s safe to say that he’ll still be a challenge for any fighter that faces him.

I think this second loss only serves to open peoples’ eyes to the reality of the lighter weight classes; that is that they’re still sorting out who the top guys are. While the heavier weight classes have been competitive for many years with plenty of fighters making waves, the feather & bantamweight classes are only now really starting to get deep with talent. It may still be a few more years until we see a lower weight fighter achieve Anderson Silva-like levels of dominance in their division, but it will certainly be exciting to watch them get to that point.

Conlan: I agree with Tool, especially in regards to his latter sentiment regarding the notion that lighter weights are still behind their heavier counterparts in terms of overall development and the clear cut establishment of divisional dynamos. Other than overseas or on less-prestigious shows, there aren’t a lot of outlets for smaller fighters to make names for themselves beyond WEC. I think people in the media and fans (myself included) were a little overzealous in anointing Miguel Torres as the best out there simply based on his overall record without actually having a full understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. His mystique has been lost along with our innocence/ignorance due to the continued development of his peers and the increased exposure they’re now receiving. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s simply an indicator Mixed Martial Arts is continuing to evolve as a whole.

In regards to their WEC 47 performances, were you more impressed by Joseph Benavidez or Dominick Cruz?

Tool: I’ll go with Benavidez. I don’t want to take too much away from Cruz’s dominant performance against Brian Bowles, but we can’t ignore the fact that Bowles broke his right hand at the start of the fight and was visibly not the same afterwards. Personally I’m all for seeing Cruz vs. Bowles II down the road after Brian has had a chance to heal up and get back to 100%.

I didn’t give Benavidez much of a chance against Torres when the fight was made. I thought that Torres was too aggressive and the reach advantage would be too difficult for Benavidez to work around. Benavidez worked a solid gamelan, and was able to move inside quickly and fluster the former champion. The massive gash on Torres’ forehead seemed like it may lead to a doctor’s stoppage, but credit to Benavidez for locking up the choke and becoming the first man to submit Miguel.

Conlan: I’m also with Tool on this one, as I was extremely impressed by the rising star’s ability to overcome any nerves he may have been feeling before what was clearly the biggest fight of his career and ultimately get the better of Torres in such a dominant fashion. Benavidez was not just facing a former WEC Bantamweight Champion with a wealth of experience and polished arsenal of attacks but also one who was coming off the first knockout loss of his career. Going into the bout I thought Benavidez was simply a wrestler with a limitless amount of energy and a raw set of skills. To have handled the involved pressure, especially at his age, is telling of his future in the sport and, in my eyes, finally established him as more than simply being Urijah Faber’s protégé.

Using percentages, how would you assess the UFC’s approach to the relationship between entertainment vs. sport when delivering their product?

Tool: At the moment I’d put it around 70% sport and 30% entertainment. The various weight classes within the company are all still dominated by the top athletes in the sport, and the majority of their fight cards are filled with up-and-coming fighters looking to carve out their spot in their division. There are a few “freak show” fighters on the roster (one of which we’ll be taking more about in a future topic), but there’s still no questioning the UFC as the highest level of competition in the sport.

Conlan: I’d like to say there is a far greater focus on athleticism, ability, and performance in the ring than look, gift of gab, and even the slightest hint of former fame when it comes to the current state of the UFC, but James Toney’s signing is yet another reminder that Zuffa’s goal is to turn a profit even if MMA’s soul is sold in the process. Like Kimbo Slice, Toney was inked to entice the mainstream media into coverage and draw less-knowledgeable fans into spending cash. There are fighters who are far more deserving of a place in the UFC’s spotlight than either man based on actual accomplishment in the sport, yet lack the 15-minutes of fame each obtained prior to debuting in the Octagon and are thus relegated to relative anonymity.

I understand the point of running a business is to make money and can’t fault the UFC in that regard. Saying they’re good at what they do is a vast understatement. They are the Kleenex of Mixed Martial Arts. However, in regards to how they approach sport vs. entertainment I think the relationship is closer than Tool gave them credit for. You’re talking about a company that thrust Brock Lesnar into a title fight after going 2-1 as a professional Mixed Martial Artist and bypassed countless contenders over the past few years in favor of those who might potentially sell more PPV buys. 60/40 at best.

Without putting him in a rematch, who would you like to see Dominick Cruz make his first title defense against?

Conlan: Though Scott Jorgensen is probably the obvious choice given his three-fight winning streak in WEC, I also think Antonio Banuelos and Brad Pickett are deserving of some consideration. Jorgensen’s grappling and submissions certainly make for a legitimate threat to Cruz if things hit the mat, and his internal motor runs well enough to ease any concerns related to the twenty-five minute structure of a title bout, but Banuelos and Pickett have quite a bit more experience in the ring and a wealth of skills to utilize against the champ. Each has approximately twice as many professional wins as Jorgensen, yet the same number of losses, and both have found comparable success to Jorgensen in WEC.

If forced to pick one of the three options I’d go with Pickett based on him having finished fifteen of the eighteen opponents he’s beaten, not to mention his record shows the 18-4 Brit is as likely to knock someone out as submit them. He’s the most well rounded athlete in the bunch, trains with a great camp (American Top Team), and has won his last eight fights. The match-up would also be an easy sell to fans given the USA vs. UK angle involved and might even lead to an increase in WEC support across the pond due to the Londoner’s involvement. Call it the Michael Bisping effect if you will.

Tool: I have to agree with Brendhan in that Jorgensen is the most obvious choice, but it’s also worth noting that Jorgensen does have two losses in his WEC career. The two men that beat him, Antonio Banuelos and Damacio Page, are scheduled to meet one another at WEC 48 and I see no reason why the winner of that fight couldn’t be slotted in as the next #1 contender.

Pickett is also a good choice, although I do think he needs at least one more win over a solid opponent to be a legitimate contender. I say match up Pickett and Jorgensen and the winner of that fight would be a great choice to step up against Cruz.

On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the highest) how excited are you for James Toney’s UFC/MMA debut?

Conlan: I’m going with “4”, as it’s one point higher than how I rated my interest in Herschel Walker’s debut. In terms of seeing an over-the-hill athlete test the waters of Mixed Martial Arts I could care less, and similar to why I gave Walker a three, I’m definitely interested in the possibility of a message being sent through the mainstream media that MMA is a serious sport requiring whole-hearted dedication to a variety of combat disciplines. However, Toney’s boxing background and knockout power are well-documented, and as such he deserves a bit more attention than a former football player lest we forget the lesson we learned alongside two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia nine seconds into his 2009 fight with Ray Mercer.

Tool: I’ll say 2, and that’s being generous. Truth be told I didn’t even really know who James Toney was before he started his campaign to get in the UFC, as I’ve never really been a fan of boxing. He’s old as hell and has no MMA experience, which makes me wonder who the UFC can put him up against in a legally sanctioned fight. We all know he could easily knock out just about anyone he faces but we also know that he’ll be in way over his head if/when the fight goes to the ground. To me this whole thing seems to be a big step backwards in the evolution of the sport. The idea of taking a pro boxer and putting him in against a wrestler or jiu-jitsu expert just brings back memories of those single-digit UFC events that spawned the whole “human cockfighting” moniker more than a decade ago.

True/False – The next Strikeforce event will be their last for CBS.

Conlan: False, and if it is then the fault lies within the broadcaster more so than the promoter or sport. Strikeforce is offering an opportunity for fans to see top ranked fighters compete against each other on free television. There is little else they can do without more control over the station broadcasting the event. CBS, on the other hand, has dropped the ball thus far in terms of building up viewers’ interest in the show or Mixed Martial Arts in general. The UFC wasn’t an overnight sensation. Tens of millions of dollars were invested before the company ever turned a significant profit or became a ratings juggernaut. If CBS was expecting the same to happen to them without doing the legwork there is an executive or two who needs a stern reprimand if not a pink-slip. You can’t grab onto a speeding money-train without expecting your arms to get ripped off. You need to build up some momentum of your own beforehand, and that takes time.

To drum up the necessary casual interest, why not have Strikeforce fighters get some face time on CBS Late Night? Why not have them sit in the booth for a few minutes during a college basketball game or even during halftime programming? Why not create shows similar to UFC’s “Countdown” to help build interest in the bouts? You have an Olympic wrestler with a long list of MMA accomplishments (Henderson), a vegetarian who is also a single father (Shields), an outspoken All-American (Lawal), a humble pound-for-pound monster (Mousasi), a colorful, controversial jiujitsu wizard making his American debut (Aoki), and longtime Strikeforce staple coming off the biggest win in his career (Melendez). There are three title-fights on the card featuring fighters with a combined record of 123-19-2. If CBS can’t sell that to the public while the UFC/Spike are pulling better numbers with re-runs and guys who haven’t had a tenth of that success then they don’t deserve the right to show MMA.

Tool: True, although I suppose I’m a bit of a pessimist on this subject. Brendhan’s correct in his assessment of CBS’ role in the success of their live MMA events, but seeing as how they hold all the cards to determine whether or not the sport continues on their network I’m not keeping my hopes up. The simple fact of the matter is that CBS is one arm of a very large corporation, and the bottom line for them comes down to ratings. MMA events do outstanding numbers in terms of the most sought-after demographics, but on the whole the ratings for these events pale in comparison to other major sporting events. The upcoming Strikeforce card is absolutely stacked from a hardcore fan’s perspective but there’s little there to draw in that casual audience that they need so badly. When the biggest name on your card is Dan Henderson, that’s a problem. I’d love to see CBS put some promotional power behind the event, but even if they do it’s still not a card designed to appeal to your average fan that still calls the sport “ultimate fighting.” My estimation for this show’s rating is not good, and if it does do poorly I would imagine that CBS will cut their losses and step away from the sport until it becomes more widely accepted.

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