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Grappling With Issues – 3/19/10

Does Jon Jones deserve the hype? How many more fights does Junior Dos Santos have to win before he’s considered a contender? Who would be a better opponent for Rich Franklin? What does the future hold for Bellator? Finally, do you care at all about DREAM 13?

Another week means another round of questions up for debate between myself and Mr. Brendhan Conlan. We’re launching into a busy time for the mixed-martial arts world, with this weekend being no exception. We’ve got UFC on Versus 1 and DREAM 13 taking place on opposite sides of the world, each featuring their share of compelling match-ups. As always we encourage you to share your thoughts on this week’s topics by leaving a comment at the end of the article.

In the immortal words of Cecil Peoples…let‘s dance!

Is Randy Couture a more/less interesting opponent for Rich Franklin than Chuck Liddell?

Adam Tool: I’d say Couture is a more interesting opponent than Liddell, but that’s mostly on the basis of what the fight can do for Franklin’s career. I spent a good chunk of time last year lamenting Franklin’s fate, as he went 1-2 in 2009 in pointless fights with guys that are making their career at middleweight. Despite his decision to move to the light heavyweight division permanently Franklin was still stuck as a gatekeeper for Anderson Silva.

A fight with Couture gives Franklin the chance to finally make some waves in his current division. Couture has been surging since returning to light heavyweight himself, and he has a good chance of becoming a contender once again in 2010. Franklin can steal all of that momentum with a win over “The Natural,” and with his name value there’s no reason why he couldn’t shoot up the ladder of contenders quickly enough.

In terms of the fight itself I think Couture/Franklin could be a great match-up, although it’s also easy enough to imagine a scenario where Couture nullifies Franklin’s offense with the clinching strategy he used against Brandon Vera. Franklin vs. Liddell would be a great bout as well, if only because it’s essentially a guarantee that those two will stand and trade for the entire fight. Both fights have potential but I have to believe that Couture vs. Franklin is the more relevant match-up.

Brendhan Conlan: The last paragraph of Tool’s assessment does a nice job of summing up my opinion on this topic. While Liddell would have been beyond suitable, Couture is viewed as a more relevant Mixed Martial Artist at the moment because he hasn’t been knocked out in three of his last five fights and is riding the momentum from back-to-back wins. I don’t know that it’s necessarily fair to the “Iceman” to simply look at those stats, especially when comparing the level of competition each has faced over the last few match-ups, but facts are facts and perception is reality.

The pairing makes too much sense to have not been made. Franklin is at a point in his career where he should only be slated against recognizable and relevant fighters, while Couture was the one significant light heavyweight available to scrap in April/May. Both are considered to be UFC icons and have never stood opposite one another in the Octagon. Liddell may fit the same criteria but is going to be associated with the upcoming season of the Ultimate Fighter for a few months and is looking to climb back into 205-pound relevance – a far riskier prospect against an individual faring as well on his feet as Franklin typically does instead of one who prefers ground-and-pound to striking like Tito Ortiz.

Put on your jeweled turban, do you best Miss Cleo impression, and tell the world – Where will Bellator be as a promotion in 2-3 years?

Tool: As awful as my Jamaican impression would sound, I’m sure it would read even worse on a computer screen. Therefore I’m going to ignore that particular pop culture reference and just move on to the question. I leave any and all attempts at comedy to my esteemed colleague on this one.

Bellator is pretty much kicking all forms of ass right now, as the company has made enough unique moves with their presentation to get a lot of hardcore fans on board in such a short amount of time. While the UFC is stocking their YouTube page with Dana White’s backstage shenanigans, Bellator is posting tons of highlight videos from their first season of action. Bellator also took advantage of the online options available to them by posting entire episodes of their weekly show after it had aired on ESPN Deportes. Now they’re poised to capture an even bigger audience with their new TV deal(s) and the signing of former UFC star Roger Huerta.

Within the next few years I expect to see further growth from Bellator as the company is clearly heading in the right direction. They don’t appear to be going after the Zuffa empire (at least not directly) so they should remain out of Dana’s crosshairs for at least another year or two. If Bellator is able to make the transition to PPV then the game could very well change, but for now I see no reason why they can’t rise up to establish themselves as a premier alternative to the UFC.

Conlan: The only time I impersonate someone from Jamaica is on weekends and GWI is a family-friendly column so let’s move on. In terms of this topic, let me precede my prediction with a few comments about Bellator (and yes, if it feels like I’m about to break up with Bellator after telling it what a great personality it has and how I hope we can still be friends then you’re not too far off base). I have an enormous amount of respect for CEO Bjorn Rebney who I had the pleasure of meeting at one of last season’s events. He is personable, intelligent, and the primary reason Bellator has achieved the status it has in such a short amount of time. The tournament format, including the above-average pay days associated with advancement, is a thing of genius as is the promotion’s focus on drawing in fans from MMA’s relatively untapped Hispanic demographic.

Please don’t look sad, Bellator. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me, not you.

Perspective has to be kept. Two or three years is a long time for any new company to sustain itself or turn a profit in today’s economy, let alone an organization based on a sport still working towards mainstream acceptance. Even Strikeforce has struggled thus far to produce UFC-like numbers in ratings and ticket-sales with a roster of talent vastly eclipsing Bellator’s plus the backing of Showtime/CBS. Roger Huerta, who is by all accounts an outstanding human being and clearly a talented competitor, is also on a two-fight slide and hasn’t emerged victorious in a bout since December 2007 due to a long-lasting contract dispute. He adds oomph to Bellator but isn’t quite the draw he was after his awe-inspiring performance against Clay Guida at the Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale. To think Bellator will make an impact beyond being another smallish promoter putting together entertaining, intriguing match-ups every so often is little more than wishful thinking. It’s a great outlet for avid followers of MMA and will shine a positive light on the sport but an eventual “premier alternative”? I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see that as being any more likely than screw-capped wine becoming as commonly accepted as corked wine. It’s a niche market for specialists, and so while enthusiasts know there is value and can appreciate the variety, lesser educated people will keep thinking Bellator is Ripple to UFC’s Dom Perignon.

Excluding the two headlining bouts, what match-up on the UFC’s Versus card are you most looking forward to?

Tool: Those two fights are pretty exciting, but I think we’ve got a nice opener lined up in the form of James Irvin vs. Alessio Sakara. Sakara has looked much more impressive since the drop to middleweight, although he wasn’t that great at 205 so the improvements have to be viewed with respect to that. There are more than a few question marks hanging over Irvin’s head right now, what with the 20 month layoff for injuries/suspensions and this being his first time at 185. We also can’t overlook the fact that his last fight was a severe clowning at the fists of Anderson Silva.

So even though neither of these guys is staring down the barrel of contendership, I still want to see this fight. Bottom line is that these guys are all but guaranteed to tee off on one another early and often. Neither man is known for his iron chin, but both have more than their share of (T)KO finishes. It’s likely to be a great slugfest and those always make for the best openers to a live event.

Conlan: I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of Sakara, but I appreciate where Tool is coming from in regards to his recent success at middleweight as well as his interest in how Irvin will respond after the layoff and drop in weight. The bout I’m looking forward to is also on the event’s undercard and features two likeable, talented individuals at different stages in their careers – Vlad Matyushenko and Eliot Marshall.

I’ve been a fan of “The Janitor” since he first stepped into the Octagon in 2001. He has been one of the most consistent, yet underappreciated, fighters of the last ten-plus years. Matyushenko has only been finished twice in twenty-seven professional fights while racking up a nearly identical number of knockouts, submissions, and decisions in the 23 wins he has. His four career losses came to Rogerio Nogueira, Andrei Arlovski, Tito Ortiz, and Vernon White while he’s beaten the likes of Pedro Rizzo, Tim Boetsch, Yuki Kundo, and the afore-mentioned White and Nogueira as well.

Marshall, on the other hand, hasn’t really beaten anyone of note in his career but has compiled an 8-1 record in the four years he’s competed as a pro. He’s got high-level jiujitsu, an arguably underrated stand-up game, and comes out of Greg Jackson’s camp meaning he’ll be fully prepared for the challenge supplied by his veteran counterpart in the bout. Marshall’s lanky frame should provide for submission attempts from the bottom if Matyushenko is able to take him down while his reach advantage could keep Vlad at bay if used properly. All in all in provides for an interesting fight and one I’m hopeful to eventually see on the televised broadcast.

What’s your take on the Jon Jones hype? Is it deserved, is he overrated, or is it too early to tell?

Conlan: The hype surrounding “Bones” is well-deserved based not only on what he’s accomplished in the ring but also how he he’s gone about doing it. There are other young fighters with similar records but none who possess Jones’ combination of athleticism, fearlessness, and raw talent. This is a guy who won his first four professional fights in a span of time not even equating a full month, is an accomplished amateur wrestler but uses his takedowns to deliver punishment rather than hold opponents down to grind out wins, and taught himself a number of the striking techniques he’s found success with inside the cage. His only loss is essentially the result of beating a guy up too badly in that Matt Hamill, who was already a puddle on the canvas when Jones went 12-6 with his elbow, likely wouldn’t have been able to continue regardless of the strike’s legality. Jones has faced legitimate foes in all four of his UFC appearances and looked sharp against the entire lot. He’s beaten a number of veterans while having been a professional Mixed Martial Artist himself for a little less than two years. It may be too early to say he’s destined to hoist promotional gold up over his head but the buzz surrounding the 22-year old buzz-saw is absolutely justified.

Tool: I have to agree with pretty much everything Brendhan said. It’d be much easier to dismiss Jones as being “over-hyped” if his record consisted solely of wins over shoddy competition. Andre Gusmao and Jake O’Brien aren’t world beaters, but they do have a combined record of 19-5 (with two of those losses being to Jones, of course). Stephan Bonnar and Matt Hamill were supposed to represent tougher tests for Jones but he dominated both opponents handily. I have no reason to believe that he won’t lay the same type of ass-whuppin’ down on Brandon Vera this weekend, and after that I for one hope to see “Bones” stepping up to some elite competition before too much longer.

If he gets past Gabriel Gonzaga this weekend, how many more fights will Junior Dos Santos have to win before he gets a title shot?

Conlan: Were Dos Santos in a deeper division I’d say he would need to beat at least two more ranked, respected opponents after Gonzaga before getting a crack at a UFC championship but, as he isn’t, I’d wager he’ll only need to find victory once more in the Octagon before a title shot arrives on his doorstep. Knockout power goes a long way in terms of selling a fighter to the public (especially a heavyweight) and the young Brazilian has certainly shown the ability to render his adversaries unconscious or unable to intelligently defend themselves. However, with Brock Lesnar’s next opponent already lined up (Carwin/Mir) and Cain Velasquez waiting in the shadows, there’s no question Dos Santos still has some work ahead of him before earning an opportunity at gold. If he beats Gonzaga I think the UFC has two options – either slot him against Velasquez to establish a clear cut top contender or give him the loser of Carwin/Mir, then re-evaluate the title picture in six months.

Tool: I’d say Dos Santos is the biggest victim of this entire mess in the UFC’s heavyweight division. If Lesnar had been healthy enough to keep his UFC 106 date with Shane Carwin, the winner of that fight would likely be preparing to meet Cain Velasquez in the very near future. As it is though there are already at least two guys in line for title shots ahead of Dos Santos, despite the fact that he’s already put away some big name opponents. Had Cain’s win over Nogueira not been so decisive I would probably get on board the Velasquez/Dos Santos #1 contender’s bout, but as it is I think Cain has already earned his shot and should have the luxury of waiting. I don’t believe Junior will be so lucky, as he’ll likely have to accept at least one more fight before he can get a spot at the top of the list. Ironically he would then be finding himself in a situation very similar to the one Fabricio Werdum was in before “Cigano” knocked him out of the UFC.

True/False – You’re excited about DREAM 13.

Conlan: Though I’m definitely interested in a few of the match-ups, I should probably say “false” because it actually took this topic to remind me about the event’s occurrence. Perhaps my brain is overloaded due to the number of UFC events taking place over the next few weeks? Regardless, two of DREAM’s most-intriguing athletes are competing for Strikeforce in April (Aoki/Mousasi), and none of the pairings at DREAM 13 are of a “must stay up until 6:00 AM and see live” nature. Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to KJ Noons’ return to MMA and “Hellboy” Hansen giving featherweight a go against Bibiano Fernandes, as well as a few of the other names slated for the show. I enjoy the pageantry associated with Japanese productions, and I’m always happy to hear Michael Schiavello offer his unique stylings on the microphone. I’m just not particularly “excited” about the overall event.

Tool: Ah-ha! So you’re the one that’s excited about the return of KJ Noons. I knew there had to be someone out there…

I’ve got to go with “false” for this one. There are at least a few fights that I’ll try to watch online after the event but for the most part DREAM has been slowly sinking into irreverence for the last year or so. Their top stars are coming stateside to try and make a name for themselves in the U.S., and the lack of big-name talent on recent DREAM events has caused fan interest to reach an all-time low. When the company first burst onto the scene there was talk about them being the successor to PRIDE, but without those top fighters that called Japan their home for so long there’s little in common between the two companies (save for the outlandish production values and the crazy screaming announcer lady).

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