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Grappling with Issues – 4/9/10

Is Frank Edgar more likely to pull off an upset this weekend over BJ Penn than Demian Maia is over Anderson Silva? Can either contender go a full five rounds against their opposition? Are you more excited than you previously were for the newest season of TUF now that a few episodes have aired? Should Roy Nelson serve as the welcoming committee in James Toney’s eventual UFC debut?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Another Friday has arrived and GWI’s engines are officially revving for UFC 112 to unfold from the Ferrari World Concert Arena in Abu Dhabi! What some may see as a lack of competitive match-ups at the event should certainly be made up for by the spectacle of the UFC’s Middle Eastern debut in the lavish, open-air venue, as well as the performances of pound-for-pound royalty Penn and Silva. Per usual, Adam Tool will be joining me to discuss six subjects plucked from the MMA landscape. 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…

In comparison to last week, on a scale from 1 to 10, how excited are you for the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter now that you’ve seen the first episode?

Adam Tool: Having now watched the first episode I’d be willing to bump my excitement level up to an 8, as the talent pool for this tournament looks pretty solid. I think it’s fair to say that we saw far better fights in just that first episode then what we saw during the entire tenth season. The return of the elimination round makes me wonder just how the last season would have turned out had the fighters been forced to win their way into the house. I still can’t stand Tito but with each passing day it appears more and more likely that he’ll be departing at some point during the season so Rich Franklin can step in, and I’m cool with that.

Oh, and somebody breaks a door this season…so that’s new.

Brendhan Conlan: I’d register my interest level at a full point higher than it was last week prior to having seen the first episode (meaning “7.5”). I agree the cast appears to be one of the more talented TUF collections in recent history, as the final sixteen fighters feature a nice mix of semi-polished veterans and young guns with impressive raw skills. The group has also shown a good deal of personality thus far, and there are already a number of storylines ready to develop ranging from whether or not Clayton McKinney will break under Tito’s tutelage, seeing if Jamie Yager will silence others with head-kicks or have his own mouth forcibly shut, rooting for Kyle Noke in honor of “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, and of course the coaches’ rivalry. Plus, after witnessing the variety of knockouts, submissions, and facial carnage dished out during the elimination round I’m also on board with Tool’s comparison of quality to the whole of Season Kimbo 10.

I also want to add that not only have I again been drawn into Ortiz’s leadership as team head, but I’ve enjoyed watching Chuck Liddell in front of the Ultimate Fighter cameras in contrast to how he does when put in interview/public relations situations. “The Iceman” is clearly much more relaxed while training fighters than hyping his upcoming bouts or attempting to deliver witty soundbytes on a talk show. His personal investment in the development of his squad, even if partially influenced by his dislike of “The Huntington Beach Not-as-Bad-as-He-Used-to-Be Boy”, is as equally obvious as his increased comfort and has actually sparked my interest in Liddell beyond his accomplishments inside the Octagon.

Which of the two title fights at UFC 112 is most likely to go the distance?

Tool: Given the fact that Anderson Silva and Demian Maia have each only had one UFC bout go to the judges, I’ll go with the lightweight championship fight on this one. Silva is probably going to knock Maia out, or Maia is going to somehow submit the champ. I don’t see that fight being closely contested on the feet, nor do I anticipate any sort of “human chess” should the bout go to the ground.

BJ Penn can still put opponents away pretty consistently, but his last few fights have gone into the championship rounds. His opponent, Frankie Edgar, is notoriously difficult to finish (go back and watch the Tyson Griffin fight if you don’t believe me) and has only lost once in his career. I envision this fight being contested primarily on the feet, and while Penn would have to have the edge in striking I think Edgar has developed his game to the point where he can hang with the champ. I still like Penn to win, but I think Edgar could keep it competitive and last the full 25 minutes.

Conlan: I think this will boil down to each challenger’s willingness to engage and as such I think Maia has a better chance of going the full five rounds than Edgar (even if it’s a slim one). The submission specialist almost certainly knows his best chance of winning is on the ground and shouldn’t be attempting to do more than work his jab and defend while standing. If, like Thales Leites, he has to pull guard twenty times and illicit the crowd’s disapproval for doing so then it’s a necessary evil he needs to explore in hopes of defeating “The Spider”. Likewise, Silva is an intelligent fighter and isn’t going to carelessly force himself into situations where he can be exposed. He’ll wait for every opportunity to present itself, even if it means outpointing Maia rather than rendering him unconscious.

As far as Edgar, who isn’t even a clearly established number one contender to begin with, do you know who else was difficult to finish? Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Sean Sherk. The three of them had a total of two losses via TKO/submission in more than seventy combined fights prior to their collective dates with BJ Penn. Edgar’s primary strengths are wrestling and boxing. Unfortunately for him Penn is remarkably tricky to take down, insanely good off his back, and has shown himself to be one of the best technical boxers in Mixed Martial Arts. It’s a recipe for disaster, not twenty-five minutes.

If Anderson Silva retains his middleweight belt against Demian Maia, and if “Shogun” Rua defeats Lyoto Machida next month at UFC 113, should “The Spider” be given an immediate shot at the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship?

Tool: Yes, but only if he wants it. I don’t know how much I like the idea of Silva potentially holding two belts in the UFC, but if he thinks he’s good enough to hold a spot at the top of two divisions then why not? I don’t believe that he would get an immediate shot at the belt though, as I would have to believe that the winner of Rashad Evans/”Rampage” Jackson will get that honor. Furthermore I wouldn’t be surprised to see Silva turn a title shot down and defer to his friends Lyoto Machida and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. In any case there are still a few challenges left for him at middleweight (guys like Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort), so if he chooses to keep his focus there it would probably be best for everyone.

Conlan: No, even in that scenario Silva shouldn’t sniff the light heavyweight title until he at least beats one more legitimate 205-pound contender like the loser of “Rampage” Jackson vs. Rashad Evans (as I suspect the winner will be next in line for a crack at the belt). His accomplishments at middleweight should definitely be taken into consideration, and his dismantling of former LHW champion Forrest Griffin was awe-inspiring, but there are too many quality fighters in the division to risk the strap on a part-timer unless he’s the only interesting option left. Silva has even expressed interest in testing himself at heavyweight. What’s the point of having a champion who requires the layoff it takes to jump between weight classes or defend two titles? And, as Tool said, there are still intriguing match-ups for the Brazilian at 185-pounds like Sonnen, Belfort, or even Wanderlei Silva and Alan Belcher.

Both of this weekend’s title challengers are heavy underdogs. Which fighter do you think has a better chance of pulling off the upset?

Conlan: My impression on the matter is that neither contender has a legitimate chance of bringing home a win without scoring a lightning-fast finish at some point in the fight. The odds of Maia/Edgar winning a decision or manhandling either champion en route to victory appear akin to those of Dana White growing his hair back out due to the pound-for-pound potency of Silva/Penn. However, combat sports have long taught the lesson any individual can defeat any other at any given time. It takes one perfectly placed strike to render an opponent unconscious, one masterful series on the mat to procure a devastating submission, and one mistake regardless of any gap in overall ability to open the door of opportunity for either to take place.

For this reason, between the two challengers, I think Maia has a better chance of bringing both heartbreak and elation to anyone laying down coin by doing the unthinkable and walking away with promotional gold. The quality of his technique on the ground goes without saying while Silva has twice been tapped in his career by opponents with less-than notable submission credentials. I have no doubt “The Spider” has vastly improved his jiujitsu since then, but in no way does that guarantee he’ll be able to successfully navigate the web Maia can create on the canvas if action ends up there at any point in the bout. On the other hand, I don’t see any particular advantage for Edgar in his respective pairing so I can’t pick him over Maia as having the most potential for dropping our jaws this weekend.

Tool: When I first thought about this question I came to a similar conclusion, as I’m sure most of you did. The only real weakness Silva has shown in the past has been his submission defense, and he’s facing one of the most dangerous submission specialists in the game. I’m pretty sure that Silva will put it on Maia quickly, but if this fight heads to the ground I’ll be watching from the edge of my seat.

That being said, I think it may be Edgar that is better poised to deliver the upset. Consider the improvements made in his striking ever since the loss to Gray Maynard. Is it possible that Edgar could keep things competitive on the feet? I think so. I know BJ’s boxing is (arguably) the best in the division, but if he can’t land any big shots then Edgar could keep it close. Penn has some legendary takedown defense, but with some relentless effort (and maybe a trip or two) Edgar could potentially take him down. Even if BJ gets back to his feet after a few seconds it would still be enough for Frank to steal a close round. We can also give some consideration to the fact that Penn isn’t 100% focused on this defense, as he has said virtually nothing about his opponent leading up to this fight and a lot of his talk seems to be about moving up to the welterweight division. If Edgar can put together the best performance of his life and catch Penn at the right time, it’s feasible to think that “The Answer” could come home with a narrow decision win over “The Prodigy.”

Aside from the two title fights which bout are you looking forward to the most at UFC 112?

Conlan: I’m sure the obvious answer for many relates to the showdown between legends of the sport Renzo Gracie and Matt Hughes, but in reality neither has been considerably relevant in the last few years or looks to be again at any point in the future. Gracie has been out of action for more than three years, and Hughes will become the third opponent out of the last four he’s faced who has been over the age of 35. Comparably, the iconic former UFC Welterweight Champion hasn’t been inside the Octagon for close to a year or finished an opponent since September 2006. The name value involved is nice, and it’s an appropriate way to honor the event’s host nation, but it’s definitely not a match-up I’ll be sitting on the edge of my couch for.

However, a result I am looking forward to finding out is that of Nick Osipczak vs. Rick Story. Both 25-year olds have shown talent, heart, and personality during their brief stints in the UFC and appear to have a great deal of potential for success in MMA. Osipczak is undefeated and, at 6’1, tall for a welterweight, while Story still seems a bit raw but has picked up some nice wins in two-and-a-half year career and reminds me a bit of Clay Guida minus the mane (good grappler, high motor, not afraid to bang). I’m not confident their undercard bout will make the televised broadcast but I’m certainly hopefully of such being the case. On a side note, I’m also extremely curious to see whose “0” goes between Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson, but I’m sticking with Story and Osipczak since I’m interested in watching both of their careers develop and find myself less invested on what happens to Gustafsson on Saturday night.

Tool: The bout between Davis and Gustafsson has my interest as well, and is my pick for the fight I most hope makes it onto the PPV broadcast. Davis has some tremendous strength and unstoppable takedowns, but I’m curious to see how he deals with a fighter that has knockout power and a solid jiu-jitsu game.

In terms of the PPV card I really want to see what happens with the Mark Munoz/Kendall Grove bout. Grove has been hot and cold throughout his UFC career but he has won his last 3 out of 4, and he looked particularly impressive in his 90 second destruction of Jason Day last March. I’m slowly becoming a big fan of Munoz, as he has been an absolute beast since making the drop down to middleweight. He’s also been training hard with some of the best fighters in the world at Black House, and it’s easy to see the improvements he’s made in his striking. This fight may not have immediate implications in the middleweight title picture, but it could very well be the catalyst for one of these fighters to move up to the next level.

Even though it was brought up as a joke, how would you feel about Roy Nelson being the fighter to welcome James Toney to the UFC?

Conlan: I’m all for it, though I’m unsure an athletic commission would ever approve the bout given the vast difference in Mixed Martial Arts experience involved.

Toney doesn’t have the same mainstream credibility he once did so it isn’t as though his name is going to draw the numbers a currently relevant boxer would if crossing over to MMA. As such, putting him in the Octagon against Roy Nelson would spice up the involved marketing aspect due to Nelson’s success in the sport and label as TUF 10 Season Champion. The bout’s result would also be win/win for the UFC. A win for Nelson, whether by tummy-crucifix-based ground-and-pound or an easily found submission, would act as evidence of why boxers should avoid Mixed Martial Arts without serious training beforehand. A win for Toney, obviously of the knockout variety, would give the UFC a new “star” to promote and knock Nelson down a few pegs to the delight of those – perhaps even the ones upstairs at Zuffa – who dislike the Buddha-bellied fighter’s physique.

Tool: I’m trying to get excited about James Toney’s UFC debut, I really am. There’s been no indication from the Zuffa brass about who he’ll face, so why the hell not Roy Nelson? If anything it gives Toney an advantage, since he’s practically guaranteed to be the fighter with the more impressive physical appearance.

Nelson’s no dummy, and I don’t think he would want to stand and exchange with a former boxing champion wearing four-ounce gloves. “Big Country” would get the takedown, lock in his new finishing move (the “gutoplata”), and it would be all over for James Toney in MMA. Sounds good to me.

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