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Grappling with Issues – 4/16/10

Should Anderson Silva take more risks to become a better champion? Does BJ Penn deserve an immediate rematch? Should Frank Edgar be ranked as the #1 lightweight? Which title fight at this weekend’s Strikeforce has you most excited? Does Jake Shields need to go to the UFC?

UFC 112 is over, Strikeforce: Nashville is this weekend, and we’ve got issues that need grappling with. As always, esteemed colleagues Adam Tool and Brendhan Conlan have plenty to say about the hot topics of the week. Each will have their say, and then it’s your turn to sound off in the comment box below.

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

Would Anderson Silva be a BETTER champion/fighter if he lost taking unnecessary risks to please fans/management rather than taking a more intelligent, less aesthetically pleasing approach to opponents?

Adam Tool: The only thing that makes Anderson Silva a better champion is defending his belt and winning fights. That’s his job. Yes the sport of MMA serves as entertainment for the millions of fans that watch it, but no mixed-martial artist is going to list “entertainer” on their resume (well, Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Akihiro Gono might). The excessive showboating in the first half of the Silva/Maia fight coupled with the complete lack of action in the second half left everyone with a bad taste in their mouth, but we can’t pretend to know what was going on in Silva’s head. The win may not have gotten him any new fans, but Silva did the job he was supposed to do: win the fight.

When there’s a fighter like Silva, who breathes such rarified air in the MMA world, people have a different set of expectations for how he should perform. He didn’t meet those expectations, and as a consumer you have the right to be dissatisfied with his performance. The fact remains though that this is a sport, and these athletes are going to do whatever they can (within the defined rules of engagement) to win.

Brendhan Conlan: I am surprised by Tool’s response but in a good way, because I completely agree with his viewpoint and felt I was probably one of the only folks in MMAville who hadn’t already sharpened his pitchfork in response to Silva’s antics against Demian Maia. As such, I’m prepared for the comment section to be riddled with posts from people with torch-in-hand, but it would be dishonest of me to wag my finger at “The Spider” for his behavior because I truly wasn’t upset by it. The overwhelming vibe I got in the aftermath of UFC 112 was people being okay with his showboating as long as it results in a finish (Forrest Griffin, Rich Franklin II) but feeling it is horribly disrespectful if not (Maia, Thales Leites, and to an extent Patrick Cote). It’s a hypocrisy I refuse to subscribe to, and furthermore I don’t think any Mixed Martial Artist needs to perform up to any standards beyond the ones he sets for himself.

I understand people feel like Silva owes them something. Yes, a small percentage of the money we fork out for events makes its way into his pockets. However, in reality the UFC benefits from the fans’ patronage to a far greater extent than any fighter, and while our business gives athletes a larger platform to perform on it is still the individual fighter at risk in the ring, i.e. our money being at stake pales in comparison to their actual health or even consciousness being on the line. Why should Silva press the issue of a finish if Maia, who realistically didn’t deserve the opportunity to begin with, refused to throw the same caution to the wind? The champion certainly has more to lose than the challenger, does he not? And would people have been heaping praise on him had he unnecessarily charged in, got caught in guard, and then ultimately submitted? He shouldn’t have, he does, and there would have been a huge uproar about Anderson’s susceptibility on the ground instead of supposed cockiness or lack of interest in fighting. I’d rather he just keeps being other-worldly in the Octagon, not change things up to satisfy others’ wishes.

Should BJ Penn get an immediate rematch with Frank Edgar after such a close fight and semi-questionable decision?

Tool: This past weekend there was a fight that was closely contested, and when the judges’ scores were read some people disagreed with the verdict. I know, this sort of crazy thing never happens in MMA, but I think we can all somehow move on past this.

Last week when everyone was still making predictions for how UFC 112 would go down, nobody was giving Edgar the slightest chance to pull off the upset. Okay there was one guy, but his opinions don’t really matter. Since Edgar wasn’t able to win in thoroughly convincing fashion, it seems that a lot of people want to see him do it again before they can get behind the idea of him as champion. For some reason Zuffa has this thing where if a fighter scores a major upset they have to do it again in order to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. They did it to Matt Serra, they did it to Mike Brown, and they could do it again to Frank Edgar.

You may disagree with the decision but even if you could make the most convincing argument for Penn getting an immediate rematch, I believe there’s a more convincing argument to be made for Gray Maynard getting the first shot at Edgar’s title. Maynard was already in consideration before Edgar got the nod, so it’s not as though he isn’t a legitimate contender. The storyline is already built in with Edgar’s lone career loss coming against Maynard, and both fighters have stated that it’s the match-up they want. Edgar vs. Maynard II may not be the most appealing fight to headline a PPV, but it’s the right fight to make. Have Penn take on another upper-level fighter and give him the next shot if he wins, but for now let’s enjoy the fact that a once-stagnant division has now been blown wide open.

Conlan: I didn’t think the decision was horrific (certain scoring aside) because Edgar buzzed around Penn like a gnat the entire time, scored a few takedowns, and dished out fairly similar damage to what he received. However, I would still like to see Penn get an immediate rematch, and I think it’s short-sighted to say the only reason the UFC would book it is simply because the result of their first pairing was considered an “upset”.

For starters, the fight makes sense for competitive reasons. The first bout was closely contested throughout all five rounds and it’s hard to say either man definitively won in the allotted time period. A lot of people would argue a champion needs to be beaten convincingly in order to lose and that simply didn’t happen. Even the actual per-round statistics back up the case for a questioning the judges’ decision to award Edgar the UFC Lightweight Championship. Also, though talk about humidity and illness feel a little like excuses from Penn’s camp after a loss, Hilo’s favorite son definitely didn’t appear to be the same Mixed Martial Artist who’d shown up so many times before at 155-pounds so I think there’s something to be said about what condition he showed up in regardless of reasoning.

Beyond the in-ring aspect detailed above, the rematch also makes sense for business reasons. Penn is one of the biggest draws in MMA and easily the UFC’s top name at lightweight. Essentially, Penn vs. Edgar II headlines a PPV while Maynard vs. Edgar II plays second-fiddle to a bigger match-up. Gray is an exceptional wrestler with solid boxing, but he hasn’t exactly set the world ablaze with his style by winning six in a row via decision. Penn, on the other hand, hadn’t seen scorecards in the four years prior to UFC 112. There’s nothing wrong with fighting smart, and “The Bully” has compiled a very nice record in the UFC, but in terms of marketability there will always be an emphasis on promoting guys with a propensity for finishing fights.

Which of the three Strikeforce title fights are you most looking forward to?

Tool: This one isn’t hard for me to answer. All three title fights have some level of intrigue to them, but the light heavyweight bout is the one I’ll be paying most attention to. Both Gegard Mousasi and “King Mo” Lawal have a large amount of hype behind them, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Mousasi is a lethal striker with a huge advantage in experience, while Lawal is a powerhouse wrestler facing the biggest test of his career. It’s easy to pick Mousasi to win because that’s the safe bet, but at the same time we still don’t really know exactly how good “King Mo” is. There are plenty of questions hanging over either man’s head and I’m very much looking forward to getting some answers on Saturday night.

Conlan: I think Mousasi vs. Lawal is the toughest bout to pick regardless of the vast difference in both their experience and overall technical ability, so I can see why Tool is excited about either seeing the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion continue his ascension to greatness or watching “King Mo” finally sit atop a promotional throne when they throw down tomorrow night. However, I’m more geeked about Gilbert Melendez locking horns with Shinya Aoki in hopes of shaking up the lightweight rankings yet again as they were last weekend at UFC 112. It’s nice to finally see Aoki in action before 4:00 AM Central Standard Time courtesy of his American debut at the show, and I’m optimistic it won’t be the last time his colorful personality and choice of attire are seen by a live audience outside of Japan. The clash between Melendez’s wrestling/striking style and Aoki’s wizardry on the ground should play out nicely, and though I personally think “El Nino” will use his power to either TKO or grind out a win, it won’t be surprising to see him tapped out for the first time in his career because Shinya is so supremely talented when things hit the mat. It’s that sort of parity, as well as the promotional flag attached to each in this DREAM vs. Strikeforce showdown, that has me anticipating this particular championship fight more so than either of its counterparts on the card.

Which option appeals most to you for Anderson Silva’s next fight: defending his title against Vitor Belfort or Chael Sonnen, taking a showcase fight at light heavyweight, or dropping down to 170 for a super-fight with Georges St. Pierre?

Conlan: Even though it has since been announced Silva is set to face Sonnen at an upcoming event, the question posed asks which of those scenarios I find to be the most appealing one, and as such I would have preferred to see “The Spider” take on a top level light heavyweight rather than defend his middleweight championship against another opponent with questionable contendership credentials. Sonnen’s trio of victories since losing to Demian Maia at UFC 95 featured impressive grappling and ground control on his part but nothing to merit any real confidence in his ability to compete against Silva. The UFC is risking another five-round, pick-and-pepper fest by throwing Anderson in the ring with yet one more adversary needing to get inside, and to the mat, to do any significant damage rather than someone who is both comfortable and a threat in the striking department. Then again, perhaps the UFC’s point in making the match is to do just that and see how Silva responds since he’s apparently at risk of release if he behaves similarly to how he has in the past when unimpressed by what an opponent brings to the cage.

Rather, I would have preferred to see the enigmatic Brazilian face a 205-pounder who can press for a finish while standing, is athletic enough to match Silva’s speed, and has enough of a grappling base to make things interesting on the ground if necessary. Two names fitting that bill are Jon Jones and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (assuming Lyoto Machida retains his title at UFC 113). I also think Quinton Jackson’s concrete jaw, aggressive nature, and powerful striking would be an interesting test for the UFC Middleweight Champion, but ultimately I think “Rampage” might be a little too slow to avoid a forcible nap at the hands, feet, knees, and elbows of Silva.

Tool: There’s no shortage of interesting fights waiting for Silva at 205, and any one of the fights mentioned by Brendhan would be appealing. I also wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of Silva moving even further up, as he’s expressed an interest in doing exactly that. Frank Mir has already stated that he’s willing to fight “The Spider” at a catchweight of 235, and there’s little to no chance that the resulting fight would possibly be labeled “boring.” I also don’t want to see Dana White giving up on the idea of a Silva/GSP super-fight, as that bout needs to happen at some point sooner or later.

At the end of the day I’m pleased to see Silva stepping up to another title defense, although I’m not exactly pleased with the opponent. It is truly a sad day in mixed-martial arts when people are looking to Chael Sonnen to deliver an exciting fight. While Sonnen may have earned his spot in the contender’s list, the more appealing bout at this point has to be Silva vs. Belfort. Don’t bother filling the comment box with statements on how Belfort hasn’t earned his shot, as the fact of the matter is that he should have fought Silva this past Saturday. Had the fight gone down as originally intended the story of UFC 112 would have played out much differently. You want Anderson Silva to have an exciting fight? Put him in with an aggressive striker that won’t get scared when the cage door closes, then sit back and watch the fireworks.

Buy/Sell – Regardless of whether he wins or loses on Saturday, Jake Shields needs to leave Strikeforce for the UFC.

Conlan: Definitely a “buy”. And, as it turns out, Dan Henderson is actually the perfect opponent to help facilitate the transition between organizations. There’s no shame in losing to someone with Henderson’s credentials, and if such takes place it might remind Shields he seems to be best served by fighting at 170-pounds instead of against larger guys. The UFC’s roster of welterweights far eclipses that of Strikeforce so it’s naturally the place he should want to solidify his legacy in. On the other hand, if Shields beats “Hendo” he’ll have earned a win over a highly respected veteran with roots in the UFC and who recently had a less-than amicable falling out with the company. I’m confident a few Zuffa representatives with upstairs offices will be tuning in Saturday night, and if they like what they see they may try harder than ever to sign the Californian in hopes of finding a marketable threat to Georges St. Pierre’s welterweight championship. Shields is the only 170-pound gunslinger for hire who hasn’t tested his skills inside the Octagon with a list of past accomplishments impressive enough to make people believe he actually has a chance to dethrone GSP. I appreciate the credibility Shields has lent to Strikeforce with his name, as well as the publicity they’ve given him in the process, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no question it’s time for the vegetarian fighter to finally head towards greener pastures.

Tool: I can’t go with anything else but “buy” here as well. Let’s say Shields does manage to upset Henderson, then what? Does he continue defending a title outside of his natural weight class? Does anybody want to see Shields vs. Smith? He can’t go after the Strikeforce Welterweight Championship, as that currently resides around the waist of his good friend Nick Diaz.

It makes far too much sense for Shields to go to the UFC. For one, the UFC could always use more high-level welterweights that they can get who aren’t members of American Kickboxing Academy. I think he would match up well with a lot of the premier fighters in the division, as his mix of wrestling and jiu-jitsu could provide a stern challenge for just about anyone he faces. If Shields signed with Zuffa in the near future I’d love to see him matched up with the winner of Paulo Thiago vs. Martin Kampmann, or you could throw him right into the deep end and match him up with the winner of Jon Fitch vs. Thiago Alves. Let’s not forget his recent victory over surging UFC contender Paul Daley either.

The biggest factor though is the way that Shields has made it very clear that he wants a fight with St. Pierre. This always seemed like posturing before, but now things are actually in motion to make that happen. Should Shields join the UFC and get a top-level opponent right away, he could conceivably be fighting for the title after one or two wins. Obviously this benefits the UFC, as they’re desperate for any and all credible challengers to St. Pierre’s seemingly endless reign of dominance.

Do you believe that Frank Edgar deserves to be ranked as the #1 lightweight in the world, or should that honor go to the winner of this weekend’s Aoki/Melendez fight?

Conlan I think a case can be made for Shinya Aoki if he beats Melendez, as he hasn’t been defeated at lightweight since being knocked out by Joachim Hansen in July 2008 and even that loss came in Aoki’s second fight of the night (his first was a hard fought decision over Caol Uno). Melendez also hasn’t tasted defeat at 155-pounds since mid-2008 but has only racked up three wins since last losing in comparison to Aoki’s six over that same span of time.

As far as Edgar goes, he clearly deserves a place towards the top of the rankings after coming away with a win against BJ Penn, but it’s hard to put him on the peak of the 155-pound mountain when it could be argued Penn didn’t appear to be at his best in the bout and still should have arguably won the fight. Additionally, Edgar has shown an inability to finish his opposition and looked relatively poor in his loss to Gray Maynard (mid-2008 as chance would have it).

Aoki is consistently a threat to end in-ring action before letting the likes of Douglas Crosby or Cecil Peoples influence a bout’s outcome, and, if he adds Melendez to a group of fallen foes already including fighters like Uno, Hansen, JZ Calvancante, Eddie Alvarez, “Shaolin” Ribeiro, he deserves consideration as the top lightweight in Mixed Martial Arts.

Tool: Say what you will about Penn’s performance this past weekend and the scoring controversy that came about as a result, to me this question was answered by Edgar in his post-fight interview. “BJ Penn is the best lightweight in the world, and I just beat him.” On that basis (along with Edgar’s other notable wins) I see no reason why he doesn’t deserve the top spot in the lightweight rankings. His spot at #1 is much more tenuous than Penn’s, as Edgar has not achieved the same level of dominance in the division as the now former champ did. However until someone beats him I believe it is the right decision to place Edgar at the top.

As for Aoki, I’m already skeptical of him being the #2 guy in the division. He’s been impressive (for the most part) but he hasn’t faced the level of competition to merit such a high placement. Truth be told, there are at least five UFC lightweights that I would pick to win in a hypothetical bout with Aoki. I reserve the right to change my tune if Aoki can pull off an impressive win over a top 10 opponent (something he has the opportunity to do this weekend) but for now I can’t justify having him at the very top.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Melendez and will be firmly rooting for him to successfully defend his Strikeforce Lightweight Championship this weekend. However, much like Aoki, Melendez has not faced enough members of the lightweight elite to warrant a spot at #1. Give him time and he may find himself in the upper echelon, but for now he’ll have to be content with the (possible) title of the best lightweight outside of the UFC.

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