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Grappling with Issues – 4/23/10

Will Jose Aldo finish Urijah Faber in the first round? Who should Strikeforce champs Gilbert Melendez and Mo Lawal fight next? How elite is Jake Shields? Is Dan Henderson going to call it quits before 2011?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Another Friday has arrived meaning many of you are on the brink of successfully navigating another week of work or school, and once again GWI hopes to start your weekend out on the right note by providing a little insight and opinion on six topics plucked from the wide world of Mixed Martial Arts. Saturday night marks the PPV debut of World Extreme Cagefighting and a week since the latest Strikeforce offering on CBS. Both events are ripe with subject matter, so sit back, make sure your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder, and read ahead as regular partner-in-crime Adam Tool and I break down a few angles from both affairs. However, just because we staffers get the fancy set-up, please don’t feel precluded from dishing out your own thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the column…

Is Jake Shields is a “Top 5” pound-for-pound fighter?

Adam Tool: While all rankings are subjective, pound-for-pound lists are (by their very nature) the most subjective. Anyone attempting a respectable pound-for-pound ranking needs to use the fullest extent of their imagination to come up with possible solutions for impossible fights.

However this question is not hard to answer. If you’re putting together a pound-for-pound list there’s a good chance that your top five will include some combination of Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Georges St. Pierre, Lyoto Machida, and BJ Penn. You could probably slot Penn down a bit further after his recent loss, but even then there are still a few guys that deserve more consideration for that #5 position than Shields. Dan Henderson is/was a legit top ten P4P fighter so a win over him should put Shields somewhere on that list, but I can’t consider him amongst the very best in the world just yet.

Brendhan Conlan: I’m on the same page with Tool when it comes to the subjective nature of rankings which of course means I disagree with his assessment of where Shields belongs in those of the infamous pound-for-pound variety. While some combination of Silva, Emelianenko, and St. Pierre are commonly accepted as the top three Mixed Martial Artists in the world there’s room for debate below them, especially when considering Machida’s questionable decision win over Mauricio Rua at UFC 104 and Penn’s recent loss to a fighter many consider a natural featherweight. Over the past 5 ½ years, the natural 170-pounder has emerged victorious all fourteen times he’s entered the ring and hasn’t been finished by an opponent in more than a decade. That span includes wins over former WEC champion Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami on the same night, current UFC welterweight contender Paul Daley, and a string of highly respectable middleweights in Strikeforce including of course Henderson. Those accomplishments can’t be dismissed when weighed against his peers. Let’s not forget it was three years ago when GSP stumbled on his ascension to current greatness, meaning Shields has nearly doubled that time period without incurring a loss and gone more than three times as long without tasting TKO (all three of his other career defeats have come via decision). For added perspective, the one and only time the Strikeforce Middleweight Champion was rendered unable to continue came a little less than two years before St. Pierre even made his professional debut.

The Gracie trained Californian has some of the best ground control and submission grappling in the sport. His striking arguably needs improvement, but he has the ability to smother opponents while weathering whatever storm blows his way in the process, so it’s a trait he can work on while compensating for the vanilla stand-up with his other talents. He’s known for being somewhat of a wet blanket in the ring because of his wrestling prowess, but it’s worth considering that he’s finished eight of his last ten adversaries so he may be on his way towards shaking that perception. I’m not saying Shields is a lock for a consensus “Top 5”, and he absolutely needs to test his skills in the Octagon to solidify his place in the collective opinion of the MMA community, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched to consider someone with his credentials in the same class as anyone you can name outside of P4P’s Holy Triumvirate.

True/False – Dan Henderson will retire from competition before the end of 2010.

Tool: It’s hard to say for sure. We’re in a period during the growth of MMA where there are still several veterans with over a decade of experience that can still headline events. Unfortunately there always comes a moment in their career when these fighters really start to show their age (for further reference see Coleman/Rua II, Liddell/Evans, or any of the Shamrock/Ortiz fights). Saturday night was the first time I could remember Dan Henderson looking old.

I don’t know what’s next for “Hendo” but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sticking to the light heavyweight division for the remainder of his career. By all accounts the cut for this fight was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 pounds, and that’s only getting more difficult as time goes on. I say match him up with Gegard Mousasi and that should give us a better idea of where both fighters stand.

If I have to give a definitive answer to this question I would go with “false,” as I still think Henderson provides a stern challenge for anyone that signs on to fight him. If he is unable to pick up a win over the course of the next year then it may become more apparent that he needs to move on, but I’m not ready to put him out to pasture after one particularly lousy performance.

Conlan: Agreed on the “false”. Though I do think Henderson will continue fighting into 2011, in fairness I should also say I would completely understand if he hung up his gloves and I’d salute his toothless grin as he rode off into the Temecula sunset if so. He needs to focus on being a 205-pounder instead of subscribing to the young man’s game of cutting weight when it’s a process he doesn’t personally enjoy and one that didn’t do him any favors last weekend. A fight with Mousasi would give fans a chance to see a classic match-up between grizzled veteran and rising superstar, plus there’s a decent possibility the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion would be willing to stand with “Hendo” instead of repeatedly opt for takedowns a la Jake Shields. Another name worth mentioning at 205-pounds is Renato Sobral since he and Henderson went to a split decision ten years ago in the RINGS organization, not to mention “Babalu” is the only other truly marketable light heavyweight besides “King Mo” Lawal currently signed to a Strikeforce contract.

How embarrassed were you as a MMA fan to witness the in-ring melee after the Strikeforce main event?

Tool: It’s embarrassing for the sport, there’s no doubt about that. However I’m finding it hard to get too upset about it, as these sorts of things do in fact happen in pretty much every competitive sport. The timing couldn’t have been worse in this case, as Strikeforce had already murdered the casual audience with three drawn out decisions. They were already 30 minutes over their scheduled time and then they have a full-on brawl as the lead-in to the local news. Honestly, at this point, I’d be pretty surprised if CBS airs another Strikeforce event.

Conlan: On a personal level I was more embarrassed than I’ve ever been watching a MMA event and that’s saying a lot since it includes Dynamite USA and YAMMA Pit Fighting! But seriously, I was absolutely ashamed as an avid supporter of the sport when things went haywire. I thought about how certain people would feel their preexisting uninformed opinions were being confirmed right before their eyes and about how first-time viewers, let alone sponsors looking for an alternative to the UFC, would perceive Mixed Martial Arts based on the beatdown.

However, it’s always important to look for silver linings when things go bad and what happened at “Strikeforce – Nashville” certainly has a few of them worth mentioning. I was thankful no blood was involved due to the visual it would have created no matter how minor the injury, nor did the chaos spread outside of the ring as I’ve seen in other professional sports. The fracas also caused Strikeforce (and I suspect all promoters/athletic commissions) to reevaluate how in-ring security is handled and that’s a good thing as well. I’m confident Scott Coker and Tennessee’s regulatory board will discipline those involved in an appropriate fashion and we’ll all move on to the next controversy in MMA. In the end everyone left the cage on their own accord and, good or bad, the melee created some significant buzz about the event that wouldn’t have existed without it. After all, “Mayhem” Miller vs. Nick Diaz has a lot more appeal today than it did last Friday, does it not?

Maybe it’s for those reasons I’m not as concerned at this moment in time about what happened at the show even though I’m less than a week removed from my initial shock. Then again, had this been a slower news week in sports (Ben Roethlisberger’s standing, the NFL draft, NBA and NHL playoffs, etc.) and more attention plus a negative spin on the matter been plastered all over 24/7 cable news it could have easily been a different story in terms of how we’d all be handling fallout from the event.

Make your picks for the next opponents of Gilbert Melendez and “King Mo” Lawal.

Conlan: In my opinion there are quite a few options for Melendez while Lawal’s match-making potential is much more limited in nature. “El Nino” is fortunate to be competing in a division where the overall depth is dispersed throughout different promotions rather than throwing down in a class the UFC clearly has on lockdown like light heavyweight. At 155-pounds, and with the means to co-promote, Scott Coker’s group can pull someone from their own ranks or go to outside talent and put together a competitive match. If Strikeforce opts for a name already on their current roster I think a rubber match with Josh Thomson is a realistic possibility, while Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez is the top lightweight available who isn’t currently drawing a check from Zuffa. However, while both are suitable opponents, as are a handful of others like DREAM’s Tatsuya Kawajiri and their own undefeated product Billy Evangelista, I think Strikeforce is going to go a different direction. I’m actually picking KJ Noons as Melendez’s next opponent given the success he had in EliteXC, his recent victorious return to Mixed Martial Arts, and the reality he’s got both a marketable look and sellable style. Beyond that, I also think his previous history with Team Gracie’s Nick Diaz couldn’t hurt in terms of drumming up a little additional interest in the bout given Diaz’s close relationship with Melendez and almost assured presence at some point inside the cage. Obviously there can’t be a repeat of this past Saturday night or the exchange that occurred between the rival camps in Noons’ final EliteXC appearance, but that’s not to say the mere possibility of one wouldn’t cause a few extra eyes to focus on the actual event.

Unfortunately, as many names as I can toy with for a shot at the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship, when it comes to Lawal the “mo” in his name doesn’t apply to the number of viable opponents outside of the Octagon ready to challenge him for the crown in a believable fashion. Dan Henderson is probably the most likely candidate for the job, but it’s hard to give him a vote of confidence after the wrestling the new 205-pound champ exhibited against Gegard Mousasi and the ease in which Jake Shields was able to take “Hendo” down. Renato Sobral is a possibility but he hasn’t fought since being TKO’d in a minute by Mousasi eight months ago. I’m actually going to go out on a limb here and say Lawal’s next fight is going to be at heavyweight while Strikeforce sorts out an actual #1 Contender for him. And, to be quite honest, if such is the case I think there’s only one man who is in a perfect position to serve as an extremely intriguing match-up – Fedor Emelianenko. The dynamic, doughy Russian is relatively small for his division so I don’t think size difference would play much of a factor and he’s also not in line for a heavyweight title shot due to the uncertain nature of his contract status or future in Strikeforce. Why not capitalize on 7-0 Mo’s momentum and athleticism to see if he can deliver Fedor’s first definitive loss in MMA while under the Strikeforce banner? Their personalities couldn’t be any more opposite in terms of Lawal’s showmanship vs. Emelianenko’s stoicism, and I think the contrast would be an excellent angle for use in hyping the eventual fight.

Tool: As far as Melendez goes, it should be obvious that Eddie Alvarez is the opponent that makes the most sense. Stylistically the two match up well, and at the moment I don’t think anybody would argue that these are the two best lightweight fighters not in the UFC. The fight won’t be easy to make, as Alvarez is already committed to at least two more fights for Bellator. The only other option I can see that would be possible to do in the near future is a bout with Tatsuya Kawajiri. “Crusher” went undefeated last year and is now the de-facto premier lightweight in Japan. Although Melendez already holds a win over Kawajiri I think it’s still an intriguing match-up, and one that would practically guarantee some exciting action.

As Brendhan mentioned, it’s much tougher to come up with worthwhile opponents for “King Mo.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see Henderson in there, as despite his performance last weekend he’s still easily one of the biggest stars under the Strikeforce banner. A match-up with Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou could be fun, but I don’t think they could justify that as a title fight. I suppose they could try and bring Paulo Filho in, but at this stage in his career the only appointments he seems to keep are the ones that involve getting new tattoos. I hadn’t even considered the option of doing a heavyweight bout with Fedor, but I say why the hell not?

BUY/SELL – Jose Aldo will add another first-round finish to his record when he faces Urijah Faber on Saturday.

Conlan: Sell. I think Aldo will retain his title against Faber but I’m not subscribing to the notion a finish will come in the first five minutes of action. “The California Kid” has certainly been knocked loopy before, but he’s also intelligent enough to recognize Aldo is a dangerous striker and shouldn’t be looking to engage him in a toe-to-toe war. I imagine Faber will use his speed and strength to latch onto Aldo and drag him down to the mat in hopes of prolonging the bout and testing the Brazilian blue-chipper’s cardio. Though Aldo has been a human highlight reel over the past year, in reality he’s gone to the second round or further as many times in the WEC as he’s wiped the canvas with an opponent in opening stanza. Mike Brown didn’t fall until after the fight’s first frame had concluded and neither should the faster Faber.

Tool: I’ll say buy, just for the sake of being a contrarian. Faber has lost a lot of his luster as a result of the back-to-back losses to Brown, meanwhile Aldo has been red-hot and running through opponents with ease. While he didn’t finish off Brown in the first round of their fight, he was close enough as the bout ended early in the second. It’s possible that Aldo will look to play things more conservatively in the biggest fight of his career, but I would hope that he sticks with what got him there. If he comes out aggressive there’s a good chance that he’ll crack Faber’s infamous chin (infamous for its appearance, rather than its weakness) and pounce quickly. In any case I don’t see this fight making it to the championship rounds.

Which result is more likely for the WEC Lightweight Championship fight: Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone have a five-round war that matches or eclipses their first meeting, or the bout ends in the first ten minutes via (T)KO or submission?

Conlan: I see their rematch also going the distance based on the comparable talent each displayed in the first encounter, as well as the fact in twenty-five combined bouts only Henderson has ever been finished (a TKO in his second pro fight more than three years ago). Neither knows the meaning of the word quit and both have good enough cardio to stay spry for five rounds or at least tread water long enough to avoid making a fight-ending mistake. They’re solid strikers but neither is known for packing ether in their gloves, while each excels when it comes to ground-fighting, so in a lot of ways they cancel each others’ skills out. In a lot of ways they combine to make a recipe for decision, and there’s definitely nothing about the match-up I see indicating it should end at some point in the first two rounds.

Tool: I would love to see these two go at it for 25 minutes again, but something in the back of my mind is telling me that it won’t be so. Occasionally when thinking about an upcoming fight I’ll see it play out a certain way in my head, and then I can’t really imagine any other result. For this one I’m thinking that Henderson gets the takedown, and then Cerrone is once again able to lock in a submission attempt on Henderson. Only this time it’s some sort of choke that “Bendo” can’t get out of, and instead of tapping he gets put to sleep. Donald Cerrone is the new WEC Lightweight Champion, and he is awarded his belt while Henderson is still being brought around to consciousness. This sets up the long-awaited rematch with Jamie Varner, and a potential rubber match between the “Cowboy” and the “Smooth” one.

Truth be told I’m really not sure who’s going to win this one. Both fighters are as tough as they come and still getting better every time they step into the cage. Henderson could certainly retain the belt in his first defense but if that happens I do believe it’ll be by decision. Cerrone is all but impossible to put away, and if Henderson is able to do so it’ll just add even more momentum to his reign as champion.

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