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Grappling with Issues 6/4/10

Is Michael Bisping destined for a title shot? What side of the love/hate debate are you on in regards to Rashad Evans‘ performance against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson? Should fans write off Joachim Hansen on the heels of three straight losses? Was Diego Sanchez‘s return to welterweight a mistake?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

If you’re reading these lines you’ve made it through another work-week and are back in the friendly digital confines of “Grappling with Issues”, our site’s resident Friday feature highlighting insight and opinion from Adam Tool and myself on six subjects plucked from the Mixed Martial Arts 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…

After picking up his third consecutive loss is it safe to say the ship has sailed on Joachim Hansen as a lightweight/featherweight star?

Adam Tool: Absolutely. Hansen has been on a fairly steady decline since 2005, as almost all of his best wins came prior to that. He had only regained status in the lightweight top 10 after his win over Shinya Aoki, but that was followed by his second loss to Aoki. We also now have the added hindsight to realize that Aoki isn’t quite as good as everybody thought he was, so Hansen’s victory loses even more luster.

Hansen hasn’t won since that upset over Aoki in the DREAM Lightweight GP Finals, and unless he can turn the tide quickly and string together a few wins his days of being ranked are essentially over. He’s still a dangerous veteran of the sport that can provide a stern challenge for up-and-coming fighters, but I’d be surprised to see him holding gold in a major organization ever again.

Brendhan Conlan: I disagree with Tool though acknowledge his argument is based on undeniable facts. Where my opinion parts ways with his lies in the interpretation of the word “star”. Hansen has done enough in MMA to have solidified his spot as a veteran worth watching regardless of card or opponent. His three-fight slide is cause for concern to an extent but it’s also important to maintain perspective.

Examine the losses in question for a second. “Hellboy” was knocked out by an opponent known to successfully throw leather (Hiroyuki Takaya), out-pointed in his featherweight debut by a guy whose only losses are to Urijah Faber and “Kid” Yamamoto (Bibiano Fernandes), and submitted at the last second by one of the sport’s top jiujitsu practitioners (Shinya Aoki). He wasn’t out-classed by vastly inferior competition; he hasn’t been victim to a striker’s submission or BJJer’s brawling. The Norwegian nightmare is freshly 31, so he’s not over the hill by any means, and remains a threat regardless of a fight’s action taking place while standing or on the mat. He’s beaten a number of top lightweights throughout his career, has a unique look separating him from the pack, and brings an exciting style into the ring with him on every occasion. While those characteristics may not serve as the definition of a someone destined for “holding gold in a major organization” they do work for me in terms of summing up Hansen as being a “star” in MMA.

True/False – Diego Sanchez needs to go back to lightweight and stay there.

Tool: I’ve got to go with True, although I hate trying to make judgments about what weight class a fighter should be at. Each person knows their own body better than anyone else. If Diego had troubles cutting in his three bouts at lightweight than maybe it is in his best interest to work on adding mass and sticking around at welterweight. Without knowing him personally there’s no way for me to give a definitive right/wrong answer to the question.

That being said, Sanchez looked positively tiny compared to John Hathaway. Granted, Hathaway is 6’1” but he’s still not the tallest guy in the division. The UFC’s welterweight division is defined by its powerhouse wrestlers, and is there any reason to think that Sanchez could hang with the top guys in the division? I don’t think so.

There are still plenty of intriguing match-ups for Sanchez at 155. First and foremost, Kenny Florian deserves a rematch. Florian is almost unrecognizable compared to the fighter that Sanchez steamrolled to win the first Ultimate Fighter title, and at this point in their careers it makes sense for them to hook up again. On top of that, at the moment BJ Penn is not the division’s champion. If Frank Edgar can successfully defend the UFC Lightweight Championship in a few months then the division will be wide open. A few solid wins in a row could easily land Diego back into the contender’s circle, especially given his name value with the fans.

Conlan: Tool hit the nail on the head with this one. True, Sanchez knows his body’s limitations better than anyone other than the originator of the “YES-cartwheel” ever could, but he looked small at UFC 114 and not just from a height standpoint. He also appeared to be a lot lighter in terms of body mass. If Diego wants to attempt a serious run at the division’s top fighters he’s going to need to bulk back up and that isn’t necessarily easier to do than cut back down to 155 pounds. He beat two solid lightweights en route to facing Penn for the title and, as Adam pointed out, has a ready-made match-up in the form of Florian which could easily be a PPV co-headliner or main event a Spike/Versus show. Meanwhile, at welterweight Sanchez hasn’t beaten anyone of real significance since Karo Parisyan in October 2006, and most recently served as the proverbial rung a relatively unknown young fighter used in lopsided fashion to ascend up the UFC’s internal rankings last weekend. Regardless of how much he may dislike the process, what I see as being best for Diego’s career is a return to 155 pounds and perhaps full-time immersion in one of MMA’s top camps.

Does Rashad Evans deserve to be criticized or praised for his performance against “Rampage” Jackson?

Tool: I’ll say this: if we’re going to criticize the way Evans won then we must also open the floor to criticism for Georges St. Pierre’s recent wins. Evans fought to win, just like GSP does, and while it may not always be exciting it is a smart way to win.

Did anybody really think that Evans was going to decide to stand and trade with Rampage? I’m sure that shot he landed in the first gave him some confidence in his hands, but the near-finish in the third just proved that Evans chose the right way to fight. You can’t get knocked out if you don’t get hit, so by closing the distance and pressuring Jackson in the clinch Evans stayed away from his opponent’s somewhat-legendary power.

The simple fact is this: wrestling will be the dominant avenue of mixed-martial arts until fighters figure out how to stop it. At the moment there’s a relatively small percentage of fighters with impeccable takedown defense, but as the sport goes on and the new guys get better we’ll see that percentage grow. It’s similar to how jiu-jitsu was practically unstoppable in the early days, but once everybody began training submission defense the number of tapout victories started to dwindle. I suspect we’ll see a similar effect towards wrestling, the only question is how long it will take.

Conlan: I think praised for his patience and grappling, though I totally get why a number of people who watched his win over “Rampage” have a desire to go Sugar-free in the future. The success of Mixed Martial Arts as a whole is as dependent on entertainment as it is on athletic endeavor. Without exciting finishes and colorful personalities the sport and its participants would not find themselves in the place they are today or where they hope to be tomorrow and beyond. If every fighter elected to compete as cautiously as possible in hopes of merely out-decisioning an opponent the public’s interest in the sport would take a significant nosedive. The butterfly effect of “Griffin vs. Bonnar” was not a result of the judges’ final influence but the warrior spirit each showed in respectfully slugging it out for fifteen minutes. The performances we remember in life are ones of righteous victory and heartbreaking loss, not of proverbial filibustering or monotone success. Slow and steady might win the race but fast and exciting win the war in an endeavor based on drawing human interest. Had Evans followed up on his success in the first round with a greater willingness to put his chin on the line, especially after weathering Jackson’s storm in the third, he would have come away looking brilliant instead of leaving the flavor of milquetoast on fans’ collective pallets.

However, as Rashad elected to play it safe for the bulk of the action instead of backing up the pre-event hype, he exited the Octagon to boos and will continue to hear them in arena’s for the foreseeable future. Then again, I don’t suspect Evans necessarily cares what people think neither do I fault him for that attitude if such is the case. After all, he’s in line to compete against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the UFC Lightweight Championship, is he not?

After everything that happened in their fight, who are you more excited to see fight again: Todd Duffee or Mike Russow?

Conlan: Let’s see…one is a hard-hitting, 24-year old physical specimen who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and the other is a 33-year old, fairly flabby wrestler who was getting hammered until landing a shocking knockout punch midway through the third round…who to pick, who to pick…

Sarcasm aside, obviously Duffee is the more exciting prospect in every way minus his recent stumble against Russow (not to mention he was dominating the bout prior to having his lights turned out). The time he spent in the Octagon against Russow was the first third round he’d ever seen and nearly equivalent to the total amount of time he’d spent in a ring when adding up his six fights preceding his only career loss. He’s relatively inexperienced and his skills are still raw in nature, but he’s exciting to watch and appears to have a bright future ahead of him as long as he keeps training at a high level. “Duff Man” remains a name to watch in the heavyweight division no matter where he fights while Russow’s star, even with nine straight wins, is more likely to fade simply based on age, style, and appearance. One surprise knockout does not a must-see-fighter make.

Tool: Looking at this question, I’m inclined to go the other way. I can agree with Brendhan’s points regarding Duffee, and he’s definitely a fighter to watch. Within a few years time we could be looking at the next big thing in the heavyweight division, but it’s clear now that he’s got some things to work on in the gym before he’s climbing up the ranks of contenders.

In terms of each man’s very next fight, I have to admit that I’m a bit more curious to see what Russow can do. Other than the Duffee fight he’s shown some solid skills, particularly in terms of his grappling. We now know he can take a punch, and if the situation arises he can land one two. I wouldn’t put him in there against the top guys in the division, but there’s some interesting match-ups to be made with the former Chicago cop. Until somebody in the UFC beats him we won’t have a real solid idea of just how far Russow can go, and I’m curious to see how his next few fights play out.

Do you think Michael Bisping will ever fight for the UFC Middleweight Championship?

Conlan: I think it’s definitely more likely than not. He’s lost three times in his career – Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, and Rashad Evans – and only been finished once in 22 professional bouts. He has middleweight wins over Chris Leben, Denis Kang, and most recently Dan Miller, and though they may not be as impressive in stature as the trio who have claimed victory over Bisping, all three are still solid 185-pounders with respectable accomplishments in the sport. In my mind, another comparable win (certainly two) would elevate “The Count” high enough from a statistical standpoint to merit a title-shot. If Vitor Belfort can earn one without a single fight in the UFC at middleweight then why shouldn’t Bisping get a go at the belt with a number of them over worthwhile competition?

Also, keep in mind contendership is not wholly established by numbers. Beyond being a high-quality Mixed Martial Artist, the Brit also possesses a polarizing personality and serves as the UFC’s poster-boy in the UK. Love him or hate him, the reality is he puts asses in the seats and opponents on the floor. The Ultimate Fighter Season 3 champion is somewhat of a celebrity in England, yet also has a large contingent of MMA followers who want nothing more than to see someone knock the accent off his tongue with a solid series of strikes. He’s finished sixteen of the nineteen foes he’s faced and sells a match-up to media/fans like few of his peers can.

All of the above things add up to a crack at the UFC middleweight strap as soon as an opportunity, even one that needs nudging, presents itself.

Tool: It’s clear that the UFC wants Bisping to be a contender, as they would have given him that shot if he had beaten Dan Henderson. As we all know though, Bisping did not even come close to accomplishing that task. Thus we arrive at the crux of the problem.

As Brendhan pointed out, all three of Bisping’s losses have come against some of the top names in the sport. Unfortunately there are no such names in Bisping’s win column. The man is clearly capable of beating the middle-tier of talent in the UFC, but he’s consistently come up short against the best competition. He has yet to put forth that kind of stand-out performance that makes the fans and front office stand up and demand that he get a title shot.

In this sport you can never say never, so maybe in the next year or two we’ll see “The Count” string together some quality wins over big-name opponents. The middleweight division will be opening up again soon once Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort get their shots, so now would be the time for a hungry young middleweight to make his cause.

Would you be in favor of a Jason Brilz/Antonio Rogerio Nogueira rematch with both fighters getting a full camp to prepare?

Conlan: Eventually, yes. Immediately, no. Like a lot of other people who watched the fight I felt Brilz did enough to emerge ahead on the judges’ scorecards, but I’ve also come to grips with the reality ringside officials don’t always see things as I do and know there’s an ever present risk a questionable decision might be rendered when a bout goes the distance. Also, though I personally felt Brilz won the first round, I recognized a little wiggle room at the time based on Nogueira’s defense and boxing. I may not have agreed with the bout’s result but I wasn’t infuriated by it either.

In terms of a rematch, the reason I favor the possibility of one taking place down the road as opposed to being the next stop on their professional paths is fairly simple. Brilz exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations by coming in on late notice to take on the toughest opponent he’s ever locked horns with while also competing on the biggest stage of his career. Throwing him back into the fire with the memory of his performance fresh in fans’ minds would create unnecessary and unfair pressure to perform at least as well as he did at UFC 114.

Rather, Zuffa should build on the momentum he created by giving him a few fairly winnable match-ups while utilizing Nogueira as originally intended. Establishing a positive streak in the W/L column for Brilz would make the rematch THAT much more interesting, as would putting Nogueira and the value of his name/record/skills against top 205-pounders like Forrest Griffin or Thiago Silva. Comparably, hot-shotting the bout would do little good for either man, especially when the actual decision wasn’t horribly controversial to begin with. Let them move forward in their careers and then remind fans of how close their first fight actually was.

Tool: I was leaning towards a yes answer, but I can’t argue with Brendhan’s…argument. Nogueira did get the win, so his career trajectory will likely continue unabated. It’s entirely possible that “Lil’ Nog” could rebound with an impressive win over a top-ranked opponent (Griffin or perhaps the winner of the upcoming Rich Franklin/Chuck Liddell bout) and work his way into title contention within the next year. Now that his good friend Lyoto Machida is no longer the champion the path is clear for Nogueira to make his run at the belt.

Meanwhile Jason Brilz scores a career-making loss, in a fight that nobody expected him to win. He had less than a month to prepare for the biggest fight of his life and he very nearly pulled it off. Count me amongst the fans that thought Brilz would have his hand raised after the scores were read, and I think the narrowness of the decision is the main factor that warrants a rematch. I wouldn’t make it immediately but I would make it within the next two years. In the meantime I think the UFC has found a new potential star within the light heavyweight division.

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