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Grappling With Issues – 7/16/10

Is Shinya Aoki the most intimidating fighter in MMA? Is Chael Sonnen’s trash talk amusing or annoying? Does Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Tim Kennedy make sense for the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship? Which fighter at Impact FC deserves a spot with one of the major promotions? Which newly announced UFC Fight Night 22 bout are you anticipating the most?

Welcome once again to another edition of Grappling With Issues. We may be in the middle of a slow period for major MMA action, but that doesn’t mean that Brendhan Conlan and myself don’t have plenty to talk about. As always we’ll go back and forth on the six subjects at hand, and once we’ve had our say you’re welcome to post your thoughts in the comment box below.

True/False – Shinya Aoki is currently MMA’s most-intimidating competitor.

Adam Tool: I’m not sure if intimidating is the word I’d use to describe a guy who wears rainbow pants and cries after almost every fight. Granted I’m not a fighter, and if I were to find myself across the ring from Aoki I would probably be in dire need of a fresh pair of shorts.

The fact is that Aoki’s grappling prowess cannot be overlooked, and if he gets you on the ground in a dominant position then it’s almost certainly going to be a bad night. Combine that with the fact that he seems to be a real dick who has no problem breaking an opponent’s limbs, and there’s certainly an intimidation factor there. That being said though, if you’re a fighter with good power and great submission defense then Aoki shouldn’t strike too much fear in your heart. After all his jiu-jitsu is his one and only weapon. If you can keep him on his feet (like Gilbert Melendez did) then Aoki presents little to be concerned with. If you’ve got knockout power (like Hayato “Mach” Sakurai does) then you can blast Aoki early and often to put him down quickly. Unless Aoki can become a more well-rounded mixed-martial artist then I can’t justify calling him the most intimidating fighter in the sport.

Brendhan Conlan: I don’t doubt a few folks in the GWI crowd chuckled after initially reading the subject-line, and I know this won’t necessarily be a popular answer, but I’m going to say “true” and hopefully give you some food for thought in the process.

Aoki’s obviously not the most physically intimidating competitor (a la Brock Lesnar) or a threat to re-arrange your face (a la Anderson Silva), but any individual who possesses elite-level jiujitsu and an openness to shredding an opponent’s tendons/joints should, in my opinion, be a much more frightening prospect to face than one with size/striking. Cuts, bruises, and separation from consciousness are matters that heal in a relatively short amount of time. Having your ankle turned into a scoop of coleslaw, your knee ripped out of socket, or an arm left dangling in multiple pieces…not so much. In fact, the type of injuries Aoki is able, and apparently willing, to inflict when he latches on to an adversary are the split-second sort that can end a career. He’s certainly not alone in being an incredible grappler, but peers like BJ Penn and Ronaldo ”Jacare” Souza have shown a certain level of compassion for those they’ve previously tapped out in comparison to Aoki’s recent antics. The threat of exiting a ring minus one limb has to play on the psyche of every opponent he faces, and because of that I feel he’s currently the scariest Mixed Martial Artist out there regardless of his outward appearance or stand-up skills.

Between last and this week’s “Impact FC” lineups, who is the one individual you would most like to see face a notable opponent on a major promotion’s card for his next match-up?

Tool: Even though I’m still not really a fan, I’ve got to go with Josh Barnett. It’s weird to think about how Barnett’s career might have played out if he hadn’t had so many problems with steroid abuse. His UFC Heavyweight Championship win over Randy Couture wouldn’t have an asterisk attached to it, and he may have had a long and prosperous career in the octagon. It’s also hard not to wonder just how well he would have done against Fedor Emelianenko had the two actually met at Affliction: Trilogy, especially in light of Fedor’s recent fall from grace.

Pounding out guys like Geronimo Dos Santos and having professional wrestling matches with Bob Sapp is no way for a guy with Barnett’s talents to spend the rest of his career. If he was signed by Strikeforce he would be a huge addition to their already respectable heavyweight division, and maybe we could even get that long-awaited match-up with Emelianenko in the process. I doubt the UFC would ever bring Barnett back into the fold, but stranger things have happened (hello James Toney). Obviously Barnett would need to be subjected to the usual drug-testing regiment, but if he can keep clean then he definitely stands to make an impact wherever he fights next.

Conlan: Without a doubt I’d have to go with Ken Shamrock. I kid, I kid…

Reading over the possible choices it’s clear “Impact FC” has the who’s who of extremely talented Mixed Martial Artists with personal problems getting in the way of truly fulfilling their potential. If we’re playing in an ideal world, as Tool seems to be with Barnett, I’d probably go with Paulo Filho given his 20-1 record, submission prowess, and the general need for middleweights with name-value in Strikeforce and the UFC. He’s won four straight since apparently dipping into Chuck Liddell’s cough-syrup prior to facing Chael Sonnen in 2008 and will be looking to beat respected opponent Denis Kang this weekend in Sydney. If he’s successful in doing so, based strictly on his resume, Filho is definitely the individual who stands out to me in the bunch.

However, since it’s impossible to tell if Filho will clean up his act and become a more-consistent competitor, I’m giving the nod to Glover Teixeira. He’s showed skill similar to Strikeforce contender’s Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante in that he’s won the bulk of his fights via knockout while also being at home when things hit the mat. I’ve wanted to see Teixeira dip his toes into the sport’s limelight for awhile, and with seven consecutive victories (including a five-second TKO and first-round flattening of Sokoudjou) I think he’s definitely in line for a shot with a win at “Impact FC 2”.

Which of the four bouts announced this week for September’s “Fight Night 22” drew the bulk of your interest and why?

Tool: I’ve got to go with the main event of Demian Maia vs. Alan Belcher. I’ve been a huge Maia fan since he came to the UFC, but clearly his stock has never been lower than it is right now. I still believe that he belongs amongst the elite at middleweight but he needs an impressive win here if he’s going to get on the road back to a title shot. At the same time Belcher has been making plenty of noise both with his mouth and his talents. Aside from his close loss to Yoshihiro Akiyama he’s been pretty much unstoppable in the last few years, and he’s been telling anyone who will listen that he wants better competition and a shot at the title. This main event match-up with Maia represents Belcher’s biggest opportunity to crack through to the upper levels of the division, but at the same time it’s Maia’s chance to quickly steal his opponent’s momentum and get people talking again. I can’t wait.

Conlan: I like all of the match-ups for different reasons, and though I’m sure the six lightweights set to accompany Maia and Belcher on the card are all in line to turn in exciting, entertaining performances, like Adam, I’m most-interested in the main event because of what is on the line for both men. Maia has lost two of his last three in memorable fashion, so he has an opportunity to remind fans of his relevance in the sport by finishing someone with Belcher’s momentum. Likewise, “The Talent” has looked relatively sharp in all areas since being upset by Jason Day at UFC 83, and a case could be made for him having deserved the decision over Akiyama meaning he would be on a five-fight winning streak. He brings an exciting style to the ring with him on all occasions, as can be said about most Duke Roufus products, and could very well end up with a title shot if he knocks Maia out early. Even out-pointing someone a single bout removed from a crack at Anderson Silva’s belt would likely put him one win away from his own opportunity at middleweight gold.

Does Shinya Aoki deserve a rematch with Gilbert Melendez on Japanese soil?

Conlan: Eventually, but not immediately. He’s only fought once since losing to Melendez in Nashville a few months ago so he hasn’t had an opportunity to fog fans’ memory of the one-sided decision with a string of wins, plus their original match-up wasn’t competitive enough to merit a push from the public for a rematch to occur sooner than later. Unfortunately for Aoki, any informed onlooker who watched Aoki and Melendez tussle the first time should know skill was the difference in the result, not a cage or the fight’s location. However, assuming both handle their business in successful fashion over the next 6-9 months, I’m in favor of a DREAM-based bout between the two because it would ultimately pair two of the “Top 5” 155-pounders in Mixed Martial Arts while also giving Melendez a chance to cement his place in the rankings and creating the possible drama involved in a tie-breaking third fight if the bespectacled, spandexed submission wiz comes away victorious.

Tool: I don’t think so, and it’s because (as Brendhan pointed out) the first meeting was so completely one-sided. Melendez was able to keep the fight standing for the entire 25 minutes last time, and replacing the cage with a ring isn’t going to change either man’s strategy. It’s not as if Aoki would have some sort of “home-field” advantage either, since the Japanese crowd would probably be even more quiet than the fans were in Nashville. If Aoki can string together some impressive wins over well-rounded opponents then maybe he would have a stronger case, but for now it’s best if these two fighters stay on opposite sides of the globe.

Do you agree with Strikeforce’s decision to match up Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Tim Kennedy for the now-vacant middleweight title?

Conlan: 100% yes – it’s not only the right decision, but it’s also the only decision they could have made. Strikeforce doesn’t have a ton of other options to fill Jake Shields’ shoes at the moment when considering Robbie Lawler is coming off a catch-weight loss to Renato Sobral, Jason “Mayhem” Miller is dealing with some mandated time off due to his involvement in last April’s post-event, in-ring melee, and Cung Le is only one win removed from his December 2009 knockout at the hands of Scott Smith.

Kennedy is 12-1 in his last thirteen fights with a single decision defeat to “Mayhem” Miller two-and-a-half years ago, while Souza’s record matches Kennedy’s with his lone stumble coming by way of the rare up-kick KO to Gegard Mousasi in September 2008. They’re exceptionally talented middleweights who also happen to be class acts with entertaining personalities/backstories Strikeforce can use for promotional purposes. Putting them together for the belt makes sense on both fronts, as well as provides a period of time for Scott Coker’s group to establish a top contender.

Tool: I’ve got to agree with this match-up as well. The Strikeforce Middleweight Championship is already a belt with a tainted lineage, so it’s good that the company is putting their two most credible middleweights in the title bout. Given some of Scott Coker’s past decisions in this regard I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to see Dan Henderson taking one of the slots in the championship bout, and the same could be said for former champ Cung Le. Common sense has ruled the day though, and now “Jacare” gets the chance to finally take home an MMA title while Kennedy gets the spotlight in the biggest fight of his career.

Not only does this fight make sense in regards to the two fighters’ records, it’s also some fantastic match-making. Souza has looked better in the stand-up every time we see him, but it’s his ultra-aggressive submission skills that will likely be the difference maker in this fight. While Kennedy is no slouch on the ground he’s still going to vastly outgunned if/when these two go down. He’s got a solid sprawl and could likely stuff the takedowns of “Jacare,” and it’s not too hard to figure that he’ll have the edge in striking given the wide variety of techniques he’s trained in. If you asked me to pick a winner right now I’d have a hard time doing so, and this has quickly become my most anticipated match-up on next month’s Strikeforce card.

Do you find Chael Sonnen’s constant barrage of trash talk towards Anderson Silva amusing or annoying?

Conlan: I can’t say either, because I’m fairly indifferent to Sonnen’s verbal jabs at Silva at this point and much more interested in the physical ones he will/won’t land on August 7th. Flapping his gums comes off as desperate promotion of a bout many see as being fairly uncompetitive in nature and, to a lesser degree, an indication Sonnen may be a bit concerned himself about the potential beatdown received at the ends of Silva’s limbs. I don’t doubt Sonnen is a supremely confident individual, and rightfully so given his accomplishments in life, but to talk as much smack as he has when “The Spider” is generally soft-spoken, and somewhat reclusive given his residence in Brazil, feels more like an attempt to build up his own confidence rather than others’ in him who come across his statements. If Sonnen limited his focus on Silva’s behavior/performance against Demian Maia it would be one thing, but he hasn’t, and in that regard I’ve simply tuned it out.

Tool: I’ll give Sonnen credit for doing everything he can to build interest in the UFC 117 main event, but I found his antics bordering more on the “annoying” side of things. What’s particularly annoying is the way he’s said stuff that’s simply not true. For example, in a recent video interview he claimed that he’s never lost at middleweight. WTF? Does he have some sort of selective memory that’s blocking out his losses to Demian Maia, Paulo Filho, and Jeremy Horn?

While I may not like his tactics, it’s hard to deny that they’ve gotten the job done. People are talking about this fight, and some are even talking about Chael having a good chance of winning. Personally I’m of the belief that Sonnen’s chances to beat Silva range somewhere between “slim” and “none,” and Sonnen’s comments have only served to make me want to see him get his ass kicked even more. The trash-talking has made fans and detractors more invested in this fight, and that’s really the point isn’t it?

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