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Grappling With Issues – 7/23/10

Is Brock Lesnar the biggest star in MMA history? Will Jake Shields be the man to dethrone Georges St. Pierre? Are you at all excited for the rematch between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir? Is there any reason why Ken Shamrock is still actively competing? How will tonight’s women’s title fight between Sarah Kaufman and Roxanne Modafferi play out?

Welcome back to another lively edition of Grappling With Issues. We’ve got some major news in the MMA world to discuss, and we’ll be looking ahead to tonight’s edition of Strikeforce: Challengers on Showtime. As always you’re encouraged to leave your thoughts on any and all of the topics in the comment box below, and if you can’t wait another seven days for more nuggets of knowledge from us you can always find us on Twitter (I’m here and Brendhan is here).

After his sixth loss in seven fights, is it possible to justify Ken Shamrock’s decision to remain unretired?

Adam Tool: To fully answer this question I would need to be in a better position, namely that of Shamrock’s accountant. There is absolutely no reason for him to continue fighting aside from the paycheck that comes with it. He poses no threat to anyone that is a legitimate fighter, and his string of losses only ensures that he’ll never fight again in one of the major promotions.

The only reason Ken Shamrock keeps fighting is because he’s Ken Shamrock. That name still carries a lot of weight, especially for the casual audience of MMA. Ask any man on the street to name a MMA fighter and I can guarantee that Shamrock’s name will be one of the top results (along with Kimbo Slice and Chuck Liddell). It’s his name value that still allows him to collect a higher paycheck than the dozens of fighters that appear on the undercard of his fights. Us hardcore fans know that he’s a washed-up shell of his former self, but as long as he’s Ken Shamrock there will still be people out there interested in seeing him.

Brendhan Conlan: I don’t think it’s hard to understand or explain Shamrock’s decision regardless of his recent performances. As Tool said, he’s still able to make decent money based on his earlier success, and though I’m certain he has other forms of income at his disposal, the occasional five-digit check never hurts where financial stability is concerned. I’m sure he also enjoys the feeling of a crowd’s energy and the opportunity to perform in front of fans. Beyond that, bear in mind he’s been an athlete his entire life, and competition can often be as addictive as any drug legal or otherwise, and I get the feeling a hotly contested game of “bridge” just won’t cut it for “The (Former) World’s Most Dangerous Man”. As long as promotions are willing to book him and he’s willing to accept his place on MMA’s proverbial totem pole circa 2010, I don’t see any harm in Shamrock returning to the ring as regularly as he’s able to no matter the result.

Do I agree with the continued tarnishing of his legacy? No, not anymore than I would have supported the kid in “Old Yeller” hiring Michael Vick to handle his dirty work. There’s definitely something to be said about a painless or story-book ending instead of drawn out torture. However, while I may not agree with Shamrock when it comes to the timing of his retirement, I can easily accept it because at the end of the day it’s his life, not mine.

How do you see tonight’s Strikeforce title-fight unfolding between champ Sarah Kaufman and challenger Roxanne Modafferi?

Tool: The two words I’d use to describe this fight also happen to be in the title of my favorite Paul Walker movie: fast & furious. Both of the Strikeforce women’s champions are decorated strikers but while Cris Cyborg is content to throw all her power behind looping right hands, Kaufman is a much more technically sound boxer. She’s got some great combinations and she never gets careless with her stance, always keeping the hands tight and her head tucked into her shoulders.

Those traits will serve her well against Modafferi, whose fighting style might best be described as “scrappy.” Modafferi is one of the most relentless fighters on the women’s side of MMA, as she’s known for pushing the pace early and often against her opponent. I’m sure she’d love nothing more than to get into a sloppy brawl with Kaufman, but I doubt the champion will be willing to oblige her. If Modafferi gets a taste of Kaufman’s power and doesn’t like it, I expect her to shoot in early in the fight. She may have trouble getting the fight to the floor (as Miesha Tate did when she faced Kaufman last year) but if she can get this one horizontal then she’s got a definitive edge in the submissions game. Kaufman is enough of a veteran to be able to defend well, but at the same time it’s not very often that she’s taken out of her comfort zone on the feet.

Basically I see it like this: if Modafferi can score the takedown (and I’d put her chances at roughly 30% to do so) then she will absolutely end this fight with a submission. If she can’t or doesn’t shoot in then Kaufman will retain her belt, either via KO or a one-sided decision. Honestly I can’t pick a winner because these really are the two best women in the world at 135 lbs., and this fight is the main reason I’ll be tuning into Challengers later this evening.

Conlan: Wait, you mean you can actually pick a FAVORITE when it comes to Walker’s impressive body of work?!? Sarcasm aside, this match-up should send fans anywhere but “Into the Blue” (hey-yo!) when it unfolds later this evening. In summary, I expect the bout to be hard-fought, very entertaining, and most likely a decision win for Kaufman. Modafferi won’t be afraid to stand – hell, she’ll probably be flashing her infectious grin throughout – but I don’t think her striking is as crisp as Kaufman’s and easily not nearly as powerful as indicated by the difference in TKO wins for each (8 for the champ vs. 1 for the challenger). As Tool pointed out, Modafferi’s best chance for hoisting gold is to make the fight a ground war, but I’m confident Kaufman’s takedown defense will be strong enough to assist in avoiding the mat throughout the bulk of the bout. It might even open up an opportunity to throw a well-timed knee or two when Roxanne charges in.

And yes, this fight definitely deserves top billing at the event.

BUY/SELL – Jake Shields will be the man to dethrone Georges St. Pierre from atop the welterweight division.

Tool: I’ll go with a fairly tentative buy on this one, but it’s hard to really be certain at this point. In all honesty I’m not sure if there’s anyone in the world that can beat GSP at welterweight, and I certainly don’t think Josh Koscheck will be the man to do it when the two rematch later this year. St. Pierre has essentially cleaned out the division so it’s hard to imagine anybody posing a real threat to him at this point in his career.

That being said, Shields may just have the tools necessary to do so. He won’t win against St. Pierre in a stand-up contest, but if he can beat GSP to the punch and get the takedown then his stifling ground game could present a problem to the champ. His submission skills are amongst the best in the division, and while his ground and pound may leave something to be desired I’m interested to see how he evolves now that he can add elbows to his arsenal. Even if St. Pierre is able to put Shields on his back it’s not going to be easy to keep him there, and the Gracie jiu-jitsu standout can certainly offer up plenty of offense from the bottom position.

St. Pierre is in desperate need of fresh challengers for his title, as he’s already lapped the UFC’s welterweight division and is now being forced into facing overwhelming underdogs (see Hardy, Dan) and guys he’s already beaten (the aforementioned Koscheck). Shields is a potential shot in the arm for the pool of welterweight contenders, and his performance against Martin Kampmann will do a lot for determining how ready he is to face GSP.

Conlan: I appreciate what Shields brings to every fight, but an objective review of his record indicates a good deal of his success is the result of favorable match-making coupled with elite-level grappling. For example, the run he’s currently on is obviously impressive, but also features a handful of mid/low-level opponents and other guys like Robbie Lawler and Paul Daley who are highly effective strikers but relatively one-sided in their approach to MMA. Jason “Mayhem” Miller, who is definitely apt at both submissions and wrestling, was the victim of lay-and-pray for the most part and was also on the cusp of choking Shields out before the related round expired. Against Dan Henderson, Shields was rocked early, and though his recovery and subsequent victory were impressive, he also had full-mount a number of times and was only able to do minimal damage from the top. His skills are unquestionably excellent but his delivery, and how he matches up in an overall sense against St. Pierre, lead me to believe GSP would retain if the two ever faced off over his welterweight championship.

I believe their “wrestling” is a push with neither having a significant advantage over the other. The same can be said about size as well. Shields may have more middleweight bouts/wins to his credit than St. Pierre, but I don’t doubt “Rush” would fair equally well at 185-pounds if he wanted to make the move and he’s certainly big/heavy enough to do so. Shields might be more-versed in jiujitsu, but I’m confident enough in GSP’s conditioning, technique, and strength to believe he’d be able to tread water at the least if caught in the Gracie pupil’s clutches. That leaves stand-up, and in my opinion there’s no question St. Pierre is by far the higher-quality striker. He has the ability to throw effective strikes from every angle with every limb and turn faces to hamburger meat without suffering any disfiguration in return. The same can’t be said about Shields in any shape, form, or fashion. The sport’s welterweight king also has the benefit of a greater familiarity with elbows based on his time in the UFC in comparison to Shields’ past experience. All in all I think St. Pierre would take the fight, so this topic is a “sell” for me.

If Shane Del Rosario remains undefeated after tonight, is there any chance he could compete for the Strikeforce Heavyweight Championship in 2011?

Conlan: Yes, albeit a slim one given Strikeforce’s recent history of promoting established stars rather than developing new faces into marketable mainstream options. Del Rosario’s success in the ring so far has been impressive and Carwin-like in nature. He’s 9-0 with eight first-round finishes and the ninth opponent only making it a minute into the second stanza before falling victim to a TKO. However, he’s yet to face a significant adversary in his career and tonight is no different. Lolohea Mahe is 4-1-1 and coming off a loss, so beating him does little for Del Rosario other than bump his win column up to double-digits. If Strikeforce was truly interested in promoting him as a contender alongside their stable of notable heavyweights (Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Silva, Brett Rogers, etc.) they would have put him up against an actual threat on a bigger card in hopes of taking his value to the next level. Rather, it’s likely Scott Coker’s crew see Del Rosario as a definite prospect they’d like to get behind, but also someone who doesn’t draw the same interest from fans as any of the afore-mentioned fighters. In reality, I’d even say Bobby Lashley is more likely to earn a title-shot by the end of 2011 based purely on the relative “mainstream” weight his name carries in comparison to Del Rosario.

Tool: Last time I checked, Strikeforce wasn’t exactly in the business of promoting new prospects on their fight cards. They are starting to turn that around as both Tim Kennedy and Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante are receiving title shots, although Kennedy’s background makes him easier to promote and “Feijao” is only getting the shot because Renato “Babalu” Sobral turned it down. Most of the time though you’re only getting promoted by Strikeforce if you’ve achieved success in another organization or you’re someone that achieved notoriety in a field other than MMA.

Del Rosario has been quietly racking up wins in impressive fashion, but he won’t be taken seriously as a potential contender unless Strikeforce can get behind. It’ll be interesting to see who he’s matched up with after tonight (assuming he gets the win). I’d love to see him get a main card slot on a regular event against a well-known fighter like Andrei Arlovski or Brett Rogers, but if he ends up on yet another Challengers card then we’ll know that Strikeforce isn’t interested in adding any new blood to what is currently their strongest division.

On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the highest) how would you rate your interest in seeing the upcoming rematch between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir?

Conlan: “7.5”. Nogueira has been TKO’d twice in his last three bouts with a decision-win over part-time light heavyweight Randy Couture sandwiched in the middle. Beyond that, though he ultimately won them, “Minotauro” didn’t look especially sharp in the two UFC fights preceding the pair of losses. Whether his recent performances are related to the differences between a ring/cage, the battles he’s been involved in over a decade-plus career, training injuries, bad match-ups, or any other number of potential reasons is a moot point – the fact is, Nogueira has looked like a shell of his PRIDE persona since signing with the UFC. Mir is in a similar position as far as having dropped two of his last three bouts via TKO, though he’s at least finished the last four opponents he’s beaten in comparison to a submission over Tim Sylvia being the lone non-decision win for Nogueira dating back to May 2006.

Both heavyweights are highly skilled and deserve credit for both their contributions and accomplishments in Mixed Martial Arts. However, neither is within a stone’s throw of the championship and a win doesn’t carry as much weight as it could if the UFC had held off on the rematch for another year (giving each a chance to string together a few dubyas). It’s a fun pairing based on their skill-sets and past success, plus Nogueira was suffering from a staph infection in their previous bout, so I have no problem giving it an above-average rating. I just can’t say it’s a fight I’m overly excited about at this point in time.

Tool: I’ve got my excitement level at around a “6” at the moment, mostly just because I want to see if a fully healthy Nogueira can erase the memories of that one-sided first meeting. That’s not to say that I don’t think Mir can win again, I just don’t believe that the sluggish fighter he beat at UFC 92 was the “real” Nogueira.

While I do believe that this fight will be more competitive than the first meeting, I have to agree with Brendhan that there really isn’t much at stake here. Both fighters have lost recently to the “new breed” of UFC heavyweights, and one has to wonder just where each man would go from here with a win. Nogueira has been open about his potential retirement, and it would seem that he’s willing to go after special attraction fights rather than bouts with contendership at stake. On the other hand we’ve got Mir who’s been downright schizophrenic about his future plans. First he was bulking up to compete with the big guys at heavyweight, then he was talking about a drop to light heavyweight. Now he seems to have rededicated himself once again to a third fight with Brock Lesnar, but I don’t like his chances of getting there. The winner of this fight definitely has a better claim to legitimacy amongst the heavyweight elite, but I fail to see how much further they can go in the modern age of the UFC’s biggest weight class.

Between the million-plus PPV buyrates and unparalleled mainstream media attention he brings in, at this point is it safe to call Brock Lesnar the biggest star in UFC history?

Conlan: The question seems to answer itself in the way its phrased, but I’m occasionally a troublemaker so I’m going to say, no, he isn’t yet the “biggest star” in UFC history based on my definition of the assigned quality. Actually, I think Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture easily eclipse Lesnar where star-power is concerned because of their long-time association with MMA, ability to connect with fans, and success in/out of the sports realm.

It’s not necessarily difficult to draw a lot of attention from fans/media, and I don’t mean that as a slight on Lesnar’s spotlight (because he’s definitely one of the company’s top stars), but rather I’m saying human beings’ interest isn’t the hardest thing to reel in. For example, Kimbo Slice made a lot of money, got major press, and brought in a ton of viewers without any actual sizzle to his in-ring steak. Does that make him a bigger UFC star than someone without those luxuries attached to their MMA career, but with a helluva lot of talent and success in the Octagon, like Jon Fitch? I don’t think so.

Liddell and Couture are synonymous with Mixed Martial Arts. For the rest of their lives they will be seen as icons of industry. Beyond their accomplishments in the sport, they’ve also shown an ability to relate to fans on a personal level rather than being unapproachable or isolating themselves 10-months out of the year. They’ve earned widespread respect based on what they’ve done in the cage rather than being showered with boos from the crowd by disrespecting an opponent or giving a double-bird salute. And, on top of all that, they’ve found an above-average amount of success beyond the eight-sided walls of the Octagon (especially in the case of Couture, who has a slew of Hollywood movies to his credit and a chain of Xtreme Couture training centers across North America). Those things mean more to me than Lesnar’s buyrates or appearances on Sportscenter.

Tool: Nobody is going to argue that Liddell and Couture are amongst the biggest stars within the world of mixed-martial arts, but Lesnar is a different animal. In terms of star power Lesnar is quickly evolving into the an icon of the sport along the lines of a Michael Jordan or a Wayne Gretzky. His accomplishments obviously have little in common with those particular examples, but he ranks alongside them in terms of capability to bring new fans to the sport. Lesnar may not have originally gotten his name value in MMA, but this is what he does now and he does it bigger than anybody else ever has. Much as we may love guys like Liddell, Couture, and Royce Gracie not one of them has drawn the kind of eyeballs that Lesnar has in his brief time with the UFC.

Since his arrival in the sport there has been a never ending debate amongst MMA fans about whether or not Lesnar deserves the attention and opportunities he’s been given. These debates have only escalated in the last month as Lesnar has managed to rise to the very top of nearly every list of the top heavyweights in the sport. Even now he continues to be a polarizing figure amongst fans of the sport, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Therefore we can conclude two things: Lesnar has arguably the greatest appeal in history amongst casual fans of the sport, and he is one of the most widely discussed fighters within the hardcore fanbase. Given his unprecedented ability to captivate attention across the wide spectrum of the MMA audience, I can only conclude that Brock Lesnar is indeed the biggest star the sport has ever seen.