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Grappling with Issues – 7/30/10

Does Quinton “Rampage” Jackson have more to prove against Lyoto Machida than is the case in return? Who is the best pound-for-pound female Mixed Martial Artist in the sport? Is Takanori Gomi at risk of being released without a win over Tyson Griffin? What “UFC on Versus 2” match-up do you suspect will have you sitting on the edge of your couch as it unfolds live this Sunday?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

If you’re reading these lines you 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…

Which of the following words best describes your reaction to Matt Hamill being announced as Tito Ortiz’s next opponent – excited, satisfied, disappointed, or disinterested.

Tool: I’d go with satisfied. The initial rumors were that Ortiz would be facing off with Forrest Griffin for a third time, and after that the idea of a fight with Hamill was more than satisfactory. I want to see Ortiz/Griffin 3 less than I want Ortiz/Liddell 3, but of course it’s more likely to happen now that Chuck is kinda-sorta retired.

In any case I think this match-up is just fine. Hamill should win, but if Ortiz really is 100% healthy like he says he is then he could certainly present some problems. Hamill’s been working diligently on his striking and it seems to have paid off, but I for one would still have to question his power if he couldn’t put Keith “Glass Joe” Jardine away. While Hamill’s amateur wrestling credentials are stronger, it’s Ortiz who has more experience adapting his wrestling game to MMA. Even though we’re several years removed from his domination of the light heavyweight division, a win over Ortiz still counts for something in this sport and it could be the opportunity for Hamill to finally crack the upper echelons of the division.

Conlan: I’m also going with “satisfied”, even moderately “excited”. As Tool pointed out, Hamill is a fresh foe for Ortiz, and beyond that he also serves as an adversary with high-level skills, an interesting backstory for promotional use, something to prove as far as getting in the title mix at light heavyweight, and the name-value to make a potential win worthwhile for Tito at this stage in his career.

“The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” desperately needs a win over a relevant opponent given the three losses and a draw to his credit since late 2006. Hamill may not be considered championship material at this moment in time, but he’s definitely a tough draw with impressive abilities, a lot of heart, and a couple of wins over notable opposition. Beating him won’t be enough to re-establish Ortiz as the threat he once was but it would show he’s still able to beat a widely respected competitor.

Additionally, their past professional relationship adds a bit of intrigue to the match beyond how the participants’ particular abilities stack up against each other. It’s no secret Ortiz took Hamill under his wing during the Ultimate Fighter Season 3 and continued to train him for a period of time after the show wrapped. Even though they’ve since parted ways there’s still a unique master/pupil vibe to the pairing you rarely see in MMA which, in my opinion, adds a level of enjoyment to the pairing.

Best pound-for-pound fighter in this group: Cris “Cyborg” Santos, Sarah Kaufman, or Megumi Fujii?

Tool: Pound for pound rankings are never easy to fully nail down for the obvious reason: the competitors will probably never face one another. These three women are certainly at the top of their respective weight class, but I’m not sure if I can pick a definitive “best” out of the group. “Cyborg” has some stunning power, Kaufman may very well be the most technical striker in women’s MMA, and “Mega Megu” is easily the finest grappler amongst all female fighters.

In the end I think I have to give the nod to Fujii, based mostly on the unparalleled strength of her record. If there was a male fighter who had yet to be beaten in 20 pro bouts he would probably have a solid case as the best in the world, and so it’s only fair to apply the same line of thinking to the ladies. It’s not just that Fujii has 20 straight wins, we also have to consider the fact that 16 of those fights ended via submission. She’s obviously the biggest “unknown” amongst the three names presented, but here’s hoping her profile increases dramatically when she competes in Bellator during their third season.

Conlan: I’m extremely torn on this topic and see cases for all three females being considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the group. Kaufman and Santos have beaten higher-profile opponents than Fujii, but have an equivalent amount of decisions to “Mega Megu” with only half of her professional appearances. “Cyborg” is a devastating, aggressive striker with solid jiujitsu, Kaufman’s wrestling and stand-up allow her to bang, pound, or (as we found out against Roxanne Modafferi) slam opponents into unconsciousness, and Fujii is fearless on her feet and ready to take home a limb or four if action hits the mat. They all have a lot of positives and about as many negatives as Giselle Bundchen has physical imperfections. In the end I think I’ll side with Tool for the number of consecutive wins Fujii has strung together, plus the fact her finishing percentage is so high and she landed her first TKO at Bellator 21 last June (while neither Santos or Kaufman have ever submitted an opponent). However, I also want to say that as tough as it is for me to pick one of the three as tops, one thing is absolute in the equation – there is a lot of talent in women’s’ MMA as well as some excellent representatives of the sport.

Other than the main event, what “UFC on Versus 2” bout has you more excited than the others?

Tool: I’m very curious to see how the Mark Munoz/Yushin Okami bout plays out. Okami has always been on the cusp of being an elite fighter in the middleweight division, and as the last man to defeat Anderson Silva it seems like a no brainer to try and work him in to a title shot. However every time he gets close something stops his momentum (most recently it was Chael Sonnen). He’s one of the strongest fighters in the UFC at 185 lbs., but his string of lackluster decision wins has kept him out of the spotlight. It’s likely that the only reason he’s getting co-main event status in this fight is due to the rising popularity of Munoz, who has looked nearly unstoppable since the drop to middleweight. Munoz is another in a long line of wrestlers who have started to put together a solid striking game, and a definitive win over Okami would spell big things for his future. If I had to pick a winner right now I’d probably go with Munoz, but I can’t say for certain and that’s why this fight has me so intrigued.

Conlan: Before getting into my response I want to point out that Okami beat Silva as much as Matt Hamill did Jon Jones. A “DQ” may technically count as victory, but the illegal up-kick that ended the bout didn’t come in a situation where “The Spider” was in significant trouble or as a means of intentionally fouling an opponent. I have a lot of respect for Okami’s skill-set and certainly appreciate what he offers in the ring. However, it annoys me when people point out his win over Silva as though he legitimately finished or out-pointed the UFC Middleweight Champion.

Moving on, Jake Ellenberger’s upcoming throwdown with John Howard gets my salivary glands pumping like a leaky BP-well in comparison to the other non-headlining bout on the card (although I must say there are a ton of great choices for knowledgeable fans to pick from including Okami/Munoz, Tyson Griffin vs. Takanori Gomi, and so on all the way down to Steve Steinbass vs. Rob Kimmons). Ellenberger and Howard are both well-rounded fighters under the age of 30 who are entering the event with a lot of buzz based on their past success and overall performances in the ring. Ellenberger is 5-1 in his last six scraps with the single defeat being a razor-thin split decision to Carlos Condit in his UFC debut last September. He’s only been finished once in 27 professional appearances while having either submitted/TKO’d nineteen of the twenty-two opponents he’s beaten. On the flipside, “Doomsday” Howard is riding a seven-fight win streak including four in the Octagon. He’s coming off a first-round knockout, yet also has the wrestling and submission arsenal to act as a threat on the ground. I expect both men to push the pace, recognizing what’s at stake, and either deliver a fifteen-minute war or violent finale in the process. I don’t know how it will end. I just know it’s going to be exciting!

BUY/SELL – Vladimir Matyushenko will be the toughest opponent Jon Jones has faced in his career thus far.

Conlan: Matt Hamill, Brandon Vera, and Stephan Bonnar are all talented fighters, but I have to go “buy” on this topic because “The Janitor” has won eleven of his last twelve bouts, has the best record of any opponent Jones has faced, and has held his own against (even beaten) a number of notable competitors.

Matyushenko is a solid grappler with knockout power who isn’t afraid to grind out a victory, as indicated by the near-even split between submissions/TKOs/decisions in his win column, meaning he doesn’t necessarily have any glaring weaknesses while also being a threat from most positions. The lone person to have beaten him in the last five years is “Top 10” light heavyweight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, while former UFC champs Andrei Arlovski and Tito Ortiz are the only other losses on Matyushenko’s record if going back a full decade rather than half of one. Meanwhile, during that same span, the soft-spoken MMA veteran has knocked off a number of respectable foes with stints in the Octagon including Pedro Rizzo, Jason Lambert, Tim Boetsch, and the afore-mentioned Nogueira. While Jones has definitely fought a handful of tough guys, none were as fully-rounded as Matyushenko or nearly as experienced. For those reasons I think he’s definitely Jones’ toughest opponent to date, and I’m not sure there would even be a question of it if Vlad was a little more comfortable standing in front of a microphone promoting himself rather than letting his in-ring performances do 99% of the talking.

Tool: I’ve got to go with “buy” as well, mostly due to the benefit of hindsight. I’m sure plenty of people figured Hamill and Vera would present a tough test for Jones as well, but obviously that was not the case. As Brendhan pointed out Matyushenko certainly has the most respectable record of any of Jones’ opponents, and his smothering wrestling could easily nullify all of Jones’ flashy offense.

That being said, I firmly believe that Matyushenko is just another name waiting to be added to Jones’ win column. The man is clearly something special and I don’t think he’ll be given a real test until he’s thrown into the deeper waters of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Jones has already faced several cagey veterans and he’s made them all look like amateurs in the cage. I expect nothing less from “Bones” this Sunday night.

Do you believe the UFC will cut Takanori Gomi if he loses to Tyson Griffin?

Conlan: It’s definitely possible, because he’ll have earned an above-average sum for two fights without delivering a single victory in return, but I personally think the UFC will give Gomi one more chance because of his international pull and the level of competition he’s been given thus far in the Octagon.

It’s no secret the UFC is interested in becoming more of a global entity than they currently are and part of doing that involves conquering the Far East. After all, why do you think Yoshihiro Akiyama is headlining an October PPV after a split-decision against Alan Belcher and loss to Chris Leben (besides the obvious added “sexiness” he brings to the card)? Like Akiyama, Gomi is also a very recognizable face in Japan and other related markets, and the UFC needs legitimate Asian superstars if they want to truly become a worldwide brand. Releasing him after a pair of consecutive losses might make sense if he was an average veteran, but we’re talking about “The Fireball Kid” here – a former Shooto and PRIDE champion.

It also has to be pointed out that Gomi hasn’t exactly been handled with linen gloves in terms of match-making. In the five bouts prior to Gomi signing with the UFC, he was 3-2 against a quintet of competitors most MMA fans couldn’t pick out of a police lineup. However, rather than debuting against a relatively beatable opponent as a means of acclimating to the Octagon (let alone American soil), Gomi was given title-contender Kenny Florian and received another “Top 10” adversary in the form of Griffin as his follow-up fight. Losing to opponents of their ilk is understandable, if not expected, given his overall performance during the past few years. He deserves an opportunity to face a relative unknown, or at least an underdog, in hopes of rekindling the flame that brought him to the forefront of MMA during his glory days in PRIDE. Struggling against comparable, even superior, opponents is no reason to release someone with his value outside of the cage and it would be short-sighted of the UFC to do so.

Tool: I don’t think so, and it’s mainly for the last reason Brendhan pointed out. There aren’t too many guys who enter the UFC and immediately get thrown to the wolves against the very best fighters in their division (Paulo Thiago is about the only other name that comes to mind) so it’s not as if people were surprised when Gomi couldn’t get the job done against Florian. Griffin represents a slightly more beatable opponent, but he’s still tougher competition than what Gomi has faced in several years.

I’m sure the former PRIDE Lightweight Champion has a higher-than-average price tag, so that obviously will have some impact on how long his career in the octagon will last. At the same time though he’s still worth a bit more than other guys on the basis of his exciting performances and his lingering name recognition amongst hardcore fans. I don’t think that he’s got UFC gold in his future but I do think that he’s a solid member of one of the UFC’s most exciting divisions. For that reason alone he should get another chance even if he does come up short this weekend.

Who do you think has more to prove in the upcoming Lyoto Machida/”Rampage” Jackson fight?

Conlan: Neither needs to show me anything in particular, as both are top-notch competitors who win far more than they lose, but in terms of this topic I’d say Jackson has more to prove to fans because he was unable to back up the overwhelming amount of trash-talk he flung in Rashad Evans’ direction leading up to UFC 114.

It’s no secret “Rampage” enjoys the spotlight and does an excellent job selling his fights to the media. However, he took it to a different level during the build towards his match-up with Evans when personal feelings started overshadowing the simple “self-marketing” aspect of his standard verbal offerings. The result was a number of guarantees Jackson was ultimately unable to deliver on inside the Octagon. He was out-wrestled, out-hustled, and even dazed early on rather than reducing “Sugar” ‘Shad into a puddle of caramel on the canvas as promised. Losing to Evans tarnished his reputation in the eyes of many and also brought his record to 2-2 over the past two years. Like Jackson, Machida is coming off a loss, and he definitely fell in a more-impressive fashion to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua than “Rampage” did to Evans, but he never ensured he would dominate the title-bout and had already been exposed to an extent in his first go-round with Rua. He entered the fight with fewer expectations on his back and, as a result, exited it with less to prove than someone who built up a bunch of hype around himself only to fall flat in the end.

Tool: I agree with all of the above points in regards to “Rampage,” but I’ve got to go with Machida on this one. He came into the UFC with little fanfare, racked up wins over respectable opponents, but was often criticized for his “boring” style. He silenced many of his critics with back-to-back knockout victories in 2009 to claim the light heavyweight belt, but then those same critics were given fresh ammunition after his extremely controversial win over “Shogun.” Then there was the rematch and “The Dragon” suffered his first career defeat in devastating fashion. I’m sure plenty of people think that Machida’s time at the top of the division is already done, and he’ll need an impressive win over another former champion if he’s going to have any shot at reclaiming the gold. Machida is driven to be the very best so his first bout back after that loss is going to be crucial if he still aims to achieve that goal.

On the opposite end we’ve got “Rampage” and while the loss to Evans was embarrassing for all the reasons previously mentioned, his future is wrapped in uncertainty. Let’s not forget that at the start of this year Jackson was “retired.” His lack of proper training for the Evans fight is proof that his drive to compete and succeed in this sport is not what it used to be. I’m not writing “Rampage” off completely, as he’s got more than enough natural talent to still pose a threat to anybody he faces. He’s still immensely popular with fans and will have a place in this sport for as long as he chooses, but I don’t think he has any drive to reach the top of the division again. For that reason a win against Machida doesn’t seem to be as important to “Rampage” as it is to his opponent.

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