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Grappling With Issues – 8/6

Will Jon Jones compete for UFC gold in 2011? Who should be next for Takanori Gomi? How will this weekend’s championship fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen end? Who has the best chance of scoring an upset at UFC 117? Does Jon Fitch deserve another title shot if he beats Thiago Alves?

After several relatively quiet weeks in the world of MMA we’re moving in to a fully loaded month of packed cards and big fights in August, starting with this weekend and UFC 117. Will Chael Sonnen be able to back up everything he’s said in the last few months, or will Anderson Silva add another name to his record-breaking string of title defenses? My colleage Brendhan Conlan is with me as always to discuss this fight along with five other topics around the world of mixed martial arts, and as always you’re welcome to join in the debate by using the comment box below. You can also follow us on Twitter, I’m @adamtool and Brendhan is @punchdrunkMMA.

TRUE/FALSE – Jon Jones will fight for a UFC championship in the next year.

Adam Tool: The only reason I would have to pick “false” on this question is the fact that current LHW champ Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is out for at least the rest of the year. Dana White has put the timetable for his return at somewhere around spring, and we already know that Rashad Evans is first in line for the next title shot. If that bout were to take place in March or April then it’s conceivable to think that Jones could be in a #1 contender’s position by this time next year, but realistically it may be a bit longer. However I absolutely believe that Jones will be competing for the belt sometime within the next two years.

In a perfect world Joe Silva could potentially match Jones up with Evans for a card later this year and the winner of that fight would be the #1 contender, but there’s a few problems with that scenario. We already know that Evans is content to sit on the sidelines and wait for Rua’s return and as much as we may not like it, we can hardly blame the guy for wanting to do so. Then there’s the fact that Jones and Evans are training partners at Greg Jackson’s camp and as such Jon has already ruled out the possibility of ever fighting Rashad. If Evans can win the belt from “Shogun” and Jones becomes the #1 contender they might have to reconsider that choice, but that situation is purely hypothetical at this point.

Realistically it’s more likely that Jones is at least two wins away from achieving top contender status. He’s beaten three mid-level light heavyweights in a row and clearly is in need of better competition, but the top level of his division is filled with a murderer’s row of former champions. There’s been plenty of chatter about Jones facing Forrest Griffin next, and I have no problems with that match-up. I also wouldn’t mind seeing “Bones” face off with Rich Franklin, and I think that fight makes plenty of sense given the fact that Franklin has been very vocal about his desire to get into the mix of contenders at light heavyweight. Regardless of who he faces next things are undoubtedly about to get tougher for the UFC’s top prospect, but given his performances thus far I’m inclined to believe that Jones will continue to come out ahead.

Brendhan Conlan: “False”. I’m glad Tool pointed out the relationship between Evans and Jones because it, like Rua’s recovery, is definitely a roadblock in terms of placing “Bones” in a championship bout at some point over the next twelve months. The 23-year old phenom is definitely talented enough to stand across the ring from any opponent, but there’s a proverbial ladder at play and he still as a few rungs to climb before finding himself in a 5-by-5. I don’t think Franklin or Griffin would provide much of a competitive threat to Jones based on the New Yorker’s speed/athleticism, but they would definitely be a step up as far as name-value goes and a win over either would definitely boost his profile. I also think Ryan Bader would be an interesting adversary for Jones if he’s able to get by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119 based on his high-level wrestling and knockout power. However, like Adam said, even beating a single opponent wouldn’t be enough to thrust Jones into a title-shot in the next year unless an injury bug hit the top of the division. He needs 2-3 more wins, as well as the situation with Evans and Rua to sort itself out, and that’s going to take at least eighteen months if not longer.

What UFC 117 main-card bout is most likely to feature an upset?

Tool: I had to check the current betting lines for this card to see who was the favorite in a few bouts, and to my complete non-surprise several fights are very close. The only real heavy underdogs on the card are Chael Sonnen and Roy Nelson, and I can’t in good conscience pick either of those two to win their fights. The lines on fairly close on every other main-card fight, but I did notice that Ricardo Almeida is currently a slight favorite over Matt Hughes so that’s what I’ll go with for this question.

Anyone that’s watched the UFC for a long time knows about the skills that Matt Hughes brings to the table. He can take pretty much anybody down and hold them there for as long as he needs to, and while his finishing ability has diminished over the years, his top control and ground and pound is still capable of scoring points with the judges. Plenty of fans like to claim that he’s all but finished in the sport, but look at his recent record and you may not be so sure. The only losses he’s had in the last six years have come against Georges St. Pierre and Thiago Alves, who are currently two of the top three guys in the world at welterweight. Hughes’ wins over Renzo Gracie and Matt Serra may not have been the most exciting fights to watch, but they show that he is more than capable of stifling the offense of some very accomplished submission fighters. Almeida is Hughes’ third straight high-level jiu-jitsu opponent and while he is clearly younger and stronger than Gracie or Serra, he doesn’t have the complete MMA skillset necessary to impose his will.

Conlan: Tool, you’re the peanut butter to my jelly, but picking Hughes is a total cop-out. He may technically be the slight underdog based on a betting site you checked but I’m fairly sure most MMA fans would give the former UFC champion the edge over Almeida regardless of what Vegas says.

As far as my upset goes, I won’t be surprised if Christian Morecraft beats Stefan Struve, but this is GWI where we like to keep the sexiness on par with a puddle of Yoshihiro Akiyama’s perspiration so I’ll go with a much bigger match-up as having the potential for a result that turns a few heads. I actually think Nelson has a decent chance at beating Junior dos Santos. The only time “Big Country” has ever been knocked out in his career was to Andrei Arlovski, and it still took a few flush punches after a lot of previous damage to drop him. Dos Santos may be more aggressive than Arlovski, but he’s not as technically sound from what I’ve seen, and I think Nelson’s striking may just be good enough to defend, dish out a little bit of damage (with jabs for example), and open up takedown opportunities. He also has knockout power so a clean shot to Dos Santos’ chin could definitely result in an end to the fight.

Additionally, if the Buddha-bellied big-man gets on top of “Cigano” it could make for some very tense moments in the Brazilian’s corner. Nelson’s jiujitsu is solid and he knows how to use his physique to his advantage when it comes to controlling from the top. It will be very interesting to see how Dos Santos responds if put that position since he’s generally faced strikers in the Octagon thus far, with a flabby Fabricio Werdum being the lone exception, and with his primary method of attack involving stand-up. I’m not saying “Big Country” will win for sure, but I definitely think it’s a possibility given how the two match-up in all areas.

Dan Severn notched his 94th professional win this past weekend. Jeremy Horn scored his 86th victory a week prior. Whose overall record is most impressive?

Tool: I’ve got to go with Horn on this one. I certainly mean no disrespect to Severn, who’s a legend of this sport right alongside guys like Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. In addition to his incredible career in MMA Severn is also one of the world’s most successful MMA/pro wrestling crossovers, and before Brock Lesnar came along he was the only man to win world championships in both professions.

That being said, let’s show some love for “Gumby.” Chael Sonnen may be the UFC Middleweight Champion by this time next week, but Horn has beaten him on three separate occasions. Horn is known for his jiu-jitsu skills (with 55 submission wins and counting) but he also has a KO victory over Forrest Griffin. We also can’t forget that he was the first man ever to defeat Chuck Liddell (although Liddell did later avenge that loss). Horn has victories over plenty of other respectable names, and while his return to the UFC last year didn’t work out quite so well, he’s still able to provide a significant challenge to anyone that agrees to face him.

Conlan: I agree Horn’s overall accomplishments in MMA are more impressive than Severn’s for essentially the same reasons Tool outlined. It should also be kept in mind he’s 17 years younger than “The Beast” and has fought for two fewer years, meaning it’s likely he’ll eventually surpass Severn’s win total at some point in the future as well. Then again, depending on how you view the topic, how can your jaw not drop a bit at Severn’s success at his age?

He is absolutely a legend in the sport. He’s also the primary component of my favorite MMA-related memory, as I had a chance to literally sit shoulder-to-shoulder with him at one of the first events I ever covered. Severn needed a seat while, as a promotional gimmick, coaching a “Team USA” group, and, though I offered mine up (as I think any lover of MMA would do), he refused to take it and suggested we could each sit on half of the chair-top. During the rest of the show we talked about the ongoing fights like two regular people rather than legendary fighter and no-name journalist. His humility, and obvious knowledge of Mixed Martial Arts, are but two of the reasons I will always have an infinite amount of respect for Severn.

However, in the context of this subject, Horn has more wins over higher-quality opponents than the four-time All-American wrestler so I think his record is slightly more impressive. He’s also gone the distance against “Minotauro” Nogueira, Randy Couture, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, and a number of other respected opponents who were bigger than him.

On a final note, I’d love to see both of these guys on a UFC card at some point over the next year. I wouldn’t even mind if it was a one-off deal at some sort of “Legends” event. The fact is, Horn has won six straight fights and Severn is 17-3 since 2007 (including victories in his last five). They’re not legitimate contenders by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re still good enough to provide a competitive threat to some of the other talent on the UFC roster. Why not give fans one last chance to see Severn/Horn compete inside the Octagon?

How do you see the UFC Middleweight Championship fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen ending?

Conlan: Very badly for Sonnen. In my opinion, Silva is never better than when he’s motivated by the sense of being slighted; that he’s toyed with his last few opponents because he didn’t feel they deserved to be in the cage with him, not because he was insulting the sport or fans. After all, Maia had only won a single bout since being knocked out by Nate Marquardt, while Thales Leites and Patrick Cote hadn’t really beaten anyone of note prior to their title shots. I think Sonnen’s trash-talking will have a similar effect on Silva, as his insane insults have probably provided a little more fire in the champ’s tank where a desire of complete clowning is concerned. When you combine that with another guy who has fairly plain-Jane stand-up and a singular style of attack…well, let’s just say history doesn’t bode well for the Brazilian’s opponents. I don’t know if the fight will end early or late, but I’m pretty sure the finish will come at the choosing of the current middleweight champ and its timing will be dependent on whether he wants to continue picking Sonnen apart or put him out of his misery.

Tool: Sonnen’s endless stream of trash-talk has done one thing I never would have expected: it made people believe that he has a chance to win this fight. His path to victory is clear enough. He just has to take Silva down at least five times and hold him there for 25 minutes. As we’ve seen in Silva’s bouts with Dan Henderson and Travis Lutter, it’s certainly feasible for Sonnen to score at least one takedown in the fight. However once he gets him down he may not have such an easy time keeping him there, as the current middleweight kingpin possesses a very active guard and a highly underrated ground game. On top of that we know that Sonnen has next to no chance of finishing Silva (seeing as how he hasn’t finished a fight in almost three years), which means that even if he is taken down repeatedly Silva will have plenty of opportunities to turn the tide on the feet.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now I’m fully expecting a (T)KO win for “The Spider.” Even if he only gets 20-30 seconds of stand-up at the start of the round that’s still more than enough time for the sport’s most accurate striker. Silva’s knockout power has been proven time and time again and there’s no evidence out there that makes me believe Sonnen has the kind of chin necessary to shake off Silva’s multi-faceted attack. Sonnen will need to close the distance in order to get close enough for a takedown and that plays right into the hands (and feet) of a natural counter-striker like Silva. The champion’s tendencies to start slow could cost him the first round or two, but I don’t think we’ll see this one go to the judges.

If Jon Fitch can beat Thiago Alves for a second time this weekend, will he have done enough to earn another title shot?

Conlan: In the context of his peers and performances, absolutely. It would be his fifth consecutive win since losing a decision to champion Georges St. Pierre two years ago, as well as the second “Top 10” opponent beaten during that span (the first being Paulo Thiago). It’s also important to note the one-time Purdue Boilermaker had emerged victorious in sixteen straight bouts entering his match-up with GSP at UFC 87. Overall, it would be Fitch’s thirteenth win in fourteen Octagon appearances, and outside of the champ there isn’t another welterweight in the sport who can boast such an accomplishment. If those stats aren’t a recipe for earning a title-shot it’s hard to imagine what actually is.

However, there are other factors at play making Fitch’s status as the division’s chief contender a bit tricky even with a win over the hard-hitting Brazilian. If his American Kickboxing Academy teammate, Josh Koscheck, beats St. Pierre in their upcoming title-fight then the Alves result becomes a moot point because each has previously expressed their refusal to compete against one another outside of AKA training sessions. Also, with Jake Shields now on the UFC roster, I can envision a scenario where the Zuffa brass allows him to leapfrog Fitch as a means of creating a fresh adversary for St. Pierre rather than using one who was already dominated for twenty-five minutes by the 170-pound champion.

Tool: In between Brendhan sending me his answer and me putting together my answer it was announced by Dana White that the winner of this fight will in fact be next in line for the welterweight title. It seems all but implausible to me that Thiago Alves could fight for the belt and then only have to win one fight before doing so again, but for the purposes of this question let’s throw the focus back on Mr. Fitch.

Fitch has one of the most impressive records of anybody in the UFC, regardless of their weight class, but his “boring” fight style and string of decision victories has next to nobody clamoring to see him at the top of the card once again. It’ll be hard to sell the fans on GSP/Fitch II if we don’t see a decisive victory from Fitch this weekend, as we’ve yet to see any dramatic improvements in his game since UFC 87. In essence he may earn a second shot at the champion, but it will take a minor miracle to make fans want to put down the money to watch it.

Make your pick for Takanori Gomi’s next opponent.

Conlan: Originally scheduled “UFC on Versus 2” opponent Joe Stevenson obviously makes a lot of sense because both camps have already scouted/trained specifically for the other. He’s popular with fans, is an Ultimate Fighter season champion, and fights out of Greg Jackson’s group meaning he’ll be well-prepared for the challenge.

However, George Sotiropoulos is an appealing prospect, as he’s fearless on his feat and a fantastic grappler as well, as would be Clay Guida if he comes away a winner at UFC 117 based on his boxing, gastank, wrestling, and the fact he’s never been knocked out in a 37-fight career. Evan Dunham is also a thought since he’s undefeated, coming off a big win against Tyson Griffin (like Gomi), and could use the exposure another bout with a well-known fighter would bring. Basically, Gomi’s stunning knockout of Griffin opened up a lot of interesting possibilities in terms of potential opponents, and picking one of them (to paraphrase NFL Films’ Steve Sabol) is like discussing my favorite noodle in a bowl of spaghetti.

Tool: I’ve seen Sotiropoulos’ name thrown around quite a bit in the days following Gomi’s re-emergence in the lightweight division, but I’m not sure if that’s the match-up to make right now. I’d still like to see Sotiropoulos matched up with the winner of the upcoming Evan Dunham/Sean Sherk fight, so I’ll be looking elsewhere for my pick to answer this one.

My perfect opponent for Gomi would undoubtedly be the winner of next month’s Jeremy Stephens/Melvin Guillard fight. This makes sense for two reasons, the first of which is that it’s virtually guaranteed to be an explosive stand-up war (regardless of who comes out ahead at UFC 119). The second reason is more based on where each fighter is at. Gomi isn’t quite ready to mix it up with the top names in the UFC’s lightweight division (as the fight with Kenny Florian proved) but he shouldn’t be fighting the low-level guys either. Stephens and Guillard have both been hanging around the middle of the pack and the winner of their bout will certainly get a nice boost in their career, and Gomi represents a decent step-up in competition for either man.

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