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Grappling with Issues – 8/27/10

Who do you want to see Vitor Belfort face off against at UFC 123? How long will it take Randy Couture to shoot on James Toney? Will Bobby Lashley ever fight again? Are Ken Florian/Gray Maynard more deserving of a shot at the title than Frank Edgar if he loses the belt to BJ Penn?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Welcome to “Grappling with Issues”, our site’s regular weekly feature highlighting insight and opinion from Adal 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…

How high/low of a percentage would you give the chances of Bobby Lashley retiring from Mixed Martial Arts after what you saw last Saturday night at “Strikeforce – Houston”?

Adam Tool: I’d put it somewhere around 50%. From the moment he entered the sport it’s never seemed to me that Lashley was all that into being the best mixed-martial artist he could be. The clearest indicator of that would have to be the fact that he continued on in professional wrestling even after his first MMA fight. We also can’t overlook the fact that all six of his opponents to this point have been fairly “low-risk” in terms of their skillset. Lashley has been in this sport for the money since day one, and I will believe that until I see any proof to the contrary.

At this point I think it’s safe to say that he won’t be competing for the heavyweight championship anytime soon. He’s made a few remarks claiming he wants some bigger name opponents, but I can’t see Lashley doing any better against the top names in Strikeforce than he did this past Saturday against Chad Griggs. If Scott Coker is serious about signing Dave Bautista then there’s at least one high-profile fight left for Lashley, but I’m willing to be that this last fight represents the beginning of the end.

Conlan: I’d put them moderately low, at about 33%, since I think the competitive athlete in him won’t want to call it quits on such a sour note. However, the look on his face at the end of the first round wasn’t one you typically see splashed across a fighter’s mug, and I remember thinking at the time that it was the first moment he truly realized what was at stake in the cage. Lashley looked confused, even a little scared, after Griggs opened up a gash next to his eye and helped redecorate Strikeforce’s canvas in the process. I also think it’s interesting he hasn’t made any significant comments – possibly any comments – since the loss.

A necessary component in the make-up of even a mid-tier fighter is an ability to fully commit to the endeavor; to go on until either your body gives out or you are at risk of serious harm by continuing to compete (in a submission for example). It’s one of the many qualities separating true fighters from every day Joes. Lashley didn’t look like he wanted to be in the ring anymore after Griggs opened him up in the opening frame, while I can think of countless other situations where fighters who have been hurt answered the bell full of piss and vinegar, ready to finish things or be finished. Perhaps it was a matter of conditioning, an adrenaline dump, or the amount of oxygen Lashley’s frame requires to function. Perhaps his heart is in a sport where he’s risking consciousness and scars that last a lifetime. I just didn’t get that watching him in Houston, and as such I think there’s a chance he could retire. However, I have faith he won’t, at least not before bringing Japan to America with a bout against Bautista.

True/False – The rematch between BJ Penn and Frank Edgar will also go a full five rounds.

Tool: False. Despite the fact that both of these fighters are notoriously tough to put away, I still think that this one ends without the need for the judges’ scorecards. This predication is primarily based on who I think will win the fight and that would be BJ Penn.

I don’t want to underestimate Edgar’s abilities. The man is dangerously quick with an incredible assortment of strikes. At UFC 112 he was actually able to take BJ down, a feat that is nearly impossible to accomplish given Penn’s freakish sense of balance. All that being said, I don’t believe that on that evening in Abu Dhabi we saw the same BJ Penn that has dominated the lightweight division for years. He seemed sluggish and hesitant to pull the trigger. When he did throw his overhand right (a punch that can easily end the night of any fighter) he was telegraphing it so much that he may as well have shouted out, “Hey Frankie, I am throwing my power punch at you!”

I believe the loss at UFC 112 has forced Penn to take Edgar that much more seriously. BJ has made it clear plenty of times that the belt is not what drives him – it’s his legacy in the sport and quality of his record. He’s not coming to Boston this weekend to reclaim his title, he’s coming to avenge that loss. I believe he’ll do so in devastating fashion and put Edgar away somewhere around the halfway point of the fight.

Conlan: This is also a “false” for me. BJ is never more-dangerous than when he’s motivated by a loss. He will be looking to replace the sour taste of the judges’ scores from UFC 112 with Edgar’s blood freshly lapped from the top of his gloves, and because of that I suspect we’ll see a much more aggressive Penn at UFC 118 than the one who lost his belt to Edgar last April. Look for him to throw combos rather than sticking once and moving away, as he seemed to do a good job of countering Edgar when they first fought but never really pressed the action afterwards.

I also expect his jiujitsu to come into play more often than it did in their original bout (which really isn’t saying much when you consider how little grappling was involved). Edgar is a great wrestler, but Penn is dangerous from any position on the ground and should show it in Boston. I think he was overconfident in his stand-up after the way he performed against Sean Sherk and Diego Sanchez and will go back to mixing his attack up this go-round. The champ has yet to be finished in his career, but he also hasn’t faced a “Prodigy” who has as much to prove as the one he’ll be in the Octagon with tomorrow night.

Vitor Belfort recently announced he would be fighting again in November. Who would you like to see “The Phenom” face in his return to the Octagon?

Tool: Common sense tells us exactly who Belfort’s opponent should be, and that’s the man most people still feel is the #1 contender in Chael Sonnen. Sonnen vs. Belfort is the no-brainer match-up to determine the next contender for early 2011 when Anderson Silva is ready to go again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the UFC doesn’t make that match-up. The pool for middleweight contenders is still quite low and Dana White may not want to eliminate one in favor of the other, particularly when he already knows he can slot Sonnen in for a rematch immediately after what happened earlier this month.

The UFC clearly wants to put Belfort in a title fight and to do so they need him to get a solid win over a credible opponent. With that in mind I say let’s do Vitor Belfort vs. Chris Leben. Leben has been a bit of a tear this year with his wins over Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama and he has enough name value with the fans that a win over him certainly means something. If anything Belfort vs. Leben would be an epic slugfest with “Fight of the Night” written all over it. That’s the match-up I want to see so I say make it happen.

Conlan: This is the first of two topics semi-foiled by this recent news. Anyways, as the world learned from Belfort himself this past week, since it won’t be Sonnen it seems the only logical candidates are Yushin Okami or Chris Leben. I suppose it’s also possible Demian Maia could slide into a spot opposite “The Phenom” depending on how he fares against Mario Miranda tomorrow night at UFC 118.

Out of the bunch I’m on the same page as Tool, as Leben has the most appeal for a few reasons. His style matched with Vitor’s is equivalent to combining gun powder with flame. The result would surely involve more power-shots than feeler-jabs and a TKO at some point before the third round. Also, like Adam pointed out, Leben has won three in a row including the victories over Akiyama and Simpson. Okami has come away with his hands raised five times out of the last six he’s fought, but none of his wins were particularly memorable or over exceptional talent. Comparably, Leben is coming off one of the most entertaining scraps of 2010 if not the last few years (against Akiyama). Honestly, there’s really not a lot of room for debate in my mind, and I’ll be a bit disappointed if someone else receives the nod over Leben without him having first crack at it.

What is the most intriguing match-up outside of the UFC for the new Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Rafael “Feijao Cavalcante?

Conlan: The winner of Renato Sobral’s rumored fight against Dan Henderson makes the most sense to me since the UFC has the bulk of the sport’s top 205ers and there’s nobody else on the Strikeforce roster who deserves to be, or is a big enough name to sell as, a contender for Cavalcante’s belt. Their history and success in MMA makes them credible contenders in the eyes of most fans and really that’s all Strikeforce can ask for with such a thin light heavyweight division.

Sobral, who has forty-four fights to his credit and has won six of his last seven bouts, wasn’t willing to square off with former light heavyweight champ Mo Lawal due to their relationship as friends and training partners. However, if “Babalu” beats Henderson, not only will he have defeated a highly respected competitor but he also brings a built-in angle to sell the “Feijao” fight with (i.e. knocking off the guy who knocked off his long-time buddy).

Henderson, on the other hand, may have lost his only fight thus far in Strikeforce but had won three in the UFC prior to facing Jake Shields and has been relatively vocal for a long time about his preference to compete at 205 pounds rather than 185. He’s a legend in the sport whose world-class wrestling and a devastating right hand make him a threat to beat any opponent he faces. Strikeforce doesn’t have another light heavyweight with his credentials on their payroll making “Hendo” as logical a choice as you’ll find for Cavalcante’s first title defense.

Tool: I won’t argue with Brendhan’s assessment that the winner of a potential “Babalu”/Henderson fight deserves the top contender spot. If that fight is made, the winner would undoubtedly provide a stern test for Cavalcante’s first title defense. On top of that there’s really no way for the result to be a bad fight no matter how things shake out.

That being said, I’ve got someone else in mind to match up against “Feijao” first. As Brendhan pointed out a majority of the talent at 205 lbs. resides within the UFC, but there’s one man who doesn’t call the octagon his home and that man is Gegard Mousasi. His stock has dropped since the loss to “King Mo” but he’s still ranked as one of the top light heavyweights in the world. A more compelling reason though is the fact that Cavalcante vs. Mousasi is a guaranteed barn-burner of a fight. Both men are dangerous strikers with certified knockout power, and they both have plenty of skill in the submissions department. I’ll concede that Mousasi may not be the most deserving contender but he’s definitely the next fighter I want to see get in the cage with Cavalcante.

Do you believe that the winner of the Kenny Florian/Gray Maynard fight should be the next #1 contender, regardless of the outcome in the lightweight championship fight?

Conlan: Yes, especially in the case of Maynard. However, I also want to say the second-part of the topic is fairly broad and there’s always the possibility of an official’s error ending things controversially which could create a unique situation.

However, assuming that isn’t the case, then obviously Penn wouldn’t deserve a third crack at the belt after losing two in a row, and though Edgar might have more of a case to argue if he isn’t dominated or finished in the bout, even a razor-thin decision loss to Penn shouldn’t afford the New Jersey native an instant rematch. As unfair as that sounds, or may actually be, the reality is an immediate rubber match would stagnate the division by having the same two men face off for the belt three times over the span of a year rather than injecting a little life into the 155-pound pool by giving a new contender his shot at glory.

Depending on the outcome of their main card bout, Maynard would be undefeated with wins over a number of very respectable, highly ranked opponents, while Florian would be 9-1 in his last ten bouts with the only loss coming to Penn a little over a year ago. Both can easily be sold as having earned top contendership in comparison to their peers based on in-ring accomplishments, and they both have natural storylines attached for promotional use regardless of who walks away with the title on Saturday night. For example, Maynard is the only person to have beaten Edgar thus far in his career (and did so in convincing fashion) while also being a former training partner of Penn’s and a member of the Hawaiian’s team on the Ultimate Fighter Season 5. On the flipside, Florian has never faced Edgar so their pairing would make for a fresh match-up, while also being able to attribute his only loss since October 2006 to “Baby Jay” thereby creating a natural “revenge” angle the UFC can use to sell the fight with.

Tool: During the time between Brendhan and I submitting our answers Dana White confirmed that the winner of this fight would be next in line for a shot at the title, but for the sake of this article we’ll press on anyways.

Nobody can argue that Maynard wouldn’t deserve his shot with a win over Florian. You can point out the fact that he’s not finishing his opponents, but you cannot argue with the quality of opposition that he’s beaten. In all fairness he probably should have been the one to face Penn at UFC 112, but a victory over the company’s best lightweight to never hold a title would leave no more room for delaying Maynard’s shot at the gold.

Florian is a tougher sell despite his outstanding record and popularity with the fans. It was exactly a year ago this month that he received his last shot at the title, and if Penn does reclaim his belt on Saturday the UFC will have to convince fans that Penn vs. Florian 2 is a compelling match-up. As Dana White has pointed out Florian seems to turn into a different fighter whenever he’s fighting for a title, so it’ll take some convincing from “Ken-Flo” that he’s ready to step up once again.

Give your estimation for how long it will take Randy Couture to shoot in for a takedown against James Toney.

Conlan: Outside of using a few leg-kicks to soften Toney up there’s absolutely no reason for “The Natural” to stand with someone who has the boxing champ’s power/technique. Couture’s chin has never been known for a great deal of durability and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll go to sleep if Toney connects with a single well-placed shot. It’s obvious his best chance for success is to neutralize Toney’s weapons by dragging “Lights Out” down to the canvas and introducing the “mixed” part of MMA to him, and the longer Couture waits to bring his wrestling prowess into the match-up the more risk he’s at of taking an involuntary mid-ring snooze. That being said, I think less than a minute will pass before Couture closes the distance and attempts a takedown. It might even be less than thirty seconds.

Tool: I’m going to go even lower than Brendhan and guess 10 seconds. I don’t expect Randy to throw more than a few loose jabs before dipping down and grabbing a double-leg takedown, and I see no reason why he won’t be able to finish that takedown. From there it should be academic, as Randy will likely be able to easily pass whatever Toney has that passes for a guard. I see Randy winning this fight via submission in lightning quick fashion.

Toney may want people to believe that he’s ready to step into mixed-martial arts, but the reality of the situation is that even with 3-6 months of hard training he’s just not going to be ready. There have been plenty of fighters that have spent years in the sport and they couldn’t beat Couture, so outside of a lucky punch what chance does Toney really have?

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