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Grappling with Issues – 9/2/10

Who will win the upcoming rematch between Frank Edgar and Gray Maynard? Do you agree that Kenny Florian chokes in big fights? Who should BJ Penn fight next? Which division should Nate Diaz call home? Will we see Randy Couture fighting for gold in 2011?

After a somewhat-historic night in Boston at UFC 118 we’ve got a bit of a break for major mixed-martial arts, but that won’t stop Brendhan Conlan and myself from trading opinions on the most important items of the week. Once we’ve had our say it’s your turn to get in on things by responding in the comment box below.

Pick both a welterweight and lightweight option for BJ Penn to face on the heels of a second loss to Frank Edgar.

Tool: There are a veritable bounty of compelling match-ups available for BJ Penn now that his opponents no longer have to prove themselves worthy of a title shot. The number obviously grows if Penn decides to move back and forth between two divisions, Couture-style. Penn has stated repeatedly that he’s not really all about the title belts, he simply wants the biggest fights to prove that he’s the best. His status as a modern-day legend and former champion ensure him a spot towards the top of the card for a long time.

At lightweight I feel there is only one option, and that’s a rematch with Takanori Gomi. It’s somewhat amazing to me that one of the most important fights in the history of the lightweight division took place on small card in Hawaii, under a fight banner that most fans have never heard of. With Gomi riding high from his KO of Tyson Griffin and Penn in desperate need of an exciting opponent he can beat, this fight is essentially a no-brainer.

At welterweight we’ve certainly got plenty of good choices. Part of me wouldn’t mind seeing Penn and Matt Hughes complete a trilogy of fights, but since I already made one rematch I’ll try a fresher opponent at welterweight. For that I think I’d be happy to see Penn matched up with the winner of the upcoming Carlos Condit/Dan Hardy scrap. I think either man would match up well with Penn, and they could easily be propelled into title contention with a win over the former welterweight champ.

Conlan: Adam said it all in the opening sentence of his rant. Now that Penn’s aura has dimmed a bit he has a number of options seeming more realistic today than they did during his recent run as lightweight champion. Obviously Gomi is a great choice for the reasons Tool listed, and I’d welcome their match-up as a co-headliner of any upcoming card. I also like Condit/Hardy as a potential opponent because neither welterweight is an overwhelming wrestler (which Penn has struggled against as of late) and both are fairly fearless in the cage.

A few other names I’ll throw out there for discussion are Nate Diaz, Matt Serra, and George Sotiropoulos. Penn’s physique against Edgar told me he’s not necessarily opposed to going back to welterweight in the near future, as he was in nowhere near the same shape as he was a year or two ago. Serra fights at 170 pounds, but is relatively undersized for the division and has history with Penn as the two fought to a decision at UFC 39 in 2002. I remember it being an entertaining fight and one that wasn’t nearly as decisive as people felt it would be prior to the action unfolding, so why not run it back if BJ wants to go back up in weight? I also like Diaz and Sotiropoulos as opponents because they embody a similar fighting spirit to Penn’s and, like Serra, have high-level jiujitsu to offer back in return to “The Prodigy”. Also, similar to Serra, Diaz’s physique is a little small for a welterweight and Sotiropoulos is a little big for a lightweight. I think all three pair well with what Penn offers from an overall standpoint and would also provide “Baby Jay” a legitimate chance to earn a win against a respectable opponent rather than setting him up with an adversary who offers a significant chance at delivering him a loss for the third straight time.

Do you agree/disagree with Dana White’s recent statements about Ken Florian’s “choking” in big fights?

Tool: I’m not a fan of the idea but it’s hard to argue against it. Everybody I know that loves MMA loves to watch Kenny Florian fight. He’s incredibly popular and would make a great champion but he’s (almost) always come up short. Does Florian have a mental block that prohibits him from achieving the greatness he knows he’s capable of? I don’t really think so but nobody outside of Kenny’s head can really know for sure.

There is more to the story, of course. The loss to Sean Sherk is perfectly excusable, since most everybody loses to Sherk. That fight was years ago and Florian has come a long way since then. He lost to Penn but up until recently, most everybody at lightweight had lost to Penn. The loss to Gray Maynard is the most telling though in terms of whether or not Florian really “chokes.”

Everybody and Kenny Florian knew that Maynard would use his striking when he felt comfortable, but ultimately the takedown would be coming sooner than later. Florian looked like a deer in the headlights for most of the fight, seemingly afraid to throw a single misplaced strike lest he be put on his back. Maynard’s grinding style is not too different from the offense of Clay Guida (although Maynard clearly has more power), but Florian lacked that aggressiveness he showed against Guida.

Unfortunately for Boston’s favorite fighting son, he has now taken Guida’s place as the premier lightweight gatekeeper.

Conlan: Maynard also has better hands than Guida but that’s beside the point. I don’t get the sense Florian “chokes” in the spotlight, as he’s performed extremely well against talented opposition on big cards and in highly-promoted bouts. UFC 118 was far from his finest performance and Florian would be the first to tell you that. He had no defense for Maynard’s wrestling, as few if any have, and struggled to tee-off out of a combination of fear of Gray’s takedowns and respect for his underrated boxing. Those are things he can work on in the gym, not fundamental flaws in his psyche.

In fact, it bothers me to an extent someone who dismantled Takanori Gomi, Roger Huerta, Clay Guida, and Joe Stevenson in the fashion Florian did would have anything taken away from his ability in the cage by his employer or fans of the sport. I fail to see how losing to a supremely motivated Penn and an undefeated fighter who dominated the current champ two years ago can be cause for concern. The guy has lost two fights in the last four years. What else needs to be said?

What bout on the upcoming “Shark Fights 13” card are you most looking forward to?

Tool: Oh yeah, Shark Fights is this weekend! Let’s get excited! Will Keith Jardine push his losing streak to five? Can Sokoudjou and Houston Alexander finish the fight before they both gas in the third minute? Will Jorge Masvidal be the latest victim of Paul Daley’s temper tantrums?

I guess if I have to pick a fight I want to see on this card, I’ll go with the evening’s opening bout between Brock Larson and Tarec Saffiedine. Larson may have been bounced from the UFC but he’s already racked up three dominant wins this year (granted all of them were against guys you‘ve never heard of). He’s one of the most underrated welterweights in the world and if he’s had a boring fight, it’s not one that I’ve ever seen. His opponent is a Belgian prospect who’s on a two-fight win streak with his most recent victory being a vicious knockout on the May Strikeforce Challengers event. He showed good takedown defense and a willingness to bang, and I think he’s going to match up extremely well with Larson.

Conlan: Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to welcome Michael Wilbon to GWI! I don’t understand Tool’s negativity towards the card, especially one from a relatively small company in comparison to those we typically discuss on these pages. And, actually, it’s next weekend – not this weekend.

Moving on, I like that Shark Fights is making the effort to grow from a regional promotion into a larger entity. Offering a streaming undercard for free and an event stacked with recognizable names is a welcome addition to the usual offerings from start-up MMA companies with questionable finances and ten fighters you’ve never heard of. Of all the match-ups I’m most interested in Daley/Masvidal.

“Semtex” always turns in edge-of-your-couch performances based on his style. Masvidal is good on his feet as well and shouldn’t be afraid to stand as long as he’s comfortable with Daley’s power in the beginning. He’s knocked out Yves Edwards and Joe Lauzon in the past, and though I don’t think he’ll necessarily add the Brit to that list I do have faith he’ll strike with him. Masvidal is also a decent grappler so he could cause problems for Daley on the ground as well if things go that route. In the end, I expect it to be an exciting affair and possibly “Fight of the Night” where overall entertainment value is concerned.

Based on what you saw Saturday night, who is your early pick to win the upcoming Frank Edgar/Gray Maynard rematch?

Conlan: I haven’t seen anything vastly different from either since the two originally fought so I won’t be surprised if action unfolds similarly to how it did in April 2008. It’s no secret they are almost mirror images of each other where skills are concerned. The only difference I really see is Edgar being a bit faster and Maynard slightly stronger mainly due to a difference in their size/builds. Neither takes a lot of risk in their approach to opponents and, as evident by their high number of decision wins, both are comfortable controlling action from the top rather than taking unnecessary risks in hopes of wowing the audience.

I hate to undersell Edgar after beating BJ Penn in back-to-back bouts, but styles often determine outcomes and Maynard’s is slightly more suited to stifling Edgar than Penn’s was. Maynard’s grappling ability should allow him to strike with Edgar without fear of being dragged down to the mat at the champ’s choosing while also opening the door for him to land takedowns of his own (as he frequently did in their initial fight). In the end I think Gray will blanket “The Answer” for five rounds, win the belt, and walk away as a participant in one of the most boring title fights in UFC history. However, he deserves the opportunity, and any action the eventual match-up actually lacks should be blamed on the similarity of their styles rather than focused on either man’s overall offerings in the ring.

Tool: It seems so strange to me to think that a UFC champion is going to be the underdog in his first two title defenses, but that’s the situation we’re facing with Frank Edgar. The loss to Maynard was fairly one-sided and Edgar hasn’t completely changed as a fighter since then, so I can understand people’s assumptions that the rematch will be five more rounds of the same.

I do believe that Maynard’s power will allow him to take Edgar down whenever he sees fit to do so, but we also know that Gray has been working diligently on his striking as well. If Maynard chooses to stand and trade with Edgar he’ll likely be on the losing end, as Edgar’s quickness has allowed him to outstrike just about anybody he’s faced. If Edgar can stuff the takedowns and avoid the iron grip of Maynard he could conceivably win this thing, but obviously that’s a mighty big if.

Would you rather see Nate Diaz stay at welterweight or move back down to lightweight?

Conlan: I’m open to either scenario and don’t have a preference between the two. Diaz has been successful at 170 pounds thus far but hasn’t fought a ranked welterweight yet so it’s difficult to gauge how successful he’ll actually be in the division. Wins over Rory Markham and Marcus Davis are nice to be sure, but Diaz has never had a problem beating mid-tier opposition and is absolutely a talented fighter at any weight. The question is, how will he be able to fend off the grappling and cardio of someone like Jon Fitch or Josh Koscheck if he was unable to do so against Clay Guida or Joe Stevenson? He won’t, at least in my mind, and as such I’m slightly indifferent to what weight he fights at so long as he keeps turning in entertaining performances. If he improves to the point where he isn’t constantly marked up or on his back when competing against high-level opponents I’ll gladly reconsider my stance to include those accomplishments. Until then, I’ll continue tuning in to watch him fight, but I won’t care what division he’s throwing down in because I can’t see him currently having a significant impact on either.

Tool: I’d prefer to see Diaz stay at welterweight now that he’s getting some good momentum going in the division. As Brendhan pointed out, Diaz will likely still have trouble with powerful wrestlers (of which there are a few at 170) but he’s still easily one of the strongest BJJ practitioners in the division. Diaz’s guard may not quite be the stuff of legend yet but he can certainly pose a threat off of his back. Combine the ground skills with his ever-improving striking and you’ve got a great potential contender in the division. If Diaz gets matched up with one of the top ten welterweights in the company he could certainly be a win or two away from contention, especially given the severe drought of contenders for the UFC Welterweight Championship.

TRUE/FALSE – Randy Couture will compete in his 16th UFC title fight before the end of 2011.

Conlan: False. Even if Couture was currently deserving of title consideration, both the UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions have enough contenders lined up to keep their champions busy for another year-and-change as is.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is out of action until mid-2011 and already has an opponent lined up in the form of Rashad Evans. With Lyoto Machida set to fight Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in late November, and Ryan Bader waiting with Jon Jones in the wings, there’s already a logjam of contenders at 205 pounds. Couture hasn’t beaten a significant light heavyweight since Brandon Vera (a controversial decision) and would have to march through at least 2-3 of the division’s best before meriting discussion as a legitimate contender. That takes time, and in the context of this question the days are literally numbered.

As far as heavyweight, Couture’s hasn’t won in that class since knocking out Gabe Gonzaga in August 2007. Yes, I understand the Toney fight was technically a heavyweight bout, but it’s hard to consider a debuting, out-of-shape Mixed Martial Artist with a singular skill-set to be more than the “freak show” it was. Even if you want to include Toney it makes “The Natural” 1-2 in his last three heavyweight bouts. The UFC’s “big boy” division has never been stronger than it is now, and I think Couture would again have to get by at least a few of the UFC’s top heavies before sniffing a title-shot.

Also, I don’t think there’s any reason for the UFC to put Couture in championship contention at this point in his career. He should be focused on taking “money” fights rather than working his way up to the top by potentially knocking off younger stars or risking his own credibility in the process against lesser-known guys. Why opt for Couture fighting Thiago Silva or Brendan Schaub to work his way up to a belt when he could instead be involved in legendary encounters regardless of divisional standing (vs. “Rampage” Jackson or Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic for example)?

Tool: I’ve also got to go with false, although in all honesty I wouldn’t be surprised if this one winds up being true. Brendhan’s points are all well and good, but we can’t apply the usual criteria for contenders when talking about “The Natural.” The man is a modern-day legend and can still main event cards whenever he’s needed. His status within the company affords him a fair amount of leeway when it comes to match-making, and with that being the case it wouldn’t take much for Dana White and co. to slot Couture into a title opportunity. After all this is the man that has been in more title fights than anyone else in UFC history. If he wants to compete for the light heavyweight belt (and judging from interviews it would appear that he does) then I have a feeling he will probably end up doing that at least one more time before he finally walks away from the sport for good.

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