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Grappling with Issues – 9/17/10

Is wrestling ruining Mixed Martial Arts? Did the UFC blow it by cutting Todd Duffee? Who should Josh Barnett face in his Strikeforce debut? What is your opinion of Antonio McKee joining the UFC’s roster?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Welcome to “Grappling with Issues”, our site’s regular weekly 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…

Did the UFC make a mistake by releasing Todd Duffee after a single loss in the Octagon?

Tool: By most accounts, absolutely. Look at the heavyweight prospects across the board in MMA and try to tell me that Duffee isn’t one of the top names on that list. The loss to Mike Russow was a tough one, but I can’t think of a single high-level fighter at the moment who didn’t come back much better after their first loss. If Duffee ends up in Strikeforce (since they’d be nuts to not try and sign him) then it’s entirely possible that he’ll be successful enough outside of the octagon, and therefore he’d have no need to return. It’s also entirely possible that Duffee will never win again and fade quietly into the night, but this seems pretty unlikely to me.

Of course, there’s more to the story than what you or I know. The brass at Zuffa have given no reason for Duffee’s dismissal, nor are they required to. There’s too much behind the scenes information that we don’t know, so we have to also consider that the UFC may have been entirely justified in their actions. I won’t speculate on things like that but I will say this: if Todd Duffee has truly pissed Dana White off, I’m sure we would have heard about it by now. The fact that Dana is remaining silent on this one implies to me that Duffee still has the door open on a potential return some day.

Conlan: Based on the only information I have, which is that Duffee is a powerful, 6-1 heavyweight with five of his wins coming by way of first-round knockout, there’s definitely reason to question why the 24-year old would be released after suffering the only loss of his career to Russow. However, I agree with Tool in terms of there possibly being more to the story than has been made public. I know Duffee is a particularly outspoken individual, so it’s possible something he said in the past could have rubbed UFC brass the wrong way the wrong way, plus there’s always the possibility the promotion was tired of having him pull out of fights with injuries as he most recently did relating to a scheduled match-up with Jon Madsen at UFC 121.

Regardless, Duffee should do fine outside of the Octagon as long as his health issues don’t haunt him down the road. Strikeforce has a relatively strong heavyweight group, Bellator’s big-boy division is on the rise, Japan has always welcomed fighters with his physique and style of attack, and there are other opportunities beyond those on smaller promotions’ cards (a future Shark Fights show for example).

The circumstances surrounding his release may be a bit mysterious, but there’s little doubt in my mind all Duffee needs to do is string 2-3 wins in a row together and the UFC will come calling again.

Who impressed you the most at last weekend’s Shark Fights 13 event?

Tool: I’m split on this one between Tarec Saffiedine and Houston Alexander. Saffiedine showed that he is legit and I expect bigger paydays and broader exposure are coming soon. Soundly defeating Brock Larson may not be quite the accomplishment that it was a few years ago, but he’s still a pretty good measuring stick for where Saffiedine is at in his career. He’s already been on a couple of Strikeforce: Challengers cards so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that he makes the move up to the big shows soon.

On the other hand we’ve got Alexander, and I have to give a solid round of applause for the Shark Fights match-maker that put Houston together with Rameau Sokoudjou. These two fighters have plenty in common and I honestly had no idea who was going to win when their bout started. Credit should be given to Alexander for surviving and recovering from the damage he took in round one. After making it to the bell Alexander really took over in the second as Sokoudjou had next-to-nothing left in his gas tank. This may not be the win that gets Alexander back in the UFC, but it’s a start at least.

Conlan: I’m heading down a different route than my compadre on this topic, but I can’t fault him for having a great deal of appreciation for both Alexander and Saffiedine’s performances as they each had qualities worth considering. That being said, as opposed to selecting an individual who added a “W” to his record at the event, I’m going to opt for someone who won in the eyes of most who watched rather than emerging victorious from the actual bout in question.

I thought newly-signed Strikeforce lightweight Jorge Masvidal turned in the performance of the night when considering his level of opposition and size differential between them. Daley had won five of his last six fights entering the match-up, with his infamous decision loss to Josh Koscheck being the lone blemish, and finished the entire lot via strikes. Masvidal was able to absorb most of the damage “Semtex” dished without waivering while also showing solid stand-up throughout. His grappling put him in a number of advantageous positions and nearly earned him the dubya…or did, depending on who you ask.

The fact “Gamebred” is a natural 155-pounder while Daley is a big welterweight also deserves discussion. Though American Top Team’s Masvidal faltered towards the end of the third round, the 25-year old still went a full fifteen against Daley – somewhat of a rarity in terms of the Brit’s past opponents. In reality, 20 of the 25 victories Daley has notched in his career have been by way of a finish. To maintain consciousness for three rounds while also being 15-20 pounds lighter than Daley when the cage-door closed is an extremely impressive feat and one that deserves full credit.

Josh Barnett recently signed with Strikeforce. Who would you like to see him face first in the organization?

Tool: You know what would help answer this question? If Strikeforce actually announced which of their heavyweights were going to be fighting one another soon. Fedor Emelianenko is (as always) tied up in negotiations. Fabricio Werdum is out the rest of the year with an injury. Alistair Overeem is taking his Strikeforce Heavyweight Championship and going back to competing in K-1 for now. Brett Rogers is taking his two-fight losing streak and competing on a show for W1 (who?) in Canada next month. Meanwhile Antonio Silva sits on the sidelines praying that somebody takes a fight against him. Also I think Andrei Arlovski may still be under a Strikeforce contract, but who know these days?

Now that I’ve mentioned all the top names under the Strikeforce banner, allow me to suggest a different option for Barnett’s first opponent: Lavar Johnson. Johnson has already made a name for himself amongst hardcore fans thanks to two explosive win on Strikeforce: Challengers. He’s never had a fight go to a decision and a bout with Barnett is a huge opportunity for him. It’s not the most appealing match-up for Barnett but it’s certainly a fight he would be favored in. If Barnett wins then it’s a great chance to expose him to audiences that have never seen him fight, and if Johnson wins you’ve instantly created a new star in your best division.

Conlan: I like the choice of Johnson, though it seems Shane del Rosario would be the way to go if giving a lesser-known fighter an opportunity to shine against a veteran like Barnett.

However, there’s only one truly logical choice for me and that’s Fedor Emelianenko. Fans have been longing to see Emelianenko and Barnett square off for years and were cheated out of a chance to see the match-up in 2009 at an Affliction event (in large part due to Barnett testing positive for steroid use a week-and-a-half before the show was scheduled to take place). As long as he’s able to test clean, unless of course Strikeforce wants to stir up criticism by promoting an event in a location with less-stringent drug testing policies than California, there’s no reason Barnett shouldn’t finally be paired with Emelianenko inside a cage. Neither is getting younger, and Strikeforce needs to make the biggest bouts possible in order to draw interest from mainstream fans and maintain relevance among the hardcore sector.

Who do you feel has the longer road back to the UFC: Paul Daley or Keith Jardine?

Conlan: If Dana White’s mind didn’t change faster than the colors of a chameleon with ADD the answer to this question would be fairly obvious since Daley is the only option with a “lifetime ban” from the Octagon attached to his name. However, the topic becomes a bit more interesting because the UFC President has no problem treating his past statements like they were written on a dry-erase board as indicated by, among other things, his recent decision to bring Karo Parisyan back into the fold.

That being said, I think the presently-banished Brit has a better chance of making his way back to the UFC than Jardine for a number of reasons. Daley is eight-years younger than Jardine for starters, meaning he has more time to work with in his career than “The Dean of Mean”. He’s also won two fights since his post-fight sucker punch of Josh Koscheck at UFC 113 last May whereas Jardine was unable to get by part-time middleweight Trevor Prangley at Shark Fights 13 – an individual who was dismantled in three-and-a-half minutes by Tim Kennedy a few months prior. Prangley is talented to be sure, but he’s nowhere near the quality of the UFC’s light heavyweights, and in that regard losing to him was devastating to Jardine’s chances where a promotional return is concerned.

“Semtex” also has a more fan-friendly style than Jardine, and at the end of the day the UFC is a business recognizing the value of keeping its supporters happy. Putting Daley in the ring against an opponent who isn’t afraid to strike is as simple a recipe for excitement as peanut butter, jelly, and two slices of bread is for a delicious sandwich. On the other hand, Jardine hasn’t finished an opponent since Forrest Griffin in December 2006, and he seems less willing to engage these days than in the past because of his chin’s lacking durability. Beyond their respective approaches to fighting, Daley’s polarizing personality also “puts asses in the seats” in comparison to Jardine’s soft-spoken humility, and is yet one more factor in the many making him the more-likely candidate for a future return to the UFC than the Greg Jackson team captain.

Tool: I can agree with the points that Brendhan made, but I’m going in the other direction and taking Jardine. While their career trajectories may be vastly different there is one factor that evens the scales just a bit, and that is Jardine’s previous loyalties to the UFC. During his long career in the octagon Jardine was the model of a thankless employee, headlining several events despite the enormous differences in paychecks between himself and his opponents. As far as public record is concerned he never turned down a fight, even when the UFC slotted him against newcomer Houston Alexander after Jardine’s underdog win over Griffin. The loss to Prangley is a setback for sure, but let’s not forget that Jardine fought some of the toughest guys in the world at 205 lbs. during this current losing streak. On top of that he’s been around long enough to have a much higher name value than someone like Daley, and thus it shouldn’t take nearly as long for him to get back in the octagon. After all that’s why Jardine hasn’t signed with Strikeforce, because he wants to stay in Dana White’s good graces.

Of course all of this stuff is meaningless if Jardine doesn’t win a fight soon. If I were in Keith’s ear I would probably tell him to try his trade in Japan for a fight or two. If anybody can match a mid-level fighter up with a complete can, it’s the Japanese promoters.

BUY/SELL – You agree with the UFC’s decision to sign Antonio McKee.

Conlan: Definitely a “buy” for me. McKee has both the personality and in-ring credentials to support a campaign in the UFC. “Mandingo” – by far one of my favorite nicknames to type/say – last lost to Karo Parisyan in February 2003 and is 14-0-1 since. Though I can see the case against him involving both age (40) and the enormous amount of decisions he’s piled up in his career (18 of his 25 total victories), being part of the UFC is about winning and an ability to draw interest from fans. In addition to his success in the ring over the past seven years, McKee is also one of the sport’s more-outspoken individuals. He’s called out BJ Penn in the past, spoken about the influence of race on the UFC’s roster, promised to retire if he didn’t finish Luciano Azevedo last weekend at MFC 26, and is completely comfortable in front of a camera or talking trash to sell a bout to media. He’s unique in a number of ways, and regardless of age or style I’m absolutely interested in seeing what he has to offer inside the Octagon.

Tool: Interestingly enough this question was originally worded to pose the question of whether we think McKee should be signed by the UFC. That was before the outspoken lightweight made his negotiations with Zuffa public knowledge on another website’s radio show, thereby necessitating a minor change in the phrasing of this particular topic.

Regardless, this is also a “buy” for me. I think Brock Lesnar and Chael Sonnen have already proven the drawing power a good trash-talker can bring, and I expect McKee to have plenty of things to say about the proverbial shark tank that is the UFC’s lightweight division. As Brendhan already pointed out the guy can not only talk a good game, he can back it up as well. Given his stifling offensive style I have no doubt that he’ll bring plenty of trouble to anyone that gets the task of welcoming McKee to the octagon. On the other hand he may get completely blown-out by any number of younger fighters on the roster, but I’m curious to see how this whole thing plays out.

Several fighters have made comments in the past few weeks about the trend of high-level wrestlers winning “boring” decisions. What’s your take on the current state of wrestling in MMA?

Conlan: I don’t see any problem with the amount of wrestling in MMA or the influence it has on action in the ring. Grappling is one of the world’s original combative techniques and absolutely has a home in its current form where fighting is concerned. Our nation’s historical love of the sport has assisted in producing a number of its top athletes, many of whom are now professional Mixed Martial Artists, and as such it makes sense an American promotion like the UFC would be dominated by wrestlers. In Brazil it’s BJJ and Muay Thai; in Europe it’s kickboxing and sambo; in Japan it’s judo and Jiu-Jitsu. We as fans simply hear/see more in regards to the dominance of wrestling because of the UFC’s overwhelming presence in comparison to the entire industry.

I do, however, have an issue with the way ringside judges’ tend to score takedowns without always taking into account how active both competitors are when things hit the mat. If a fighter in top position is sitting in his/her opponent’s guard while the other individual is attempting submissions, working to escape, or landing strikes from the bottom then that needs to be part of the decision process in terms of how the round is scored. I believe a lot of the criticism high-level wrestlers are currently receiving for their arguably less-exciting approach to MMA is related to the number of bouts lost for that very reason. I also feel referees across the board need a better sense of recognition when it comes to a fighter who is aggressively looking to advance position and one who is content bleeding time off the clock by half-heartedly punching from full guard. As far as I’m concerned, improving officiating and how points are tallied would drastically reduce the number of yawn-inducing rounds and wet-blanket based decisions.

Tool: I’m tempted to leave this space blank as I absolutely agree with my colleague on every point he’s made. Wrestling rules American MMA which I suppose is precisely the very reason so many foreign fighters are speaking out against it. Shinya Aoki seems to think that butt-scoots should be counted more than takedowns, while British fighters like Dan Hardy are upset that guys won’t stand and bang with them. I can find merit in the arguments against how takedowns and ground control are scored in MMA, but that’s more of a reflection on the larger problem of an antiquated scoring system (and that’s a subject for another time).

This whole outcry of fighters against wrestling in MMA is really not that far removed from the much older outcry of fighters against Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The two disciplines are similar in the fact that, when they work, they are guaranteed to win fights. Nowadays most professional fighters have solid defense against the most common types of BJJ holds, and I’m fairly certain that in five or ten years time most fighters will have solid takedown defense. Eventually guys will start drilling hip escapes and scrambles so hard that they’re second nature for the next generation. Once more and more fighters adapt themselves to the current landscape of the sport, it will most likely end up changing once again.