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Grappling with Issues – 9/24/10

Care to sound off about Chael Sonnen’s hit on his UFC 117 drug test for the use of performance enhancing drugs? How far away from a title shot would Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic be with a win over Frank Mir this weekend at UFC 119? With a weekend full of Mixed Martial Arts, what match-up are you most-excited about? Are you surprised by Efrain Escudero’s newfound free-agent status?

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.

FACT/FICTION – The UFC 119 bout between Matt Serra and Chris Lytle will end similarly to their original clash in 2006 at the Ultimate Fighter Season 4 Finale (a split decision win for Serra)?

Adam Tool: FICTION. I’m fairly certain that this fight will be contested primarily on the feet, as Lytle will probably have no intentions of testing his ground skills against Serra and I’d be surprised if the smaller Serra can take Lytle down. Both fighters have favored the stand-up game for the last few years and with that in mind it’s hard not to see this one ending before the 15 minutes are up. I don’t believe that Serra will be able to put Lytle away, but then again I never thought Serra would be able to put Georges St. Pierre away either. Serra isn’t exactly known for having an iron chin so if Lytle gets the chance to really pour it on I expect him to do so. With both guys looking to win in impressive fashion I think it’s that much more likely we’ll see the referee stepping in to stop this one.

Conlan: This is also a “fiction” on my end but for a different reason, as I lack Tool’s confidence where a finish in the bout is concerned. However, I do believe Lytle will emerge victorious this time around meaning the result will obviously vary from their first match-up.

Their original encounter was close as is, and I feel Lytle has grown more than Serra since then (no height-joke intended). “The Terror” has only fought four times since November 2006, while Lytle has nearly tripled his total number of in-ring appearances with eleven. He is 1-2 since shocking the world against St. Pierre five months later. Lytle, on the other hand, is 7-4 with three of the defeats coming against a trio of MMA’s most-respected welterweights – Matt Hughes, Thiago Alves, and the division’s current top contender Josh Koscheck. Granted, Serra’s pair of losses came against Hughes and GSP, but he still hasn’t endured the overall experiences Lytle has in the last few years and activity definitely counts for something in professional sports. I think Lytle’s stand-up is at least equivalent, if not more sound, than Serra’s and his grappling has improved to the point he’ll be able to fend off the Long Islander’s takedowns.

Lytle also has the advantage of fighting in front of a hometown crowd at the event. While the pressure of competing in such an environment might hurt some athletes, I actually think it will motivate the Indianapolis native to perform even better. I can’t see him tapping out or cowering up underneath a barrage of punches, nor do I envision him chancing a close decision meaning he’ll press the action. With the audience’s support, and a good showing, he should have the judges’ favor sewn up fairly easily while also possessing the power/striking to send Serra to sleep if a clean combo lands.

When examining both cards for this weekend’s UFC 119 and DREAM 16 events, what single match-up stands out the most in terms of being the one you’re most interested in?

Tool: Call me old fashioned, but I love a good stand-up war. For that reason I’m going with the UFC 119 opening bout between Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard. I would be a fan of Stephens even if I wasn’t from Iowa, and with him riding a huge wave of momentum at the moment this could very well be the biggest fight of his life. At the same time Guillard is eager to break out of the middle of the lightweight pack and will likely be looking for his own breakout performance here. With both fighters giving everything they’ve got it seems extremely likely to me that we’re looking at the early favorite for “Fight of the Night” right here.

Conlan: Guillard vs. Stephens should definitely be a blast to watch and there’s no fault to be found in allowing the match-up to catch your eye. I agree they’ll likely throw caution to the wind and slug it out. I’m not sure it will last long enough to be “Fight of the Night”, but “Knockout of the Night” is a very real possibility. However, epic stand-up battles come and go but other pairings only happen once in a blue moon.

On that note, call me old fashioned, but I love a good entertainment-laden scrap in front of a Japanese crowd between a couple of submission-grapplers who aren’t afraid to strike either. For that reason, I’m psyched about the DREAM 16 fight between Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Kazushi Sakuraba. Sakuraba is 2-1 since 2009, as is Miller, and…oh nevermind…Saku vs. Mayhem! Both men are extremely engaging personalities with a lot of skill to back up their traditionally outlandish entrances with. Sakuraba is one of Miller’s idols and a genuine icon of MMA who should be appreciated with every fleeting appearance. Their headlining bout should result in one of those rare feel-good moments in life where punching, kicking, and choking also happen to be involved. Though it may not have particular relevance where rankings are concerned, the fight should be fun and also technically sound (at least on the ground).

What is your take on the entire Chael Sonnen situation?

Tool: What a mess this whole thing has turned out to be. First off I’m wondering why Sonnen was even allowed to fight Anderson Silva at UFC 117 if he told the athletic commission ahead of time that he would be coming up positive for a banned substance. That seems like the sort of thing that would prevent a fighter from being medically cleared to compete since those substances are, you know, banned. The fact that Chael told the CSAC ahead of time doesn’t remove the negligence on his part, since he obviously made the choice to put whatever he took into his body.

Now he’s out of the sport for one year (pending the result of his appeal in December) and that obviously puts a big ‘X’ thru the UFC’s plans to do Silva/Sonnen 2 in early 2011. Now the company has had to scramble to fill Sonnen’s spot and as a result they’ve already released tickets for their UFC 122 card, only to now change the main event after fans have purchased tickets. Vitor Belfort is in (again) to face Silva for the UFC Middleweight Championship, and a numbered UFC event will now feature Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami at the top of the card. Personally I’m kind of excited for Silva vs. Belfort but it’s hard to deny that the Silva/Sonnen rematch would be much better from a business stand-point.

Now I’d like to point out the two positive points we can look at here. The first thing is that the UFC dodged a major bullet with Sonnen losing, as they certainly don’t need to tie up one of their championship belts in a messy steroid suspension. I’m sure we all remember the lightweight title limbo that Sean Sherk put the company in a few years ago, as well as the similar situations Josh Barnett and Tim Sylvia brought upon the heavyweight title in years past.

The second shining light in this whole situation is the fact that it only reaffirms Anderson Silva’s status as the best fighter in the world. Think about it: Chael Sonnen had performance enhancing drugs in his system, while Anderson Silva had injured ribs, and Silva still won.

Conlan: To address the first part of Tool’s response, my understanding is that the policy states drug-use has to be confirmed by scientific means rather than simply an individual’s admission. For example, let’s say a fighter indicates he could test dirty because of a substance he took weeks prior in hopes of saving face if/when the result comes back positive. That doesn’t imply the substance is in his system at the time of competition – only could be – and therefore can’t be used to prevent him from stepping into the ring. I’m not 100% sure on this, but I’m fairly certain Sonnen didn’t tell the CSAC he injected testosterone into his body the morning of UFC 117. In fact, how many of us haven’t passed a test we originally told someone we felt we had failed? The circumstances are obviously different but the premise remains.

I also wouldn’t doubt having medical documentation of drug use could be a necessity where liability is concerned as well. What if a fight is scrapped with an athlete ultimately testing negative for drug use? In today’s world that seems like a lawsuit or two waiting to happen.

As far as my opinion on the actual situation, I don’t think there are enough facts available to formulate a fully intelligent take. I’d like to know more about the specific substance causing the spike in testosterone and to what end Sonnen used it. Certainly cycling Winstrol is different than an over-the-counter cold medicine with a side effect on one’s body. If it turns out he was in fact abusing performance enhancing drugs in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage then I’d like to see him released from the company as I think the UFC should do for any athlete behaving in such a manner. Using steroids may not be a sucker-punch a la Paul Daley but it is a slap to the face of the sport. Plus, he’s a PR-nightmare waiting to happen as is given a lot of his personal views and the basic lack of a filter between his brain/mouth, not to mention somewhat of a wet-blanket in the ring given his percentage of decision wins.

I also believe in karma, so regardless of his actual abuse I don’t feel any pity for his ongoing embarrassment. You reap what you sow in life, Hispanic-imposters and Mixed Martial Artists alike.

Do you think Mirko Cro Cop will contend for the UFC Heavyweight Championship in 2011 if he defeats Frank Mir?

Conlan: When I originally started penning my response to this topic I felt certain Filipovic had almost no chance of sniffing gold in 2011. After all, Junior dos Santos is already lined up to face the winner of Brock Lesnar’s October defense against Cain Velasquez, plus other heavyweights like Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson deserve due consideration as well. However, the more I thought about it, the easier it became to envision a scenario where “Cro Cop” fights for a UFC title at some point in the next fifteen months (presuming he gets by Mir this weekend of course).

Though Carwin and Nelson might have received more press in terms of their recent activities, neither is presently riding a three-fight win streak as Filipovic would be by notching a victory at UFC 119. Having wins over Pat Barry and Mir, as well as in three of his last four official prior bouts, is a factor that shouldn’t be denied when considering Nelson and Carwin are each coming off losing performances. The kickboxing Croatian also stands out more in the group because he has significant drawing power attached to his name based on in-ring style, past accomplishments in MMA, and status as a beloved figure in his homeland.

Even if a member of the Lesnar/Dos Santos/Velasquez trio receives an immediate rematch based on a close loss, controversial finish, or their overwhelming drawing power (i.e. Brock), the UFC heavyweight title will still need to be defended a third time in 2011. That being said, as long as “Cro Cop” can defeat Mir, especially in highlight-reel fashion, and at some point later score another dubya against someone like Carwin, Nelson, Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, or even the winner of UFC 121’s bout between Gabriel Gonzaga and Brendan Schaub, I think a very strong case can be made that he’ll be in line for a crack at the belt given the rest of the promotion’s current roster.

Tool: I agree with Brendhan’s scenario and in all honesty I wouldn’t be surprised if Cro Cop is just a few wins away from fighting for the gold. We can’t overlook the fact that the UFC has been itching to put Cro Cop into title contention ever since he entered the company. After his less-than-impressive octagon debut against Eddie Sanchez Cro Cop was immediately slotted into a title eliminator bout with Gonzaga. Obviously that didn’t work out too well for Cro Cop, but with his name value amongst the fan base he’s got a good chance of getting in line for the belt sooner than later.

There is one factor that could work against him though (well, two if you count Frank Mir this weekend) and that’s the man that already has a title shot waiting: Junior Dos Santos. Cro Cop’s one-sided loss to Dos Santos is still very fresh in the minds of MMA fans, and I doubt we’ll see a rematch anytime soon. If “Cigano” ends up as the one holding gold after the next two title fights then the opportunity for Cro Cop to be a contender will be that much tougher to come by.

Should Sean Sherk retire from the sport if he loses to Evan Dunham this weekend?

Conlan: Absolutely not, and to profess anything else is as ridiculous as the UFC’s ring-girls forsaking spandex mini-shorts for burkas. You aren’t talking about Ken Shamrock, Chuck Liddell, or Jens Pulver here. You’re talking about one of the premiere lightweights currently competing in the sport.

If Sherk tastes the canvas in four more consecutive bouts after UFC 119, or against journeymen with .500 records, it might be a different story. However, Dunham is 11-0 thus far in a young career with wins over a handful of legitimate opponents. He comes from a great camp (XTreme Couture), possesses a solid set of well-rounded skills, and has shown steady improvement in the ring with each outing. The Oregonian also will enjoy a few inches of both height and reach advantage when things go down Saturday evening, so that’s something to think about as well.

Though the loss would be Sherk’s second straight, and the third in his last four fights, you have to consider the level of opponents he’s fallen to in that slide. He’ll have dropped a bout to an undefeated blue-chipper (Dunham), one of the sport’s all-time greats (BJ Penn), and the UFC’s current 155-pound champion (Frank Edgar). Tack welterweight title-holder Georges St. Pierre and MMA icon Matt Hughes on the list and you’d have the grand total of defeats in the 37-year-old’s thirty-eight fight, decade-long career. That’s not cause for concern; that’s cause for respect.

Tool: I would also say that talk of Sherk’s retirement is a bit pre-mature at this point, although I can’t say I agree with Brendhan’s assessment that “The Muscle Shark” is one of the sport’s premier lightweights. Sherk’s lone defense of the UFC Lightweight Championship took place at UFC 73 on July 7th, 2007. He’s fought three times since then, and lost two out of those three fights. His only win in that time frame was a very narrow win over Tyson Griffin while the losses were against the two most recent champions in the division. In those three years since Sherk was at the top of the mountain the division has passed him by, and that statement will only be more factual if Evan Dunham is successful tomorrow night. Sherk left his spot wide open and plenty of fresh faces have rushed in to fill that void. Would anybody pick Sherk to win if he was fighting Gray Maynard tomorrow? Is anybody picking him to beat Dunham? What do you think would happen if Sherk took a rematch with Kenny Florian?

I don’t believe that tomorrow night will be Sherk’s last time in the octagon, but I can’t shake the feeling that that moment isn’t too far away. I could certainly be proven wrong, as Sherk is absolutely talented enough to beat Dunham and then go on a tear back towards the championship. I find that situation highly unlikely, but only time will tell what happens next.

Were you surprised at all by the UFC’s decision to release “Ultimate Fighter” Champion Efrain Escudero?

Conlan: My reaction to Escudero’s send-off from the UFC was mixed with a slight leaning towards “yes” where this particular subject is concerned. While I recognize the value he brought to the promotion, I also understand why the company’s brass might have felt it was safe to release him while at the same time sending a message to their roster (and the public for that matter).

The 13-2 Escudero’s overall foundation of talent can’t be dismissed, as he was relatively successful in the Octagon and landed a respectable TKO win over Cole Miller in September 2009 during his run in the UFC. He’s also an exciting competitor to watch regardless of how he fares in the bout’s outcome due to his somewhat-reckless, high-energy approach to fighting. On top of that, he has a built-in fanbase due to his status as an Ultimate Fighter seasonal champ, and as a Latino, ready to turn their eyes towards whichever organization he eventually chooses to sign with, making for yet another quality that was possibly worth a bit more leniency from his previous employers.

However, missing weight in such a significant manner at Fight Night 22, as Escudero did, justly drew criticism from the public and undoubtedly his bosses as well behind closed doors. UFC President Dana White was quoted as saying it is a fighter’s “job” to make weight after Thiago Alves came in heavy against Jon Fitch at UFC 117 this past August. Perhaps White felt he needed to make an example out of a fighter to make it clear UFC athletes are expected to behave like pros.

While cutting someone else who missed weight, or is associated with drug use, would serve a similar purpose I can also understand how Escudero could be viewed as more expendable than Alves or Sonnen/Sherk/etc. at this point in time. Efrain turns 25 in January 2011, so he’s still young, and could easily pick up a few wins in Bellator or Strikeforce before returning to the UFC in a year with a better record, more experience, and perhaps a more mature approach to being a professional Mixed Martial Artist. Granted, the UFC also has Karo Parisyan slated for action in the near future, so there is some hypocrisy involved, but then again if you don’t expect gray-area with Zuffa’s decision-making process you’re probably equally surprised when syrup shows up along with an order of pancakes.

Tool: I was entirely surprised by the news, simply given the fact that the UFC hasn’t cut a “true” Ultimate Fighter Champion ever before (Travis Lutter, as always, doesn’t count). Guys like Kendall Grove and Mac Danzig have had much worse records after winning their contracts, yet each is still on the roster. To me that says that Escudero’s attitude must have something to do with his release, as his skills in the cage are certainly no worse than a James Wilks (you guys do remember him, right?).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dana White spoke to Escudero after the UFN 22 weigh-ins, and furthermore I’m willing to bet that the conversation wasn’t entirely pleasant. There’s more to this story than what we know and unfortunately that’s probably the way things are going to stay for the time being.

Care to have the GWI staff answer one of your questions in next week’s edition? Leave it as a comment and you may just find your query serving as a component in the column’s ongoing legacy…which, with a quarter, COULD just buy you a few Tootsie Rolls!

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