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Grappling with Issues – 10/22/10

Is Jake Shields more-deserving of a title-shot than Jon Fitch with a win over Martin Kampmann this weekend? Will Cain Velasquez be the toughest test Brock Lesnar has faced thus far in MMA? Is anyone at risk of losing their job without a win at UFC 121? Who should Michael Bisping face in his next bout?

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.

Who would you like to see Michael Bisping matched up against next?

Tool: One thing we all know is that Bisping is as desperate for a title shot as Lady Gaga is for attention. If the UFC is serious about promoting Bisping to contender status (and by all accounts, they are) then the most logical choice of match-ups would be to pit “The Count” against the winner of next month’s UFC 122 headliner between Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami. Reports indicate that the winner of this fight is already slated to be the next #1 contender, but if the next middleweight title fight isn’t until February (as is currently rumored) then it stands to reason that Marquardt or Okami could need one more fight before their turn comes up.

If the UFC definitively slots the Marquardt/Okami winner as the next #1 contender then I would have to recommend that Bisping faces off with the winner of the upcoming Demian Maia/Kendall Grove match-up. Either fighter would represent a strong opponent for Bisping, and stylistically they both present a unique challenge. Bisping could find himself testing his ever-improving striking against a lanky Muay Thai fighter, or he could show off his submission defense skills against one of the most decorated grapplers in the sport.

Conlan: I don’t think Bisping is any more desperate for a crack at the championship than your average fighter is. He’s only 31, has wins over a number of respected competitors, and is the UFC’s face in the UK. “The Count” isn’t at risk of being passed over as long as he strings enough wins together, so why would he feel the need to wear a proverbial rash-guard made of meat in hopes of speeding along the process?

With Bisping only being 3-2 in his last five fights, I get the impression he’ll need to emerge victorious from the ring at least two more times before sniffing the middleweight belt, so pairing him with someone in a similar position to his makes a lot more sense to me than thrusting him into a title-eliminator right away as would be the case against Okami/Marquardt.

As far as the Englishman’s next opponent, I think Patrick Cote would be a solid choice as long as he gets by Tom Lawlor this weekend. Neither is afraid to strike, so the match-up of styles is definitely a fan-friendly one, plus they’ve exchanged words through the media on more than one occasion over the past couple of months so there’s a built-in angle to use for promotional purposes. I can also dig Tool’s suggestion of Maia/Grove, as I like the clash of in-ring approaches when it comes to a fight with Maia and the thought of Bisping facing Grove is appealing simply from the unique standpoint of both having won their respective divisions on the Ultimate Fighter Season 3.

Is Tito Ortiz in a must-win position against Matt Hamill at UFC 121 in terms of his future in the sport/company?

Tool: In terms of his future in the sport: absolutely. In terms of his future with the company: definitely maybe. In the years since his reign as light heavyweight champ the division has undoubtedly passed Ortiz by. He’s already lost to Lyoto Machida, he couldn’t beat Rashad Evans, and I don’t think there’s any reason to think that Tito could hang with “Shogun” Rua. His popularity still affords him a spot on the main card but if he wants to get back to main or co-main event status he must pick up the win this weekend.

As for his position within the company, who the hell can really say at this point? It wasn’t that long ago that we were all still under the assumption that Ortiz would never been seen in the Octagon ever again, but since then he’s main-evented a PPV and coached a season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Tito Ortiz is still a major name amongst casual fans of the sport, and he hasn’t had the string of embarrassing knockout losses that his good buddy Chuck Liddell has racked up. Unless he goes back to pissing in Dana White’s Corn Flakes then I guess we can get used to seeing Ortiz in the UFC for the foreseeable future.

Conlan: Though losing three in a row, and not having finished an opponent other than Ken Shamrock in nearly a decade, would certainly be grounds for release from the UFC – maybe even retirement – in the case of most 34-year olds, I don’t think Ortiz has anything to worry about on either front.

Hamill is currently riding a four-fight win streak and only truly struggled against two of the division’s best (Jon Jones and Rich Franklin). He’s a solid grappler with heavy-hands who won’t quit until his body gives out on him. A loss to “The Hammer” obviously wouldn’t help Ortiz’s UFC career but I can’t see one ending it either based on Hammil’s skills and success in the ring. Even if he never serves as part of a main event or even co-headlines a show again, Ortiz has enough mainstream name value to keep around for year or two in hopes of him righting his ship or at least preventing a rival organization like Strikeforce from acquiring his promotional talents or ability to draw the interest from casual MMA fans.

Does Jake Shields deserve to leap-frog Jon Fitch for a title-shot if he beats Martin Kampmann this weekend?

Tool: Based on the strength of his record I’d have to say yes. Naysayers will point to the fact that he hasn’t fought top contenders within the UFC first, but look at the number of guys he’s beaten outside of the company. The names on Shields’ 14-fight win streak include Carlos Condit, Yushin Okami, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Mike Pyle, and of course his most recent win over modern-day legend Dan Henderson. The last time Shields lost was before “The Ultimate Fighter” had even premiered. The guy has taken out every fighter put in front of him for the last six years and that’s worthy of a spot amongst the elite at welterweight.

I also have to say that it makes sense from a business standpoint as Shields represents the freshest possible match-up for Georges St. Pierre at this time in their careers. Obviously I’m already working on the assumption that GSP will retain his title against Josh Koscheck later this year, and if that is indeed the case then St. Pierre will have essentially lapped the welterweight division. Fitch has shown nothing in the five decision wins since his loss to St. Pierre that would make anybody think that a rematch would end any differently. If (by some minor miracle) Koscheck does win the belt in December then Fitch will most likely refuse to fight him anyways, so I don’t think anybody can fault Zuffa for hedging their bets with the top contender spot at 170 lbs.

Conlan: Tool hit every mark in his assessment of the situation. Though Shields may not have the UFC victories to leap-frog Fitch’s place on the company’s contendership ladder, his record and success against highly touted competitors speaks for itself. Not only did he beat Okami and Condit but he did so on the same night in a tournament. While St. Pierre has flirted with the idea of testing out the 185-pound waters, Shields actually dove in and swam through a trio of “Top 15” middleweights in the process.

I like Fitch, and he may technically be more-deserving of an opportunity to fight for the title, but Shields vs. GSP is a bout fans have been clamoring to see for a long time and it would be foolish of the UFC to bypass on the chance to put it together assuming he escapes unscathed from Kampmann at UFC 121. It would also open up the opportunity for Fitch to fight Condit and truly cement himself as the top welterweight contender.

On a semi-related note, I encourage you all to check out this video of Shields and Fitch in a submission-grappling tournament from a few years ago if you haven’t already seen it. Particularly entertaining, beyond the action, is Shields’ school-age (possibly younger) daughter providing commentary/support while watching her dad roll with the AKA front-man. My favorite parts include when she yells, “Kick him!” only to be reminded kicking isn’t allowed in the competition, and “Squeeze it!” during an attempted choke.

BUY/SELL – Cain Velasquez will be the toughest opponent Brock Lesnar has faced thus far in his career.

Conlan: I believe that’s a fair assessment of the challenge ahead of Lesnar given the champ’s relative greenness in the sport. After all, he’s only fought five opponents so there’s a very limited field to compare Velasquez against.

Out of the entire lot the only individuals, the only two I view as being clearly superior in one particular area of MMA to Velasquez are Frank Mir (BJJ) and Shane Carwin (power), while I think Velasquez’s wrestling, work-rate, conditioning, chin, and multi-dimensional striking are arguably better than anyone else on the list of candidates (Mir, Carwin, Randy Couture, Heath Herring, and Min Soo Kim). He has the grappling and speed to defend against Lesnar’s takedowns, as well as the precision and power to do significant damage. He won’t gas out after five minutes or crumple for good when a stiff-breeze blows across his jaw.

Tool: This is a “buy” for me as well. I would be willing to say that Velasquez is the most complete mixed-martial artist that Lesnar has faced thus far. If there’s any weakness to Cain’s game then I have yet to see it, and I’m curious to see what sort of gameplan Lesnar has come up with for this bout. In terms of pure wrestling ability, Velasquez is about as close to an “equal” as Lesnar’s going to face in the UFC’s heavyweight division. Unlike Carwin, there’s no questions going into this fight about the challenger’s conditioning and whether or not he can go for 25 minutes. Velasquez already showed us in the Cheick Kongo fight that he’s not going to wilt under pressure if he gets hurt, and by this point there are no doubts about the power Velasquez puts behind his punches. Finally I believe that Velasquez is going to pressure Lesnar like nobody else has before, and if he can impose his will early I believe he’ll be the next UFC Heavyweight Champion.

So, yes, based on his overall combination of skills and how he’s displayed them in the past, I think it’s safe to say Velasquez will be the stiffest test Lesnar has encountered thus far in his six-fight career. BUY.

Is Carlos Condit one of the top ten welterweight fighters in the world?

Conlan: Unquestionably, yes. Condit has lost three fights in the last five years – a split decision to Martin Kampmann, a decision to Jake Shields after beating Frank Trigg earlier that same evening, and the always-tough Pat Healy. While Healy’s name may not stand out in the crowd, Shields and Kampmann are easily among the top ten welterweights in MMA and neither had their way with him en route to hard-fought victories. Additionally, Kampmann was the first person to beat Condit in three years when he barely outpointed him at Fight Night 18 in April 2009, not to mention the “Natural Born Killer” has won three bouts in a row since the loss including his memorable knockout of Dan Hardy at UFC 120.

If his record wasn’t impressive enough for the “Top 10” distinction, also consider that 24 of his 25 wins have involved a finishing performance and he has yet to be finished by strikes in a 31-fight career. Beyond that, Condit has a near-even split between TKOs/submissions (12/13) meaning his approach to victory isn’t limited to any particular area of attack. He’s well-rounded, fearless, and has the in-ring accomplishments to back up the ranking…

…or maybe he just needs to knock Georges St. Pierre out without having done anything else in the welterweight division to be considered #1?

Tool: +100 to Brendhan for working in a dig on Matt Serra at the last minute.

I’ve got to agree here as well, as I considered Condit to be in the top 10 back when he was still WEC Welterweight Champion. The loss to Kampmann was razor thin, and since then he’s put on a string of truly amazing performances. He battled back to beat Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald are being in trouble early, and as a result he has to be considered one of the most dangerous fighters in the division. The win over Hardy served to remind everyone that Condit is a real threat on the feet, and in the process he’s got more fans than ever before. I expect the UFC to capitalize on his momentum and match him up with a notable name in the near future.

Make your pick for the UFC 121 competitor who is in the most danger to lose his fight and then get cut by the UFC.

Conlan: There are two individuals who stand out to me in terms of pink-slip potential – Tom Lawlor and Gilbert Yvel.

The 34-year old Yvel has lost his last two bouts, though in fairness his opposition was stiff to say the least (Ben Rothwell and Junior dos Santos). On the other hand, Lawlor is in the same boat as far as a pair of consecutive defeats without the comfort of having faced as difficult opponents or owning an established name in the industry. However, Lawlor has become a fan-favorite since showing up on the Ultimate Fighter Season 8 due to primarily to his colorful interviews and weigh-in/entrance antics. He’s fun to watch in the ring, but, if we’re being honest, has kept his job thus far based on personality as opposed to actual production.

Given the dual-headed nature of the question, I suppose I’ll go with Lawlor because Patrick Cote poses more of a threat to his win-column than Jon Madsen does to Yvel’s. Sad as this makes me to say, a quick-finish from the French-Canadian and Lawlormania could very well be running wild in Strikeforce or Japan rather than the UFC.

Tool: I would also have to go with Yvel, especially since I don’t think he’ll be able to get much done against the smothering offense of Madsen. If Yvel couldn’t stuff Rothwell’s takedowns I don’t think he’ll have much of a chance against a far superior wrestler in Madsen.

One other fighter could possibly find himself looking for new employment next week is none other than Diego Sanchez. He’s got a very tough opponent in Paulo Thiago, and at this moment Thiago is the slight favorite on the betting lines. A loss on Saturday would be Sanchez’s third straight, and while one of those losses is to BJ Penn it doesn’t change the fact that Sanchez has yet to deliver on the promise he showed in that first season of “TUF.” Winning the season’s championship was once considered a virtual guarantee of continued employment, but the recent firing of Efrain Escudero has shown that that’s not the case anymore. Sanchez’s UFC career may not be over yet, but if he loses tomorrow night it will definitely be on life support.