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Grappling with Issues – 10/29/10

Does Jake Shields‘ performance against Martin Kampmann have you spooked about him having earned a title-shot with the win? Should Diego Sanchez indulge on sweets this weekend or consider avoiding candy in hopes of returning to the lightweight division? Would Brendan Schaub vs. Frank Mir be a “trick” or “treat” for fans? Who in the UFC would you consider selling your sell for if it meant a match-up with Russian Red-Devil Fedor Emelianenko?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Happy Halloween Weekend, and 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.

How would you assess the fallout from Eddie Alvarez’s dominating win over Roger Huerta last week at Bellator 33?

Tool: If anything Alvarez’s thorough beat down on Huerta just proved how desperate for real competition Alvarez is right now. Whether that competition comes in the form a showdown with Gilbert Melendez or a potential entrance into the UFC, the fact is that Bellator’s roster has little to offer Alvarez in the way of fresh challenges. Huerta’s stock has dropped in recent years but we can’t forget that he was right on the cusp of contendership in the UFC at one point. The fight between these two was great from the standpoint of Bellator building up their lightweight champion, but now that their two biggest lightweight stars have fought what’s left? Is there any reason to think that Pat Curran will fare any better when he gets his shot at Alvarez?

Conlan: I see Tool’s point about the scarceness of challenges left for the lightweight champ within Bellator, though in fairness it needs to be pointed out that Curran did beat Huerta and should be a more competitive foe for Alvarez from that standpoint alone. Someone with Curran’s improving skill-set should never be discounted, especially in a sport like MMA where upsets are far from rare.

Since Adam’s response focused mostly on Alvarez I’m going to concentrate on Huerta’s future in the wake of suffering the first TKO loss of his career. I think the bout’s timing may have influenced the result to a certain extent, as I suspect Huerta’s confidence wasn’t where it would have been had he been coming off a few wins before facing Alvarez rather than losses in three of his last four fights. On top of that, he dealt with the publicity surrounding his “street fight” earlier this year which could have affected his training or mentality entering arguably the biggest scrap of his career. Preparing for an opponent like Alvarez – even a notch below the Philadelphian – requires 100% of a Mixed Martial Artist’s focus and being unable to give in wholly to the process essentially equates to a loss no matter who you may be.

To that point, Huerta’s physique also looked a bit smaller than usual at the event. I won’t speculate on whether it was an attempt to increase his speed or the result of less time in the gym, but it got me thinking how interesting it would be to see the “El Matador” give featherweight a shot. Assuming his body can handle the cut without it negatively affecting his performance in the ring, dropping down a division would be a good way to hit “refresh” on his career, as well as a move creating new match-ups for Huerta and possibly providing a few size-related competitive advantages he hasn’t necessarily had thus far in his career at 155-pounds.

Did Diego Sanchez’s showing against Paulo Thiago restore your faith in him as a welterweight or would you prefer to see him drop back down to 155-pounds?

Tool: His performance on Saturday restored my faith in Diego Sanchez period. I haven’t seen the Diego of old since the Clay Guida fight so it was pretty nice to see that old aggression back in action from the former “Nightmare.” He didn’t look nearly as doughy on Saturday as he did against John Hathaway, so perhaps he would be better off sticking around at 170 lbs.

Regardless of the division he competes in there are still plenty of compelling match-ups for Sanchez. If he stays at welterweight I think a bout with Martin Kampmann could easily steal whatever show it’s on. If he goes back down to lightweight I think the bout that would make the most sense is a rematch with Kenny Florian, as both fighters are completely different from the two guys that competed for the first “Ultimate Fighter” championship.

Conlan: Somewhere in between I suppose. I can’t say with conviction his showing against Thiago made me feel Sanchez can beat the UFC’s top welterweights, but the thought of him fighting Kampmann, Dan Hardy, or Nate Diaz has my salivary glands firing up so I’m also not sure I want to see him head back to 155-pounds just yet.

Thiago has stated in the past he’s unable to train full-time due to his job in Brazilian law enforcement and aside from knocking out Josh Koscheck hasn’t been overwhelmingly impressive. He’s lost three of his last five fights and, aside from a respectable submission of Mike Swick, has gone the distance in four of them. It was a highly entertaining fight, and Sanchez’s win was a nice notch the ol’ the ring-post, but didn’t restore the confidence I had in him 3-4 years ago during the height of his run at 170-pounds (as a finishing performance might have).

Similarly to the division he’s currently residing in, I think there are still a few match-ups ripe with potential for entertainment at lightweight including Florian, George Sotiropoulos, and the new crop of WEC 155-pounders heading to the Octagon in the near future (Ben Henderson, Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone, etc.). I feel Sanchez gave up on the weight-class after enduring the strain on his body only to be pummeled for the first time in his career courtesy of BJ Penn. Leaving it behind on such a sour note after looking sharp against Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson almost feels like quitting to me and I think it would be a shame of “Nightmare” never gives it a go again.

If given the choice, who would you most like to see Fedor Emelianenko fight out of the
following group – Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, or Randy Couture?

Tool: I’ve got to go with Velasquez, especially now that he’s got the strongest claim of anyone to be the top heavyweight in the world. Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment you can’t deny that Velasquez is now firmly positioned as the best heavyweight in the UFC, and that’s a spot I expect him to keep for the foreseeable future. Emelianenko doesn’t have the aura of invincibility around him anymore so the fight may not be as appealing as it was four months ago, but at this point we still have to believe that Fedor is one of the top fighters in the world and as such he would be a stiff challenge for anybody in the heavyweight division.

Conlan: I’m going to take my “writer/associate editor” cap off for a second and pick Couture as simply a fan of MMA. Though Velasquez and Lesnar are more-relevant opponents for Emelianenko where rankings are concerned, “The Natural” is a legend in the sport – perhaps its biggest star from a mainstream perspective – whose remaining fights are numbered due to age/opportunity. On the flipside, Lesnar and Velasquez should both be active for the foreseeable future and as such have more time ahead of them than Couture to see a bout against Emelianenko eventually materialize.

Lesnar/Velasquez are merely “top five” heavyweights, while pairing Couture and Fedor creates a legitimate “dream fight” people have been wanting to see for as long as the sport has existed in its current form. As silly as it may sound to bypass on having the highest ranked fighters face each other, MMA is as much about entertainment/storylines as it is two individuals throwing down in a ring, and in that regard it would be foolish to pass on the possibility of finally bringing Couture vs. Emelianenko to fruition.

Based on his showing this past weekend, do you think Jake Shields should have to win at least one more fight in the UFC before he earns a title shot?

Conlan: If Shields’ contendership was based solely on how he looked against Martin Kampmann then I would support the notion of him having to notch another victory in the Octagon before getting a title-shot. However, his status also stems from having won fourteen consecutive fights prior to UFC 121 including in-ring success against a number of top competitors, and in that regard I have no problem saying he deserves to be “next in line” for a crack at the belt.

As far as the Californian’s lackluster performance in Anaheim, fans should keep in mind Kampmann is an excellent grappler who has yet to be submitted in a 21-bout career and wasn’t on any level a good stylistic match-up for the Californian. Additionally, Shields hadn’t fought at 170-pounds for a significant period of time before entering the ring against “The Hitman” last weekend and even admitted he seriously struggled with the weight-cut after competing at 185 for the past two years. Both factors definitely played into Shields’ forgettable debut and need to be taken into account when questioning whether or not he deserves to face the winner of Georges St. Pierre’s upcoming title-defense against Koscheck.

Tool: I’ve been pretty high on Shields for awhile now, but even I have to admit that he hasn’t sold me on a potential bout with GSP just yet. Brendhan is spot on with his assessment of Shields’ worthiness as a result of his record, and I echoed his points when we had a similar discussion last week. Of course, that was before his fight with Kampmann. Let’s face it: Shields did not impress the UFC faithful on Saturday night. The hardcore fan base can certainly make the case for Shields being one of the best welterweights in the world, but any fan seeing him for the first time at UFC 121 would most likely laugh at the idea of a match-up with St. Pierre. Personally I feel a second trip inside the octagon against a highly-regarded opponent would give Shields another chance to make a first impression, and that could be very beneficial to the UFC and their bottom line.

Brendan Schaub has already called out Frank Mir for his next fight. If you were UFC Matchmaker Joe Silva, would you book that bout?

Conlan: I’d definitely put the two together if I was Silva for a few reasons, and, other than the possibility of Mir serving as a replacement for the injured Shane Carwin at UFC 125 against Roy Nelson, I can’t think of any reason why the match-up shouldn’t be made.

When comparing the two heavyweights there’s a nice contrast to their in-ring approaches which is often favorable when it comes to the production of an entertaining fight. Schaub has heavy-hands and likes to bang, while Mir is known for his grappling but also isn’t afraid to put his recently-improved striking on display either. It would be interesting to see whether Mir would focus 100% on assessing the depth of Schaub’s ground-game or opt to test his stand-up instead.

Also, I think the pairing also makes sense from an “internal rankings” standpoint. Schaub has won his last three outings and dismantled former title-contender Gabriel Gonzaga in the biggest fight of his young career. On the flipside, Mir is 2-2 in his last four and needs to build off his victory over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic at UFC 119 (if for no other reason to help dull fans’ memory of the fourteen forgettable minutes prior to the knockout-knee). They are each in a place career-wise where a win over the other would provide a significant rub where contendership is concerned while a potential loss wouldn’t be overly damaging.

Tool: I agree that this booking makes sense, but of course this question was posed before the news came out that Shane Carwin was out of his UFC 125 fight with Nelson. Now I’m firmly of the belief that Mir makes the most possible sense as a replacement opponent for “Big Country.” It’s a great stylistic match-up between two guys who made their name with their jiu-jitsu skills, but have since evolved into heavy-handed strikers. That fight also has far greater title implications that a potential Mir/Schaub showdown, especially given the fact that both Mir and Nelson recently came up short in #1 contender bouts.

Now that he’s extended his win streak to five, how far away is Matt Hamill from competing for UFC gold?

Conlan: Hamill’s win-streak is akin to one of those computer-produced paintings a person has to thoroughly examine in order to see the actual image contained within. During the run he’s knocked off Reese Andy (who hasn’t fought since), Mark Munoz (now a middleweight), Jon Jones (by disqualification after getting absolutely decimated in the previous four minutes), Keith Jardine (lost six of his last seven fights), and most-recently Tito Ortiz at UFC 121 (who hasn’t won or been anywhere near active in three years). Looking beyond the Jones DQ and at the actual individuals he legitimately beat, Hamill has certainly been impressive but doesn’t have victories over opponents who anyone could argue are in peak position divisionally or skills-wise.

All that being said, I think Hamill will need to win at least three more times before working his way into the title picture. Dana White has already stated “The Hammer” will be paired up against a “Top 10” adversary in his next bout so that’s a good start. The UFC’s 205-pound pool is extremely deep and Hamill cannot cement himself as leader of the pack without first taking out a few of his highly-ranked peers.

Tool: It’s true that Hamill’s win-streak does have at least one heavy asterisk attached to it, but other than the Jones fight he’s pretty much dominated anyone he’s faced in the last few years. He’s still improving every time we see him, and at this rate he could very well be the next great wrestler/striker hybrid. He’s going to need at least a few wins against the upper level guys in the division before he’s going to be considered for contendership, but it’s certainly in the UFC’s best interests to try and get him into that position.

I would never advocate the usage of Hamill’s disability to try and gain more exposure for his accomplishments, but at the same time we cannot deny that his condition is part of who he is. He’s overcome some tremendous obstacles to get where he is, and that sort of thing can really capture public interest. Last night was the premiere of Hamill, a feature film based on his life, and if the movie has any success at all with critics then it’s only bound to bring more attention to this particular member of the UFC’s roster.

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