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Grappling with Issues – 11/19/10

Will B.J. Penn call it a career if he isn’t able to emerge victorious against rival Matt Hughes at UFC 123? Does George Sotiropoulos deserve to be top contender in the lightweight division with a win over Joe Lauzon? Would you rather see Urijah Faber fight for the bantamweight belt or instead put up against fellow WEC icon Miguel Torres? Who turned in most-memorable performance at UFC 122?

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.

After seeing Urijah Faber’s debut at 135-pounds last week, would you rather see him get an immediate shot at the UFC bantamweight title or involved in a “super-fight” against Miguel Torres?

Tool: I know I’m not alone in craving the Faber/Torres match-up, as it’s been talked about for years. It may have been more appealing back when each man held WEC gold, but I don’t think there could be a better time than now to make this fight. Both fighters are desperate to reclaim gold and a bout between them would give the winner an undisputable claim to top contendership in the bantamweight division. I say that if Torres makes it past Antonio Banuelos in February the UFC should go ahead and do Faber vs. Torres as soon as possible, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t.

Faber is easily the biggest star from the WEC so in that regard I anticipate that he’ll be placed into the top contender spot against the winner of Dominick Cruz and Scott Jorgenson. The first UFC bantamweight champ will undoubtedly be the #1 fighter in the division, and he’ll also be a name that most UFC fans are completely unfamiliar with. The best way to raise the current champ’s profile is to slot him in against a well-known competitor, and Faber fits that bill better than anyone.

Conlan: Similar to Tool, I would also prefer to see the Faber/Torres fight finally come together but instead envision “The California Kid” getting an immediate opportunity to win the bantamweight belt based on his popularity (not to mention how sharp he looked in his divisional debut against Takeya Mizugaki).

However, as I said, the thought of the two WEC icons finally facing off in the cage is a far more appealing prospect in my opinion than another one-win title-shot for Faber. I also think their personalities, well as experience as head-trainers, are perfectly suited for an upcoming season of the Ultimate Fighter. TUF has done an excellent job of building marketable Mixed Martial Artists, and I can’t think of many better ways to introduce fans to a new group of potential 135/145-pound stars to fans who may not necessarily be overly familiar with the weight-classes.

Sixteen of the UFC’s last twenty PPV main-card bouts have gone to decision. Is such a statistic troubling, and, if so, how would you propose the promotion fixes it?

Tool: I don’t think it’s all that troubling, even though as a fan I can’t help but long for more finishes. The fighters that call the UFC home are amongst the best competitors in the world, and as such they’re not the type of guys that will go down easily. In my opinion the rise of decisions speaks more to the toughness of the fighters rather than a problem with the current system. You look at some of the fighters that have lost these recent decisions, guys like Nate Marquardt, Paulo Thiago, Yoshihiro Akiyama, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and these are fighters that are notoriously difficult to put away. It’s a credit to UFC Matchmaker Joe Silva for creating match-ups that are so evenly matched, because if that wasn’t the case I’m sure we’d see more fighters blowing their over-matched opponents out of the water.

Of course the increase in decisions is also a bit troubling given the current state of MMA judging. We hear the phrase “never let it go the judges” all the time, yet that’s exactly what plenty of fighters are doing. It’s unfortunate that we can’t always rely on judges to make the right decision when they hand in their cards at the end of a fight, and it seems like a simple thing like giving judges monitors could help eliminate this problem sooner than later. Truth be told, I’m not nearly as worried about the number of overall decisions as I am about the number of questionable decisions popping up. I’d be fine with a five-fight card featuring every fight going the distance, just as long as I don’t have to worry about anything before Bruce Buffer reads the scorecards.

Conlan: I don’t know that the statistic is necessarily troubling, but I do think the percentage of decisions over the past few months is a point worth noting. To echo Tool’s statements, with the ever-deepening pool of talent in MMA the sport’s top competitors aren’t always going to be able to finish each other in fifteen, even twenty-five, minutes when throwing down in the ring. Also related to MMA’s evolution, there is too much on the line in terms of money/opportunity to always throw caution to the wind. The number of Chris Leben-like, balls-to-the-wall fighters is going to continually decrease as long the involved stakes remain on the rise. Legitimately, in today’s market, the difference between a win and a loss can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions in the long run.

I think it might be worth comparing results from the past year or two with those of mid-to-late 2010 before worrying too much. However, if decisions are indeed on the rise, especially with the afore-mentioned issues with ringside scoring, it might be worth discussing the potential outcome of increasing the number of involved rounds (five for regular fights, seven for title-bouts). Maybe even adding a fourth/sixth frame with the possibility of a single five-minute “overtime” if necessary at the end of the bout’s allotted time would work.

Regardless, one of Mixed Martial Arts’ most-appealing qualities in comparison to boxing is the number of ways a fight can be finished as opposed to involving a ton of stalling and an outcome where neither involved individual has a mark on his/her face. If you lose the anything-can-happen aspect, and every PPV starts featuring 3-4 decisions, MMA’s reputation will take a hit it can ill afford.

What percentage of likelihood would you assign to the possibility of B.J. Penn retiring from MMA if he loses decisively to Matt Hughes this weekend?

Tool: I’d put it at around 5%. Penn’s mindset is an impossibly difficult thing to predict, and the man has hinted at retirement on more than one occasion. While Penn has spoken about retirement in the past, he’s talked more frequently about wanting to be one of the best fighters of all time. While his career accomplishments will certainly put him in that category, I don’t think that he’s ready to be done just yet. Someone that wants to be one of the best of all time would probably not be satisfied with ending his career on three straight losses. There are plenty of interesting match-ups left to be made for Penn in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions, so unless he thinks his best days are behind him I don’t believe we’ll see the end of Penn’s UFC career this weekend.

Conlan: I’ll go with 1%. However, if Penn hadn’t come out recently and said he’s interested in a return to lightweight, as well as more fights at 170-pounds, I’d give it a much higher percentage.

He’s hard to predict and he certainly doesn’t have to fight anymore from a financial perspective. If he falls to Hughes it will be a massive blow to his ego, as well as the first three-fight losing streak of his career. Penn is a prideful person, and dropping bouts to a 37-year old who himself has hinted at hanging his gloves up in the not-too-distant future, as well as someone who might be even better as a featherweight (Frank Edgar), isn’t exactly the stuff confidence is built of. Again, because he’s expressed a desire to continue competing beyond this weekend I don’t think it’s likely he’ll retire with a loss, but if the former double-divisional champ had been more ambiguous on the subject of his in-ring prospects in 2011 I think the possibility of permanently heading back to Hilo would be far more distinct.

Which UFC 123 competitor do you think will fight for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship sooner: “Rampage” Jackson or Phil Davis?

Conlan: At first glance I asked myself, “Is this a serious question?” Then, after giving it a little more thought, I realized the inherent brilliance involved. The obvious answer is clearly “Rampage”, yet he’s facing an exceptional opponent at the event and has also hinted at prematurely retiring from MMA to focus on his acting career. On the other hand, Davis has an opportunity to 4-0 inside the Octagon against a tough adversary in the form of Tim Boetsch while also maintaining his unblemished record after eight professional fights.

However, regardless of their respective match-ups at UFC 123, or records and statuses after this weekend, I think Jackson is more likely to get a shot at the UFC’s 205-pound crown before Davis based purely on name value and past accomplishments in the sport. Even if “Mr. Wonderful” beats Boetsch he still won’t possess a win over a “Top 10” opponent while “Rampage” has beaten, or been highly competitive against, a number of top-ranked fighters. He’s also extremely marketable whereas Davis can likely still walk down a street in Los Angeles without getting approached by anyone who recognizes him. Jackson can go 3-1 over his next four fights and get a title shot whereas the same luxury won’t be afforded to the former Penn State All-American wrestler.

The only way Davis gets a crack at the belt before Jackson is if “Rampage” hangs his gloves up for good and I think he loves fighting too much to retire and risk finding himself wondering “what if” at 40-45 after a middle-of-the-road run in Hollywood.

Tool: I’m not sure if that’s the only way Davis gets a shot at the belt before Jackson. We do need to consider the possibility (sad as it may be) that Jackson is on the decline as far as his skills in the cage go. After all it’s entirely possible that “Rampage” won’t win against a quality opponent ever again. I don’t think it’s very likely, but it’s certainly possible. He didn’t get completely blown out by Rashad Evans but he didn’t exactly look competitive for the majority of that fight. I’m willing to give him some leeway due to the long layoff he experienced heading into that fight, and his performance this weekend should give us a much better idea of which direction his career is heading. Obviously Jackson’s name value gives him an edge in terms of where he stands in the division, and Brendhan’s right in his estimate that it won’t take more than a few solid wins to get “Rampage” back into the title picture.

As far as Davis goes, I’m fairly certain that this weekend’s match-up is designed to showcase his talents to a wider audience. Given the pattern the UFC has shown in bringing along their other prospects I’d be willing to bet that we’re still at least two years away from Davis entering the mix of contenders. That being said, it could certainly be a much quicker process if Davis gets the right kind of wins against the right kind of opponents. The upper level of the light heavyweight division isn’t as stacked as it used to be, and with several fighters on their way down the ladder now is the perfect time for a few new faces to rise up. Obviously guys like Jon Jones and Ryan Bader are pretty much there already, but there’s still plenty of room. I imagine that we’ll be seeing much more of Davis after this weekend and if the fans get behind him in a big way we could see him knocking on the door of contendership sooner than expected.

BUY/SELL – George Sotiropoulos should become the #1 contender in the lightweight division if he beats Joe Lauzon this weekend.

Conlan: “BUY”, though he won’t be next in line for a title-shot since, according to Dana White, the winner emerging from WEC lightweight champ Ben Henderson’s upcoming title-defense against Anthony Pettis is already entrenched as being next in line for a chance at competing for the UFC’s lightweight belt.

However, this is a “BUY” for me because the operative word in the question is “should”. In beating Lauzon (if he does), Joe Stevenson, and Kurt Pellegrino – not to mention the other four opponents he’s consecutively defeated in the Octagon – Sotiropoulos has accomplished more on a bigger stage against a higher-quality of opponent than both Pettis/Henderson and should get his due.

That being said, I don’t disagree with the logic behind the UFC’s decision to promote a unification bout, as MMA is a business after all. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to feel the most-deserving person is going to face Gray Maynard/Edgar if the Aussie is able to get by Lauzon at UFC 123, something that’s far from guaranteed by the way.

Tool: I’ve got to go with “buy” as well, and the only other guy I’d want to slot into the top contenders spot would be Evan Dunham. If Dunham gets past Kenny Florian in January I expect we may see these two matched up to determine the next top contender while we wait for the UFC & WEC titles to be merged. I’m still not sold on the idea of the WEC champion being the #1 contender right away, but at this point it’s useless to try and argue against the idea. Sotiropoulos is one of the hottest fighters in the lightweight division so here’s hoping he gets his shot sooner than later. Obviously he needs to get past Lauzon first, but unless the Aussie brings a terrible gameplan into the cage this weekend I think it’s safe to say that he’ll maintain his undefeated record inside the octagon.

Whose performance at UFC 122 impressed you the most?

Conlan: Alessio Sakara’s stomach bug for helping free up Jorge Rivera to fight Michael Bisping while also opening the main card up for a fun fight between Duane Ludwig and Nick Osipczak?

But seriously, though I always appreciate the effort and athleticism exhibited by Mixed Martial Artists, I wasn’t close to “impressed” with anything I saw at the event other than perhaps the German crowd’s passion for the sport and their countrymen competing in the cage.

Ludwig and Osipczak both looked good, as did Krzysztof Soszynski, Dennis Siver, and Amir Sadollah, but none of them made me feel as though they’ll be divisional threats at any point in the foreseeable future. I didn’t see anything from Yushin Okami giving me confidence in his ability to beat Anderson Silva (or Vitor Belfort for that matter) and I think Nate Marquardt would have won that very same fight five-out-of-ten times if it was replayed for a separate judging panels. Overall, it was a ho-hum event for me as it seems to have been for most who took in the show, and I it would be dishonest of me to act as though I was blown away by anything I saw last weekend.

Tool: UFC 122 was an utterly forgettable event, but there were a few bright spots to be had during the show. I was impressed with Karlos Vemola, but I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon until I see how his cardio holds up in a fight that’s longer than 5 minutes. I always enjoy seeing the continuous improvement of Amir Sadollah, but Brendhan’s right when he says that the TUF 7 champ isn’t likely to threaten for the welterweight title anytime soon. I also have to tip my hat to Vladimir Matyushenko, as “The Janitor” picked up a much-needed stoppage victory to keep his UFC career alive.

I suppose I need to give the nod to Siver though, as he’s now won six of his last seven fights. The names under his win column aren’t enough to put him into talk of title contention, but his habit of finishing fights in exciting fashion is bound to keep him on the UFC main cards for the foreseeable future. He’s a tough draw for anybody in the lightweight division and I imagine we’ll see him in the cage against a much tougher opponent for his next fight.

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