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Grappling with Issues – 12/3/10

Will you be tuning in to Spike or Showtime this Saturday night? Between this weekend’s UFC and Strikeforce events, what bout has the bulk of your attention in comparison to the others? What in MMA are you thankful for? Who on “Strikeforce – Henderson vs. Babalu II” with Octagon experience has the most potential of making it back to the UFC before the others?

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.

In the spirit of last week’s holiday, name three things in MMA you are “thankful” for…

Tool: In no particular order…

First off I’m thankful for Brazil. The country that gave us the Gracie clan also inadvertently gave us the sport of MMA. Say what you will about the family’s dirty little secrets but the fact remains: if it wasn’t for the Gracies, there wouldn’t be a UFC. Then there’s the abnormally high number of Brazilian citizens that are also world-class fighters, guys like Anderson Silva, Mauricio “Shogun“ Rua, Jose Aldo, Lyoto Machida, and Wanderlei Silva.

Secondly I’m thankful for the future of the lighter weight classes now that they’re part of the UFC. History will be made this Saturday as fighters Will Capuzano, Nick Pace, Fredson Paixao, and Pablo Garza all take part in the first ever UFC bouts at 135 and 145 lbs, respectively. Now that that fighters can go down to these weights without going down in pay as well, I feel confident that we’ll see both divisions truly begin to thrive in 2011.

Finally, I’m thankful for Arianny Celeste. I don’t think I need to explain why.

Conlan: Also in no particular order…

Clearly Adam is referring to Ms. Celeste’s two primary assets…her singing voice and her love of cooking. What, you readers had something else in mind?!? Moving on to my list…

Dana White – Regardless of what you may personally think about the man or the way he runs the UFC, there’s no denying White has been crucial to the current success of MMA. He’s arguably the most recognizable commissioner in sports at the moment which says a lot when comparing the UFC’s annual intake to that of the NFL, the NBA, or MLB, and without his hard-headedness or passion there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be writing this column right now and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Georges St. Pierre – Few Mixed Martial Artists set as good an example for upcoming fighters – even his peers – as GSP does. He is highly-skilled and extremely athletic, yet remains humble and represents the sport with ever-present class. Those characteristics are made even more important given that St. Pierre, who has already filmed commercials for Gatorade, Under Armour, and ESPN, has crossover appeal helping bring MMA to an audience who might not normally be exposed to it or have the wrong idea about the type of individuals involved in the endeavor.

The Fans – No collective of sports fans compare to the community and kinship MMA has produced. There are heads of multi-million dollar corporations, like White or the TapOut crew, who were not only former Mixed Martial Arts junkies but still are. The athletes who participate are generally as enthusiastic about MMA in general as they are about their own respective careers. Notable names from the UFC, as well as other organizations, actively post on MMA-related forums because they genuinely enjoy the interaction. Beyond that, MMA fans care enough to actively seek changes to improve the sport, and often support local fighters who might never be household names at small shows many of us have never heard of.

Which card are you watching live on Saturday night – “Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu” or “The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale” – and why?

Tool: I’ve been pondering this question all week. As a fan tending to enjoy the younger fighters more I naturally gravitate towards the TUF Finale card. But then again I’m also a man who hates commercials, and that’s a nice swing of power in Strikeforce’s favor. The Strikeforce/Showtime production crew can’t hold a candle to the UFC in terms of pacing, but at least we won’t have to put up with endless promos for whatever craptacular program the Spike network is pushing down our throats this month.

There’s no huge disparity in terms of the overall quality in each card’s line-up. Both fight cards have some truly interesting match-ups, but the good fights on the UFC card are the ones I’m just a little more interested in seeing live. I’ll probably move back and forth between the two shows, but if it comes down to one or the other I’ll probably settle on the TUF Finale.

Conlan: Easily the Strikeforce card. As Tool mentioned, not only is it commercial-free (minus Showtime promoting itself), and I think the overall level of competitor on the card is superior to that of the Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale. I also think that’s probably how it should be, considering one is a promotion offering a major event and the other is akin to a Triple-A baseball game in a way – a smaller production featuring more stars of the future than present. Replace the finale with UFC 124-UFC 126 and it’s obviously a different story.

However, back on topic, between Dan Henderson, Renato Sobral, Robbie Lawler, Matt Lindland, Paul Daley, Scott Smith, Benji Radach, Mike Kyle, and Antonio Silva, I don’t think there’s much of a need to compare the line-ups in depth. All of those individuals have won important fights on significant stages against respectable opponents while the same can only be said for 4-5 of the names, at most, on the Ultimate Fighter card. Though I expect both shows to be highly entertaining, Strikeforce is offering a more-intriguing product on Saturday night and will therefore be spared relegation to my DVR.

With the UFC’s unofficial policy on releasing fighters who don’t perform in an entertaining manner, do you see any of the TUF 12 Finale competitors getting axed after this weekend’s event?

Tool: Truth be told I’m still a bit perplexed as to why Igor Pokrajac is getting a spot in the main event, and with a 1-2 record in the UFC it’s fair to say that he’s probably the fighter most in danger of getting cut next week. Kendall Grove has been outspoken in the past, so a dreadful performance on Saturday night would probably put his head dangerously close to the chopping block. Will Campuzano was only 1-2 in the WEC, and I’m sure he really doesn’t want to be on the losing end of the first ever UFC bantamweight bout anyways, so he’ll need to win if he wants any chance of having a second chance in the octagon. Nick Pace and Pablo Garza are also making their UFC debuts, and each man already lost his debut fight in the WEC, so there’s plenty of incentive for them to perform well before the cameras start rolling on Saturday.

Conlan: I don’t think anyone on the card has much to worry about other than a few of the lesser-known fighters Tool pointed out who are, sad to say, understandably disposable in the grand scheme of the UFC. I don’t think Pokrajac has much to worry about in the sense he may be 1-2 in the Octagon but is coming off a win in his last fight and Stephan Bonnar could throw down with a sack of potatoes and make it entertaining to watch. Come UFC 124, however, I think it’s a different story as there are at least 2-3 individuals with a good amount of time under the promotion’s banner who could be at risk of seeking employment elsewhere after the event.

Between the TUF Finale and Strikeforce, which one fight are you most looking forward to on Saturday?

Conlan: There’s no question the single bout I’m anticipating the most out of both line-ups is Strikeforce’s pairing of Scott Smith and Paul Daley. Whether the fight lasts fifteen seconds or fifteen minutes, Smith and Daley are essentially guaranteed to swing for the fences from the opening bell and keep going until the other man breaks. Daley has never been knocked out in his career, while dishing out twenty strike-based finishes in his twenty-five total wins. On the other hand, Smith has fallen from absorbed punishment three times in twenty-four overall bouts but has earned 14/17 wins by way of his stand-up.

It’s easy to find minor flaws in every other of the events’ bouts but, barring a repeat of Kimbo Slice vs. Houston Alexander, Daley and Smith are basically a lock for delivering fireworks in the cage based on style and past performance. Their fight should be pure, simple, violent, and highly entertaining.

Tool: While Brendhan had to come up with his answer during the first half of the week, I had the luxury of picking from the full card for the TUF Finale. That includes the tournament finals between Jonathan Brookins and Michael Johnson, which should be a great little fight. Brookins is undoubtedly the most promising young talent to come out of the season twelve cast, but we’ll have to wait until Saturday to see if he gets the glass trophy and all that comes with it.

While the finals of the TUF tournament are always intriguing, the fight that now has my full attention on Saturday is the first featherweight fight to take place on a televised UFC card between Leonard Garcia and Nam Phan. Phan gets the misfortune of being the only castmember of this season that has to beat an actual UFC vet to get a contract, but it should be a fantastic scrap nonetheless. Phan was the only real bright spot on Team Koscheck and I’m curious to see how he fares at 145 lbs. We know Garcia always comes to brawl and based on what we’ve seen over this past few months it’s fair to assume that Phan will be happy to oblige. It’s a great match-up just from a stylistic standpoint, but it’s also a brilliant piece of matchmaking to introduce UFC fans to this particular weight class.

Has this season of The Ultimate Fighter made you more or less excited for the fight between Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck?

Conlan: Personally I’m as interested as I was prior to the season, not necessarily more or less so. Nothing on the show led me to believe Koscheck has a better chance against St. Pierre than he did the first time they squared off, and I’ve always felt like the AKA product plays up his heel role for the camera so I wasn’t drawn into his antics in terms of promoting the fight’s involved “good vs. bad” angle. However, I think TUF 12 was successful as marketing their match-up to the masses who likely believe Koscheck is as colossal a douche-bag as he’s made himself out to be and will root more passionately for St. Pierre because of it. The temperature might be freezing in Montreal on December 11 but I guarantee the Bell Center’s interior will be infernally hot the second the curly-topped grappler’s face shows up on the arena’s big screen let alone the hate that will spew forth once he starts walking down to the Octagon.

Tool: I’ve always had a sore spot for Koscheck since that first season of The Ultimate Fighter, but since then I grew to respect him more and more as he developed into a true mixed martial artist. This season only served to remind me why I couldn’t stand the guy years ago. Much like my esteemed colleague, I also believe that Koscheck’s public persona has been carefully crafted to maximize the amount of attention he receives. I’ll say this for him though, it sure is effective.

Here’s how I know that.

My girlfriend never watched The Ultimate Fighter or the UFC before she met me, but she has watched every season of the show that’s been on in the last three years that we’ve been together. She enjoys the show but doesn’t always get into the live events, however at this point she’s been able to form opinions on a good chunk of the UFC’s roster. She was fairly indifferent to the two coaches on this season when it started, but now she really hates Koscheck. She’s come to love St. Pierre the way so many people do, and she groans with displeasure just about every time Koscheck tries to goad St. Pierre into bickering with him. I’m willing to bet she’ll want to see UFC 124 with me later this month, and so there’s at least one fan that was convinced to watch the coaches fight as a result of this season.

The top three fights at Strikeforce this weekend all feature former UFC fighters. Of these six competitors, who do you feel has the best chance to make it back to the Octagon in the near future?

Conlan: I think Lawler has by far the best chance to make it back to the UFC for a few reasons. Henderson is 40 and Sobral is 35, so the skills of both are more likely to be in decline in the immediate future than the 28-year old striker’s. Lindland, who is also 40, has never been known as the most exciting competitor to watch though he’s clearly a skilled one, and there are also some personal issues between himself and UFC management stemming from the past. Daley is currently serving a “lifetime ban” for sucker-punching Koscheck, and as much as I like Smith, he’s struggled to find consistent success in the ring against higher-level opponents.

Lawler is exciting to watch from a stylistic standpoint, not to mention trains with promotional icon Matt Hughes and is often seen at UFC events cornering him. In addition to that, even if you remove age/style/relationships from the equation, “Ruthless” Robbie is a middleweight and, when comparing the three involved divisions, the UFC needs more competitive 185-pounders in the mix than it does welterweights/light heavyweights.

Tool: Daley is obviously right out, as Dana White has made it abundantly clear that he will never be welcomed back. Lindland and Henderson also have some bad blood with the UFC President, so for the time being I think the job of repping Team Quest in the octagon will remain with Chael Sonnen. That leaves Smith, Sobral, and Lawler. Brendhan is right on the nose regarding Smith’s inconsistency, although if he could string more than two wins together I think he could still have a shot some day. The same could probably be said for “Babalu” since he’s got a lot of stored up name value with longtime UFC fans.

In the end though I can’t disagree with Brendhan and pick “Ruthless“ Robbie. Lawler is the smart choice since he was pretty young back when he had his first run in the UFC, and he’s developed into a much more mature fighter in the years since. He’s still more than capable of putting on a great fight and there are plenty of compelling match-ups waiting to be made if he jumps back to the UFC. Based on everything I know about him it’s safe to say that Lawler probably hasn’t burned too many bridges with the Zuffa brass, so we’ll see what happens if/when his contract expires with Strikeforce.

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