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Grappling with Issues – 12/16/10

How many more times will Georges St. Pierre defend his title before making the move to 185 pounds? Regardless of result at WEC 53, are Ben Henderson or Anthony Pettis actually ready for a crack at the UFC championship? Will Josh Koscheck ever get another chance to hoist a UFC belt above his head? What non-title match-up do you see as helping write the fairy tale ending to WEC‘s run as a Mixed Martial Arts promotion?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

No, your eyes have not deceived you. GWI is a day early this week in honor of WEC 53, as the Herb to my Dean, Adam Tool, and I wanted to make sure we had a chance to offer our insight and opinion on the historic swan-song before things went down later tonight in Glendale. 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.

TRUE/FALSE – Josh Koscheck has seen his last shot at a UFC title.

Tool: TRUE. Never mind the fact that he’ll never get a third fight with St. Pierre, Koscheck will not go on the kind of winning streak he needs to have in order to get a second crack at the belt. Think about all the fights Kenny Florian had to win to get his second title shot. Remember all those tough opponents Kenny had to put away before he finally got his shot at the belt? I can’t see Koscheck doing the same sort of thing against the murderer’s row of fighters in the welterweight division. Most of the top ten fighters in the world at 170 lbs. call the UFC their home, and there are plenty of guys that could give Koscheck plenty of trouble. There’s also the fact that he won’t fight two of the other top guys, which thereby reduces the number of opponents available. What if St. Pierre vacates the title, and Koscheck and Jon Fitch are the two top contenders? Are they still going to refuse to fight and instead be forced to Ro-Sham-Bo each other to determine who gets the title shot?

Conlan: Agreed – “true”. Though I believe St. Pierre will make a move to middleweight if he beats Jake Shields in early 2011, I don’t have faith in Koscheck’s ability to capitalize on the opening created by GSP’s absence from the division by making a run against a gauntlet of divisional contenders (Carlos Condit, Jake Shields, B.J. Penn, Thiago Alves, Martin Kampmann, etc.). If you examine his record it’s seems fairly clear his title-shot was more the result of an ability to self-promote rather than performance in the ring. That’s not a bad thing given the need for entertainment value in marketing per say, but taking a closer look reveals Koscheck has beaten a number of tough opponents but that his biggest victory to date was arguably against Diego Sanchez nearly four years ago (who had a serious staph infection entering the bout). Frank Trigg was subsequently knocked out by Matt Serra then released, Anthony Johnson hasn’t fought since, Yoshiyuki Yoshida has lost three of four fights and is also out of the UFC, Dustin Hazelett is now a lightweight, and so on. His win over Paul Daley was impressive in terms of showing off his grappling prowess but did little to stake his claim as being one day being the top welterweight in the world. Also, as Adam mentioned, he won’t fight teammates Mike Swick or Fitch so from that standpoint he also has fewer options than the average 170-pound contender.

Additionally, I think you have to factor age into the equation. Koscheck turned 33 a few weeks ago, so even if he wins his next four fights in a row he’ll be on the cusp of 35 before potentially sniffing a title shot. While age is not always detrimental to a fighter’s success in the ring, often its natural effects do come into play as far as lessening power and speed. Also consider the following if looking at his future in the contendership picture and how far off another crack at the belt could potentially be – When GSP lost to Matt Hughes the first time he was only 23. He then won fourteen of his next fifteen fights including a number with the title involved. Fitch has only stumbled a single time, to St. Pierre, since 2002. Condit has emerged victorious eleven of the last twelve times he’s fought. Koscheck on the other hand is 4-3 in his last seven (and only 7-4 if you go all the way back to 2007 and include the win over Sanchez). He’s extremely talented but I honestly believe his days being in the title hunt were ended with his humbling in Montreal.

How many more times will Georges St. Pierre compete as a welterweight before making a move to 185-pounds?

Tool: If I had to guess a number I’d go with a nice solid “3”. That’s the fight with Shields, a probably rematch with whoever wins the Fitch/ Penn bout, and a third up-and-coming contender who has yet to emerge amongst the ranks. There’s a small list of realistic contenders for St. Pierre, but as always he maintains the stance that he’ll move up to middleweight when he’s ready to go permanently.

His performance this past weekend has essentially cemented his status as the greatest fighter ever at 170 pounds, but there’s still the task ahead of defeating Shields. I know it’s real easy to sell Shields short at this point, especially considering how bad he looked in his UFC debut. Nobody thinks the guy is going to win but he keeps on doing it. He’s obviously not going to want to stand and trade with St. Pierre, but Koscheck proved that it’s not impossible to get GSP on his back either.

After that he’s probably going to have to beat Fitch or Penn again, although BJ may need another win at welterweight before he gets a third fight. Fitch is obviously long overdue for his rematch, even if there’s little-to-no chance that things will go differently a second time around. After that though, who knows? Condit could win a few more times and get his shot at UFC gold. Dana White could ruin Scott Coker’s day by signing away Nick Diaz. There’s not much left to do at 170 beyond those names, so unless St. Pierre wants to be stuck on a perpetual loop fighting the same guys over and over he may as well move up within the next year or two.

Conlan: Unless the proverbial rain is cast on Strikeforce’s parade by signing Diaz, who of course would need to remain undefeated in the promotion to merit the proper attention required of an immediate title-shot, I only see GSP fighting two more times at welterweight before moving up to test his “Riddum” with a little more bulk on his frame (barring of course a loss to Shields or Penn/Fitch).

Also, I’m going to reiterate last week’s call for St. Pierre to face a more-manageable sized middleweight than Anderson Silva prior to mixing it up with “The Spider”. I think it’s important to give the popular French-Canadian champion an opportunity to feel the process out before signing him to face someone with Silva’s success at 185-pounds (not to mention light heavyweight). Allowing him to acclimate to the change against a skilled, but smaller, middleweight like Yoshihiro Akiyama or Rousimar Palhares would almost certainly pay off in the long run rather than rushing the “Superfight” between Silva and St. Pierre. The UFC could even promote a card with Silva at 205 and GSP’s middleweight debut called “Pound-for-Pound” to pre-hype what would be a historic pairing shortly down the road if things worked out as they should.

Is Jamie Varner’s job in jeopardy without a win over Shane Roller at WEC 53?

Tool: If we’re talking about lightweight fighters whose jobs are on the line tonight then we may as well talk about all twelve lightweights that are on this final WEC card. The UFC’s lightweight division was already one of the deepest talent pools within the promotion, and now their ranks are about to swell over as a result of the merger. It’s not all doom and gloom though and it is still entirely possible for a fighter to lose and keep his job. He just needs to either A) put on a great performance in a truly memorable affair and/or B) get screwed out of a win by incompetent judging.

Now let’s talk about “The Worm.” Varner has gone from the main event, to the co-main event, and now to the preliminary portion of the card. He’s winless in his last three fights, and that includes the disappointing draw to Kamal Shalorus. The three men that he has failed to beat are all featured on the main card, and on top of all that he’s fighting an extremely tough opponent in Shane Roller. Roller’s solid mixture of wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu has given plenty of fighters fits, but if Varner can manage to sprawl and brawl he can expose the biggest weakness in Roller’s game: his striking. If Varner is able to score a few takedowns of his own he’s got a pretty good chance of winning this one and punching his ticket back to the octagon. If he loses he may still get one last chance, and if nothing else the UFC may keep him around for a potential third encounter with Donald Cerrone.

Conlan: I think Varner’s job is safe as long as he shoots par at the event. Varner comes out swinging, is generally fearless, and has finished fourteen of the sixteen opponents he’s beaten while only seeing three decisions in twenty-one bouts. The only way I see Roller winning is if he pins the 26-year old striker down for the bulk of their bout, and, frankly, if that’s the case I’d wager the All-American wrestler’s job might be in more jeopardy down the road than Varner’s based on what the qualities the UFC appears to covet as of late.

Make your pick for Jim Miller’s next opponent.

Conlan: Ken Florian. With George Sotiropoulos already booked for February, and Florian having recently withdrawn from a January fight against Evan Dunham due to injury but still hoping to fight in the first quarter of 2011, it would seem logical to pit the two Northeasterners against each other at an event in the coming months. Florian possesses a high-enough level of BJJ to potentially satisfy Miller’s desire to show the world how impeccable his submission skills are while also posing a top-ranked threat to either help raise his divisional profile or send him back down the ladder depending on outcome.

Tool: I can’t fault the idea of Miller vs. Florian, especially now that Kenny seems to be settling into a lightweight gatekeeper role. However I’ve got another idea in mind, and that’s to match Miller up with the winner of UFC 125’s match-up between Clay Guida and Takanori Gomi. Either fighter would be a solid step-up in competition and there’s good potential for a great fight. The only other real solid idea to see if Miller’s ready for the next level would be to rematch him with whoever loses the Frank Edgar/Gray Maynard title fight, but that seems like an option that’s going to kill Miller’s momentum before it really has a chance to get going.

Do you feel that either Ben Henderson or Anthony Pettis is ready to compete for the UFC Lightweight Championship?

Conlan: No, though in a sport like Mixed Martial Arts it goes without saying anything is possible when the cage-door closes, and there’s definitely no doubting Pettis and Henderson are both highly-skilled competitors. However, neither has been in the ring with a “Top 10” foe or faced the level of opposition typically calling the Octagon home. While fighters like Varner, Cerrone, and Roller are all worthwhile adversaries it would be difficult to argue their statuses as being equivalent to any of the UFC’s top lightweights (Florian, Maynard, Evan Dunham, Miller, Sotiropoulos, Sean Sherk, etc.) let alone the division’s champion. Until Henderson or Pettis notch victories against any combination of the afore-mentioned names it’s extremely difficult to say they are “ready” for the challenge provided by the top 155-pounder in MMA.

Tool: I have to go with no as well, although I believe Henderson could be. As Bren mentioned, all the top WEC lightweights have yet to be tested against the best fighters in the world. Only once they start facing those tests will we know for sure whether or not Henderson and company are truly ready for the big time. For all we know Henderson could be the best lightweight fighter in the world, but until he’s given the chance to prove that statement true or false there’s no way to know definitively. I still don’t agree with Zuffa’s decision to give the WEC Lightweight Champion an immediate UFC title shot, but it will be pretty exciting if tonight’s winner goes on to win UFC gold as well.

Outside of the two title fights, which of the bouts at tonight’s WEC 53 are you most excited for?

Tool: I have to go with the featured lightweight bout between Cerrone and Chris Horodecki. I have yet to see Cerrone involved in a bad fight, and I know Horodecki is more than capable of producing fireworks as well. Horodecki doesn’t quite have enough wrestling skill to completely smother Cerrone, but even if he does favor the takedown you know Cerrone will remain active off his back. While standing I have to give the edge to the “Cowboy,” but Horodecki has a tough enough chin to keep things exciting. The final WEC card is filled with exciting match-ups but this one stands out as the most likely fight to be awarded one of the evening’s bonuses.

Conlan: I originally misread this topic as “Of the two title fights…” so in full disclosure, and to avoid potential confusion, Tool offered his take prior to my since-updated response (hence the switch-a-roo in order).

I’m on board with Adam’s interest in Horodecki vs. Cerrone. The 16-2 lightweight has done well against strikers in the past, and though I think his stand-up isn’t as fully refined as Cerrone’s I do believe he has enough power in his punches to immediately change the complexion of a fight in a single exchange if he connects. Also interesting, Horodecki has never been tapped out – only TKO’d twice – while Cerrone has yet to render an opponent defenseless via strikes in his fifteen-fight career or be KO’d himself, so there’s a nice underlying dynamic to the lightweight throwdown outside of simply how both individuals will fare on their feet.


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