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Grappling with Issues – 1/7/11

With Cain Velasquez out, should the UFC create an interim heavyweight title until he returns? What should the UFC do with Anthony Pettis now that Frank Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II is in the works? Why should fans tune into Strikeforce Challengers 13 tonight? Should the UFC cut ties altogether with Chael Sonnen rather than keep him on the roster?

Keyboard warrrrriors….come out to plaaaay-yay!

Happy New Year! Welcome to the first Grappling with Issues of 2011, our site’s regular weekly feature highlight insight and opinion from myself and Adam Tool. As always, 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.

As Gray Maynard has been given an immediate rematch with Frank Edgar, what would you suggest the UFC does with the man previously attached to the title-shot (Anthony Pettis)?

Tool: It’s hard to say. On one hand the UFC should want to capitalize on Pettis’ tremendous boost in popularity following his one-of-a-kind kick, and the best way to do that is to get him in a high profile match-up as soon as possible. Along those lines I’d say that the best possible opponent for such a fight would probably be Clay Guida. Guida has been holding down the lightweight gatekeeper role for some time now, and a win over him would only confirm Pettis’ position as the next contender.

On the other hand it’s a huge risk to book Pettis in another fight right now. He’s only 23 and is still developing as a mixed-martial artist, so if money isn’t an issue than why shouldn’t he wait his turn? This may very well be his one and only shot at UFC gold so if he gets an additional six months or so to train I don’t see how that could hurt him. The UFC loses out on a chance to capitalize on Pettis’ viral video success but I’m sure they’ll find a way to replay the fight with Ben Henderson once Pettis’ turn comes up.

Conlan: The UFC needs to capitalize on Pettis’ popularity as soon as possible even though it would mean risking the shot he was promised. Plenty of fighters have been assured a crack at the championship only to watch it slip away months later. Circumstances change in life and at the end of the day the UFC is a business. Beyond that, keep in mind Pettis hasn’t done as much in the context of contendership as your average individual who earns the opportunity. He’s not riding a series of wins over highly ranked opponents; he just happened to be champ when WEC flickered out of existence last month. A half-year from now Pettis’ showing against Henderson won’t have the same resonance with fans as it does right now. Sure, his cage-kick will remain a moment in MMA lore for years to come, but the impact of his performance won’t mean as much down the road because of its distance in the public’s collective rear-view mirror. That’s also assuming Maynard/Edgar II isn’t extremely close and dictates an immediate rubber-match, in which case Pettis would still be without his title-fight or an opponent.

As far as who I would book “Showtime” against, I think Guida would be a dangerous option if the UFC hopes to maintain Pettis’ place as contender. Someone like Jeremy Stephens or Melvin Guillard (unless he somehow beats Evan Dunham in a few weeks) makes more sense to me, as both are recognizable names who have experienced a good deal of success inside the Octagon but also aren’t fully rounded fighters with past “Top 10” victories to their credit. Having to notch another win might not sit well with Pettis, but then again he’s a competitor and there’s no doubt in my mind he’s confident enough in his abilities to feel the UFC lightweight strap is coming his way sooner or later no matter who he faces next.

TRUE/FALSE – The UFC should release Chael Sonnen.

Tool: False. I’m not a Sonnen fan by any means but even I can see that releasing Sonnen would be a short-sighted move. The man came closer than anyone else to beating Anderson Silva and that means something. It won’t take much for him to earn a second title shot and a potential rematch with Silva will likely be the highest drawing middleweight title fight in UFC history. He’s firmly established as the second best fighter in the world in his weight class, and for that reason alone he’s worth keeping on the roster. His money-laundering scandal is bad publicity for sure, but otherwise it’s completely unrelated to his MMA career. In my opinion it’s nonsense to consider releasing Sonnen for a white-collar crime when the UFC has kept fighters like Chris Leben and Josh Neer on their roster after the far more dangerous crime of driving under the influence. Maybe you think Sonnen should be released for his positive test on a banned substance, but again you’d also have to consider releasing guys like Leben (again!), Stephan Bonnar, and Nate Marquardt for their positive tests as well.

Conlan: I’ll play devil’s advocate here an say “true”. While I agree there is money to be made with Silva vs. Sonnen II, I don’t know that it will break a lot of fans’ hearts if the rematch never takes place. The reality is that no matter how close Sonnen came to winning the middleweight championship the bulk of his offense was related to holding “The Spider” down and smothering him. It was exciting from the standpoint Silva hadn’t been handled as thoroughly prior to the fight but not all that aesthetically pleasing (as few of Sonnen’s fights are). He was cleanly finished, not a victim of bad scoring or a cut, so there’s already closure involved. Plus, Sonnen was also popped for using PEDs offering yet another aspect to consider as well when looking at the performance.

Leben is still drawing a UFC paycheck but only because of his style. In no way, shape, or form would I ever say drunk driving is better than money laundering but from simply a legal standpoint there’s no comparison. One is a State crime (a misdemeanor in many cases), the other is federal. In a standard DUI situation the offender generally gets fined less than a thousand dollars and faces a short amount of jail time (if any). Sonnen was at risk of spending twenty years in a federal prison, dodged some of his sentencing by turning witness, and still paid out $10,000 with two years probation attached.

On top of his legal and drug-test issues, Sonnen is also notorious for saying absolutely asinine things in public forums. His comment regarding Lance Armstrong being responsible for his own cancer, then retracting it while audio of his voice played, was not only a blow to his personal reputation but to that of his employer as well. Also uncalled for were his remarks about the people of Brazil. Sonnen is a representative of the UFC, as Paul Daley was, and when you embarrass yourself, your sport, and the organization I don’t know that you deserve the honor of calling the UFC your home anymore no matter what talents you offer.

Out of the three major cards held in honor of the New Year Holiday, what result did you find to be most disappointing and what result did you find to be most pleasing?

Tool: Is there any question as to which result was most disappointing? After an absolutely classic battle between Edgar and Maynard we were all left with a bad taste in our mouths when the fight was ruled a draw. Granted, it was a result that most people could agree with but it’s still not the kind of thing you want to have happen in your title fights. Personally I scored the fight for Edgar upon that first viewing (giving Maynard a 10-8 in the first round with all four other rounds for Edgar) but I wouldn’t have been shocked if Maynard had gotten the nod. While I’m a little burned out by the UFC’s recent string of immediate rematches I can’t really argue with the decision to put these two together again right away.

As for which result was most pleasing, again there’s not much competition. I’ve had a personal distaste for Shinya Aoki for quite some time. In my opinion he’s consistently overrated by most MMA rankings, and I can think of at least 5 UFC lightweights that would wipe the floor with Aoki if he ever attempted a career on American soil. His mixed rules match-up with K-1 stand-out Yuichiro Nagashima seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, but I don’t think anyone expected the result would be so satisfying. Aoki managed to do just about anything and everything to avoid his opponents striking during the kickboxing round, only to be brutally knocked out in less than 5 seconds once the MMA round started. In my eyes this was karma coming back around to slap Aoki silly after his flagrant disregard for Mizuto Hirota‘s safety at last year’s Dynamite!! event.

Conlan: I can’t agree with Adam’s disappointing in Edgar vs. Maynard, and in fact I’d say it was the most pleasing result of the trio for me. A fight many labeled as prime for providing a dull decision after twenty-five minutes of blanketing turned into an “ooh”-fest from the opening bell. Edgar was on the verge of being finished a number of times in the first before living up to the iron in his initials by making one of the most miraculous recoveries of the past few years. When the fight ended I wanted to see another round or two. Now I’ll be lucky enough to see up to five.

As far as the other end of the spectrum I’d say it’s a tie between Kazushi Sakuraba’s ear falling off at “Dynamite!! Power of Courage” and Roxanne Modafferi falling victim to illness shortly before her SRC bout against Hitomi Akano. It was disheartening to see a Sakuraba come apart like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly” after everything he’s meant to MMA, plus I really felt like his match-up with Marius Zaromskis had potential for a being a fun fight (striker vs. grappler who both need a win). I was also bummed out to see Modafferi sidelined by sickness because in having spoken with her during the weeks leading up to the Akano fight I know how excited she was and how much she had sacrificed to fight at the show. It would have been one thing for her to be beaten in the ring but for Modafferi to have never had the chance to win or lose was far more disappointing to see.

Do you feel that the winner of Strikeforce’s upcoming heavyweight tournament should be considered the best heavyweight fighter in the world?

Conlan: Not necessarily, because it’s too early to know exactly how the Strikeforce World Grand Prix will unfold. For example, Andrei Arlovski could win the tournament by beating Sergei Kharitonov, Brett Rogers, and Valentijn Overeem depending on how things play out on the injury and performance fronts. Clearly accomplishing the feat would be impressive but hardly a case for Arlovski leapfrogging any number of top heavyweights. Likewise, if Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, or Fedor Emelianenko emerges unscathed at the end of the three-round event there could definitely be a case for unseating Cain Velasquez from the division’s throne (who also happens to be out for 6-8 months with an injured shoulder).

Tool: Bren’s pretty much right on the money here, as any of three top fighters in the brackets could easily jump to a #1 ranking with a win in this tournament. This is especially true given the way the tournament has been laid out, as Emelianenko, Werdum, and Overeem are all on the same side of the brackets. Josh Barnett has a fairly easy road to the finals (and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make it there) and I don’t think he jumps to #1 with a win in the tournament, especially considering his inactivity in the last few years. Guys like Arlovski, Silva, Rogers, and Kharitonov are all wild card picks but I don’t expect to see them jumping too far up the heavyweight rankings even if they do manage to go all the way. I like Fedor to win the tournament and if he can do so then he’ll undoubtedly reclaim the top spot on most heavyweight lists.

Should the UFC create an interim heavyweight championship while Cain Velasquez is out for 6-8 months, and if so who would you slot in against Junior Dos Santos for that fight?

Conlan: Not only do I intensely dislike the concept of interim titles, I also don’t think one is close to being required in the case of the heavyweight division. The UFC generally puts their champions in the cage twice a year, maybe three times maximum, so being out until mid-2011 isn’t much longer than a promotional title-holder would normally sit out between defenses as is. I also see Velasquez’s work-ethic putting his recovery time on the early side of 6-8 months meaning he could still potentially be ready to fight Dos Santos at the UFC’s annual July 4 Weekend extravaganza.

However, for the sake of argument, if the UFC does decide to let Dos Santos square off against one of his peers and “Cigano” is willing to risk his crack at Cain I think the only logical choice is Brock Lesnar (assuming he still wants to fight). If you run down the list of potential contenders it is nearly impossible to find a notable UFC heavyweight who has strung more than two wins together as of late. Stefan Struve may be the only exception and I don’t see him as a realistic possibility. Lesnar brings an enormous amount drawing power with him into the ring, as well as the opportunity to set up either a rematch with Velasquez or offer a huge push to Dos Santos’ career depending on the end result of their fight. In a day where Vitor Belfort gets a title-shot without a win in the UFC’s middleweight division, or Edgar is given back-to-back immediate rematches, putting Lesnar and Dos Santos together for an interim belt makes as much sense as you could ask for given the situation.

Tool: Here’s some facts to consider. In the 17 year history of the UFC there have been five interim titles created, and three of those were in the heavyweight division. The history of the UFC Heavyweight Championship is wrecked with injuries, contract disputes, and positive steroid tests. No fighter in the history of the sport has defended the heavyweight strap on more than two occasions. For lack of a better explanation, that belt is apparently cursed.

Not only is the championship cursed, at the moment the entire UFC heavyweight division is in shambles. After a strong comeback in recent years the weight class is now a virtual standstill with fighters being injured (Carwin), locked in contract disputes (Nelson), or hiding somewhere in the Minnesota wilderness (Lesnar). Former kings of the division now appear to be on the downward slope of their career, while a number of younger fighters are still not quite ready for contention. Given all the options available I’d suggest that Dos Santos take up knitting or some other sort of hobby, as an interim title fight would make little-to-no sense with any opponent currently on the Zuffa roster.

Give our readers at least one good reason to tune in to Strikeforce Challengers tonight.

Conlan: I’ll highlight one of the obvious two and I suspect Adam may focus on the other – Stoney “The Skuller” Hale.

All due respect to Hale, and best of luck to him in his bout, but I’m kidding in the sense that Dan Cormier and Tyron Woodley are clearly the dynamic duo drawing fans’ attention to the event. As far as a good reason to tune in, I’ll offer you one better than simply breakdown of either’s skills. You should watch because you will see the first defeat of Woodley’s career when he faces 10-2 Tarec Saffiedine.

Woodley is a terrific wrestler, extremely athletic, and has improving stand-up but he has yet to face an opponent of Saffiedine’s caliber. Nicknamed “Sponge” because of his ability to soak up information while training, the 24-year old Belgian is currently on a three-fight win streak and found success nine of the last ten times he’s stepped into the ring including a decision over the always-tough Brock Larson last September at Shark Fights 13. He’s never been finished in his career with both losses coming by way of the judges’ scorecards and is good at submitting opponents off his back (meaning Woodley’s wrestling could work against him in a sense). Though I have a great deal of appreciation for the arsenal of “T-Wood”, I think Saffiedine is a bit more technical and will end up pulling out a victory this evening.

Also, and perhaps the best reason, the event is being shown during Showtime’s “Free Preview Weekend” so it’s live MMA everyone can watch even if they don’t have a subscription to the network its being broadcast on.

Tool: Woodley vs. Saffiedine is as fine a main event as the Strikeforce Challengers series has ever seen. That being said, I invite you to tune in this evening to see the best MMA prospect that was a part of the last Ultimate Fighter season. In fact you should try to watch him tonight since you didn’t get to see him fight on the Ultimate Fighter. I’m talking about former Olympic competitor (and “Team Koscheck” wrestling coach) Cormier. Cormier has been essentially unstoppable thus far in his career, winning six fights in 14 months after turning pro. I hate to overhype a guy who’s still awaiting his second year as a fighter but if there’s anybody on the card who stands to do big things in his division, it’s Cormier.

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