MMA Roundtable: Will There Be Anything to Learn from Couture vs. Toney?

A couple of stories developed Wednesday that I felt like touching on, so I thought what better way is there to momentarily distract Ben Fowlkes from walking his dog than to bug him with a few questions (Sorry "Stringer").

In our little roundtable below, Ben and I discuss the meaning behind championship belts, what Randy Couture vs. James Toney means for MMA and boxing and Strikeforce's struggle to promote Fedor Emelianenko vs. Alistair Overeem.

BJ Penn says he wants to be considered a true fighter as opposed to being labeled a champion. How much in general do belts really mean in MMA?

Fowlkes: Depending on which organization gives it to you, a championship belt is either a physical reminder of your greatness or a hunk of leather and metal that will do little more than help you pick up girls at the after-party. In other words, they don't all matter, but a few certainly do.

Take, for instance, the UFC lightweight title that Penn is talking about. Because of the state of the UFC's 155-pound class, most of us would agree that whoever can hold it and defend it is the world's best lightweight. Of course, as Frankie Edgar has demonstrated, possession alone often isn't enough, especially if there are doubts as to whether you deserve it. I suppose what we're really asking here is, how much does it matter to have other people recognize you as the best?

Being champion doesn't just mean have the ability to beat everyone else in your weight class; it also implies a willingness to prove it over and over again. The champion doesn't get to pick fights (ideally, anyway). He has to fight a series of top contenders (again, ideally). The actual hardware of the belt? That's just for show. The status of champion, especially in an organization that has the best fighters in your particular weight class? That's meaningful.

Hui: To broadly define what a belt means, its divisional holder is the top fighter in his or her respective organization at a specific moment in time. With that said, the UFC is clearly the top promotion and with the recent Fedor and Aoki setbacks, has become the stronghold of the world's best fighters. So, in today's MMA landscape, the UFC champion is the No. 1 ranked fighter in the world.

As UFC continues to grow, creating a larger gap between its competitors, there stands to be a greater decrease in the value of other promotional belts. At this point, I see champions in other promotions as "contenders." You have your Gilbert Melendez, Rafael "Feijao," Alistair Overeem -- all talented fighters who would conceivably make a mark in the UFC, but I wouldn't call them the absolute best in the world. In the mid-2000s, this was different, when the UFC and PRIDE were going head-to-head, it was more difficult to determine which fighters were the best.

I guess what I'm try to say is that the UFC belts matter more than ever, and titleholder's status is relative to the strength and competition of the promotion. So it's especially interesting to me that Penn would bring that up at a point when the UFC's lightweight division is as impressive as ever.

I liked that you brought up the importance of belt defenses. At the end of the day, the ability to repeat your dominance is the mark of a true champion, not the amount of gold you carry around your waist. So even though Fedor Emelianenko holds just about 2,000 less belts than Shonie Carter, his status as a "champion" is indefinable by belts. Not even the WAMMA one.

Will we learn anything from Randy Couture vs. James Toney about MMA vs. boxing that we don't already know?

Fowlkes: First of all, let's stop calling it MMA vs. boxing. It's not. It's MMA fighter vs. boxer, under MMA rules. It's like when Michael Jordan went and played minor league baseball. That wasn't baseball vs. basketball. The difference here is that Jordan actually learned how to play baseball before suiting up for the Birmingham Barons, whereas Toney probably didn't bother to add much actual MMA to his arsenal. He's going to be a boxer on Saturday night, pure and simple.

But no, this is not going to settle any debates. If Toney loses, boxing fans will just say he's over the hill and way out of shape. If he knocks Couture out, MMA fans will say he got lucky against an aging former champ with a suspect chin. That's why we need to forget all this MMA vs. boxing stuff and focus on this for what it is: a weird, but interesting bout between an MMA legend and a hilariously insane boxer.

Hui: You're absolutely correct. We should treat this fight the same way as Couture's The Expendables. There's nothing really groundbreaking here and we should simply enjoy the spectacle of larger-than-life characters entertaining us with sweet, beautiful violence. We already know what's going to happen. We've seen Tim Sylvia vs. Ray Mercer, Genki Sudo vs. Butterbean, Kimbo Slice vs. Ray Mercer and this goes back to UFC 1 when Royce Gracie fought Art Jimmerson. The fight will be dictated by the more well-rounded fighter, and it's Couture's fight to lose.

I know this is UFC 118 weekend and all, but I can't escape this roundtable without touching on Fedor vs. Overeem. What the heck is going on here?

Fowlkes: What we're seeing here is Strikeforce's inability to make stuff happen. Strikeforce isn't the UFC. There's no dictator in the boardroom, which is nice in some aspects. But in other aspects, such as matchmaking, it's killing them.

Strikeforce struck a deal with M-1 Global in order to get Fedor. But because Fedor is essentially a promotion unto himself at this point, Strikeforce can't tell him what to do. M-1 opted to put him into what looked like an easy fight with Werdum instead of challenging Overeem, and that backfired. Now that Fedor's mystique has faded, he might as well fight Overeem, only why would Overeem want to fight the guy who just lost? There's no upside in being the second straight fighter to beat Fedor. Werdum is the man to beat, at least for the moment.

Of course, Overeem also wants to get his K-1 on, and Strikeforce doesn't have the kind of pull to insist that he shelve that little fantasy and get his butt in the cage. Overeem, like Fedor, gets to do whatever he wants because there's no one with the contractual power to tell him he can't. It's a problem that Strikeforce runs into over and over again, and this time it's costing them what could be the biggest heavyweight title fight in the organization's history. It's a damn shame, is what it is.

Hui: This situation has become increasingly frustrating and I can't help but think everything coming out of M-1 Global has ulterior motives. Now, Fedor wants to fight Overeem? I see it more as a face-saving announcement than a serious attempt at making the fight happen. This entire debacle has become an example of how to mishandle a fighter's legacy. And at this point of the heavyweight division, do we really care about Fedor if he's not in the UFC or if he's not fighting Overeem? Somehow we have one of the greatest and most intriguing fighters in the history of the sport and he's on the verge of being treated as nothing more than an afterthought.

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