MMA Roundtable: TUF 14 Finale, Strikeforce's Future, and More

With season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter drawing to a close and the big finale fight between the coaches drawing near, now seemed like as good a time as any to go head-to-head with my buddy and colleague Michael David Smith over a few of the more pertinent questions of our day.

Questions like, what's up with Strikeforce? Also, what's up with Bellator? And, if you're not into this TUF Finale business, just what are you into, smart guy? All that -- only, you know, slightly more artfully rendered -- awaits you below. MDS, why don't you start us off.

1. A big part of TUF is supposed to be hyping the fight between the coaches. Has anything on The Ultimate Fighter this year made you any more interested in Michael Bisping vs. Mayhem Miller than you were three months ago?

MDS: I'm kind of surprised by how little the Bisping-Mayhem feud has moved the needle because Bisping and Mayhem are both engaging characters who know how to sell a fight. I assume part of the issue is that there's been less promotion for the fight because it's on Spike, and Spike and the UFC have ended their relationship. If this fight were going to be on pay-per-view, as most coach vs. coach fights have been, I'm sure the UFC would be doing a lot more to promote it.

But the larger issue seems to be that Bisping vs. Mayhem doesn't seem to do a lot for fans in terms of its relevance to the UFC's middleweight division. Both guys are solid fighters, but the winner of this fight will still be behind Chael Sonnen and Mark Munoz in line for a title shot, and if either Bisping or Mayhem did get a title shot, it's not like anyone would pick either one of them to beat Anderson Silva. So it doesn't have the feel of a really important fight.

Fowlkes:
While I don't disagree that this fight lacks the promise of an immediate impact on its division, I have a hard time accepting that that's why there's not more heat behind it. Yes, the UFC seemed to choose these two as coaches based on force of personality alone, but didn't that work as well as anyone could have hoped? They laughed, they yelled, they pranked, and they even coached. They had their obligatory tense and borderline violent moments, but they also had some fun. That's got to be better than "Rampage" Jackson sleeping on the mat, right?

The TUF franchise did its job on this one, at least according to its own abilities, and its stagnant formula. It's the UFC that decided not to go hard in the paint when it came time to push it on fans. Maybe that's a consequence of the brewing feud between White and his soon to be ex-TV partners. Maybe it's collateral damage from a crazy couple of months worth of events. Maybe it's a little of both.

I just know that this is, on paper, a pretty good fight. I was interested when I first heard about the pairing, and I'm interested now. I can't say that watching them trade expletives or kick through a couple flimsy cardboard doors on the TUF set did a whole lot to get my heart rate up (after fourteen seasons, I've seen all the meaningless property damage and half-bleeped arguments I can take), but so what? It's still an interesting fight, and I still genuinely want to see it.

2. Bellator's season has come to an end. Do you think MMA fans cared? What do you think needs to happen to make fans pay attention in 2012?

Fowlkes: Here's an instance where we must resist the temptation to think of MMA fans as one monolithic slab. Did fans care? Sure. Some of them, anyway. Bellator gets a small, though consistent slice of the MMA pie with every event, and that slice is big enough to spread the word when there's an awesome finish or a great fight. And yet, there's another side to that coin. I suspect there's a healthy segment of the MMA fan population that is aware of and maybe even mildly interested in Bellator, but nonetheless doesn't feel the need to watch every weekend because, hey, if something worthwhile happens, it'll be on YouTube in the morning.

Part of the problem is the Bellator schedule. It's cool to have a fight every weekend as the season plows forward, but it also makes it difficult to convince fans that one fight night is bigger or more important than any other. Oh, there's a Bellator event on Saturday? Well, there'll be another one next Saturday, and the Saturday after that, so no big deal.

The schedule also makes it difficult for Bellator, as an organization, to focus on building a select few stars. As soon as one show ends, the Bellator crew has to turn its attention to the next one. Meanwhile, the champ in each weight class can either sit around and wait for the next tournament winner, or he can engage in a completely non-sensical non-title bout. Neither is a particularly attractive option for the champ or the organization.

These are all problems that arise as a result of Bellator's main selling point, which makes them especially difficult problems to resolve. How do you keep the tournament structure without taking the spotlight off your champs for too long? How do you keep a season rolling forward without it feeling routine? I'm not sure I know, but Bellator is going to have to figure it out eventually.

MDS: I agree with you that there's a problem with the Bellator schedule, but I don't think the problem is that they run every week during their two "seasons." I actually like the weekly format of knowing you're going to have a certain night of the week when Bellator is going to be on, just as I like knowing that The Walking Dead comes on every Sunday while it's in season and Modern Family comes on every Wednesday while it's in season.

My suggestion to Bellator is they should choose a night other than Saturday. I just don't think it makes sense for a No. 2 MMA promotion to go on Saturday nights, the territory that the UFC has already staked out. To me, that makes about as much sense as a startup football league scheduling its games for Sunday afternoons in the fall.

I love the tournament format and want Bellator to keep it, but it does create major problems with the champions: What are they supposed to do while they wait around for the next No. 1 contender to emerge from the next tournament? The "superfights" haven't really worked out very well, as Bjorn Rebney himself has acknowledged.

I think the answer is that the champions should be in the tournaments. You win the Season 5 tournament? Congratulations. You're the Season 5 tournament champion. Now Season 5 is over, so it's time for you to enter the Season 6 tournament. That's what every sport that uses a seasonal format does -- the defending champion goes right back into the mix. And that's what Bellator should do, too.

3. Strikeforce is back this month with its first non-Challengers show since the Heavyweight Grand Prix semifinals more than three months ago. Do MMA fans still care about Strikeforce? Should they?

MDS: I don't get the sense that fans care much about Strikeforce. If anything, fans wish the UFC would hurry up and absorb all the best fighters so guys like Gilbert Melendez (who fought only once in 2010 and only once so far in 2011) could fight elite opposition more often. Melendez is defending his title against Jorge Masvidal in the main event, and the overwhelming reaction I've heard has been disappointment that Melendez isn't in the UFC fighting a better opponent than Masvidal.

The reason I still care about Strikeforce is, more than anything, my affinity for women's MMA. Cris Cyborg vs. Hiroko Yamanaka is going to be a very good women's fight, and if Strikeforce disappears there's going to be an uncertain future for women's MMA.

But the bottom line is that the UFC is currently stripping Strikeforce for spare parts and will eventually do away with it. Given that, it's hard to fault fans for losing interest in the promotion.

Fowlkes:
Well MDS, you just confirmed my suspicion that it's impossible for a dude to type the phrase "my affinity for women's MMA" without it feeling just a little bit creepy for some reason. But okay, I have to agree with the sentiment even if the phrasing conjures images of an evil villain making women fight for his amusement on a secret island somewhere. I would also like to see women's MMA survive, and Strikeforce is the best bet for that right now. Pulling the plug immediately would probably put a lot of very dangerous women out of work, and that's not good for anybody.

But as for whether fans do and/or should care about Strikeforce in general, I have to say 'not really' and 'probably not.' Sorry, but that's what happens when the UFC pillages your roster, taking almost every significant draw and leaving you with a couple champions who are all but begging to be the next ones sucked up by the UFC tractor beam. The heavyweight GP still has a legitimately compelling final between Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett, and a middleweight title fight between Luke Rockhold and Tim Kennedy is one I wouldn't sneeze at, but after that it starts to look pretty thin.

The Strikeforce fighters -- the ones who have options, anyway -- don't really want to be there, and few can even be bothered to maintain the illusion anymore. Everyone knows this thing is running out of road, and nobody particularly wants to be there to ride it all the way to its sad end in a nearly empty arena, with a home audience that's just waiting for Dexter re-runs to come on. Who can blame them? Not me, brother.

4. December features the TUF Finale, a Strikeforce card and two UFC pay-per-views. What's the best fight of the bunch?

Fowlkes: Without a doubt, the biggest fight in December is the UFC 141 main event between Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem. And I don't just mean big in terms of total combined weight, though there's that too. It's just, from a media buzz/pay-per-view sales perspective, nothing in the coming month can top the combination of Lesnar's name and Overeem's experience. It's smart of the UFC to have that on the night before New Year's Eve, when people will be more likely to stay home and rest their livers anyway, and you have to think the end result will be plenty of eyeballs on that one fight.

But then, biggest doesn't necessarily equal best. That distinction I save for another fight on the UFC 141 card: Donald Cerrone vs. Nate Diaz. Cerrone's been on a one-man paper-stacking mission this year, racking up win purses and post-fight bonuses like a man in hock to the IRS. Diaz struggled at welterweight, but looked downright scary when he took Takanori Gomi apart as a lightweight at UFC 135. Both these guys have the sort of tough-first mentality that involves taking no crap off of nobody, and when they get in the cage together I expect a technical, though ruthless fight.

It'll be sort of like a demolition derby featuring half-drunk Nascar drivers: a whole lot of engine-revving and middle finger-waving, no small amount of profanity before, during, and after, and absolutely no regard for safety or long-term repercussions. How can you not like that?

MDS: Lesnar-Overeem is without a doubt the biggest draw, and I don't know if there's any other fight in December that will give me butterflies in my stomach when the cage door closes like Lesnar-Overeem will. That fight is going to be awesome.

But for pure entertainment value, I don't think there's a better fight on the docket than Mark Hominick vs. Chan Sung Jung at UFC 140. Remember how often we used to say after WEC cards that there was no promotion putting on great fights as consistently as the WEC? Hominick vs. Jung is exactly the kind of fight that made us love the WEC, with two featherweights who will relentlessly batter each other for 15 minutes or go down swinging if they can't.

If Hominick vs. Jung is the best fight in December, I won't be the least bit surprised. If it's not, that probably means we're in for an amazing month.

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