Signal to Noise: November MMA's best and worst

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the return to Georges St-Pierre to the slow, public crumbling of Strikeforce, the month of November was an important one for MMA. Let's look at the best and the worst, the winners from the losers as we separate the signal from the noise.

Wrapping one's head around an entire month of MMA can be a heady task. So much to comprehend, so much to consider. My list is finite and therefore, by definition, incomplete. There were obvious winners and losers, but there probably innumerable choices, too. Where, after all, do I fit in the news that Yuki Kondo won by first-round KO this month in an event named after him? Oh, and the name was partially borrowed from Tupac Shakur album. Where does that superlative go?

Nevertheless, if we take a macro perspective, there was a much to jeer as there was to cheer. Here are my highlights from the month: the best and the worst, the winners and the losers, the signal and the noise.

Best at Making It All Worthwhile: The return of Georges St. Pierre

Please do not misunderstand me. I enjoy the smaller events of MMA (more on that in a minute). Not everything has to be a UFC event where the welterweight title and so much more is up for grabs. But let's also be clear: when we are in those moments, the sport is incontestably more interesting.

I admit space for individual preferences, but would take issue with anyone that challenges the basic framework of what I am saying on this particular point. In the case of GSP vs. Carlos Condit and UFC 154, there's simply more. This event has higher stakes, better talent (at least in the main event), bigger scenarios both present and future, greater financial investment and so on. Objectively speaking, even if one doesn't care for GSP, his fights are demonstrably bigger and at least arguably better.

And those are the moments fans and journalists live for, right? The ones where one punch can rewrite the future of the sport? Where so much is up for grabs in the hands of the most capable talent the sport has to offer? November offered lots of elite talent in important, tough or fun fights. But nothing this month made being a MMA fan the fun it is like the return of a man who could be its best and biggest star.

Most Tantalizing: Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva

As much as Silva hypes up the fight and the UFC doubles down on it, St-Pierre can't find enough ice water to thrown on the entire idea. Still, much of what has made this month fun has been the speculation about whether a superfight between St-Pierre and Silva will actually happen. And if it does, what will it all mean? At what weight would the fight take place? Where would the UFC stage it? What could the fight do for mixed martial arts?

Any one of those questions is difficult to answer. Better yet, the exercise of answering them is endlessly entertaining. And if the fight moves closer to reality - a big 'if' at this point - digesting all of the actual news or considering all of the implications and finer details will be, at the very minimum, hugely intriguing.

Yes, the fight not happening would be a monumental letdown, but for in the meantime is a little (ok, a lot) superfight fantasizing among MMA fans and pundits really all that terrible?

Most Inert Award: Mixed Martial Arts

Things change and yet everything stays the same. In fairness, there were bad decisions and bad referee calls, but there was nothing overly egregious this past month (the Andrey Koreshkov knockout of Marius Zaromskis and subsequent bad stoppage took place in October). But that's hardly a reason for giddiness. There were still plenty of WTF, groan-worthy moments be they premature stand-ups or utterly dubious decisions.

A source whose job it is to train referees and judges recently told me this month if 20 percent of judges knew what they were even looking at when they judged, that would be the high end of the figure. That is frightening. It's bad out there and just not in judging. So, despite gains in the global market or the sporting consciousness of the media world, MMA is what we thought it was: a wonderful sport regulated at the hands of the profoundly clueless, unqualified and downright dangerous. November was a testament to that sad fact of our existence.

Best Namesake Submission: Joe Vedepo's Vedepo Choke

I'm not sure how it works precisely other than it puts pressure on the coratid arteries of at least one side of the neck. It probably hurts. That's a given, too. Maybe it's also a pain submission for what it does to the jaw. Without having spoken to Vedepo, I'll just have to rely on conjecture. Either way, this is quite the ace to have up one's sleeve, especially when a) you probably invented it accidentally and b) therefore was allowed to name it after you. The UFC vet pulled it off on Mike Bernhard at Bellator 80 in the first round of their bout. Just look at this thing:

Mike_bernhard_vs

Strikeforce Gonna Strikeforce Award: Strikeforce

There was a moment when Strikeforce was being bled dry that it was still capable of at least doing something. It could stage events, however diminished. It had a roster of stars to promote, however diluted. We now appear to be in a position where the completion of even basic tasks have become too onerous.

Somewhat if not mostly unfairly, Strikeforce had a reputation for being a bungled operation even prior to being purchased by Zuffa. The infrastructure ran on a shoestring budget and just wasn't as nimble or capitalized to do the sorts of things the UFC could. By comparison, they often looked amateurish. Any reporter who has ever been on a Strikeforce conference call knows precisely what I am talking about. You also have no idea what sort of introspection you'll go through until you hear the man next to you describe himself as 'Sifu' at a Strikeforce post-fight presser.

But those days were under the old leadership. Under Zuffa, it's certainly been a tighter, smarter ship in some ways. In other ways, it's been far worse and now feels like self-fulfilling prophecy. Strikeforce, for whatever reason of cosmic curse, still can't seem to get it done. Just this month, they had to move past the November 3rd weekend with no event due to previous cancellation. News also broke this month that the entire operation is likely going away sometime next year. But hey, might as well end on a high note, right? To see the whole thing off, they're holding a super event in January that will include almost all of their champions. I say 'almost' because both Gilbert Melendez and Luke Rockhold have already pulled out. There's still time left for the others to go, too.

Strikeforce has long been one of my favorite MMA promotions to watch. I also prefer many aspects of Showtime broadcasts to that of FX, FOX or FUEL. But that stigma of flying by the seat of their pants and fumbling their way through the promotion of surprisingly good fights (that quality is always what saved them) endured when the organization became a Zuffa side project. The reasons for them being unable to produce became quite different, but the outcome was the same. Or, at least, that's the perception. And unlike the previous era of Strikeforce, the one under Zuffa doesn't offer nearly the same quality of fight since their roster has been gerrymandered. It's gone from bad to much, much worse.

Even as Strikeforce is setting the stage for its exit, they can't find a lecturn to do it from. And the microphones don't work, at least not very well. There's no escaping its past. The perception among many is that Strikeforce is what we thought it was even if it was really once much more than that.

Most Upside After Matriculation: Steve Mocco, Tyrone Spong, Shawn Bunch

If the beginnings of the MMA careers of one former Olympian, another two-time freestyle world team member and all-time great in kickboxing happening in one month don't get you excited, stop reading now. Mocco cruised to a second-round submission win over the unheralded Tyler Perry (also a former D-I wrestler), Spong nearly decapitated his helpless victim in his MMA debut and while Bunch won't make his MMA debut until Friday, there is reason for optimism.

Whether any one of these fighters ultimately ends up being a killer or world beater remains to be seen. I'm particularly skeptical of Spong's chances given the deficiency in his skill set exists in the grappling department. But come on: these are proven athletes, proven competitors and while closer to 30 years of age than 20, they're all worth extra observation for what they bring to the game. That is, it's not just their unique talents or heightened athleticism. It's also the example they'll set for others like them. The more Mocco's, Bunch's and Spong's we get, the more we'll get those like them. And the more of those we get, the better over time the entire sport becomes.

Improving Non-UFC Weekend Substitutes: RFA 4, WSOF, Bellator and Other Smaller Shows

Is it me or is non-UFC, regional MMA getting better? I'm having a harder time explaining why except to say I find the talent in MMA improving, but more importantly, the talent is being sorted better by savvier regional promotions. They're better both at finding blue chip prospects as well as getting 'on the bubble' UFC veterans the right kinds of fights to get back on track.

It used to be (or perhaps I'm misreading the past) that once a fighter was forced out of the UFC, the regional scene was an incoherent mess. They all lacked exposure and the kind of fights one got there were either woefully inadequate or a surprising challenge. To some extent, that dynamic still exists. The difference is that there's clear nuance going on that I'm not convinced was there before. Smaller promoters are getting better at signing talent (from every portion of the spectrum) and putting them in the kinds of fights that matter to them at that moment. That's progress.

Whether they're making money is another issue. Bellator is on steady legs, but I have no idea what the future holds for promotions like RFA or WSOF or any of the others. I can say confidently, however, these promotions are being run more competently. Even if they go under, one hopes they at least are leaving a matchmaking and talent acquisition blueprint in their wake. Maybe the next set of promoters can get the financials right.

Best Turnaround: Seth Davis, CBS Sports

Outside of basketball knowledge, Davis is worthy of every bit of repudiation and insult we all can muster. Anyone who breathlessly undertakes the task of publicly and boldly acting on assumed but nonexistent knowledge is basically a despicable creature. He noted he wanted to set the example for his children and as such, wouldn't let them watch MMA. Boxing was okey-dokey, however. Were I a father, I'd consider setting the example by actually making informed choices and having competency over subject matter that affected my child's development, but that's not Davis' bag.

Still, he deserves credit for his mea culpa. Whether by corporate pressure or his own self-awareness, he ultimately deleted the controversial Tweets. He also answered many of MMA's defenders who later Tweeted him by telling each of them one-by-one he was deeply wrong and spoke out of turn.

I don't care if Davis or any other sportscaster covering more traditional team sports don't like MMA. Not everyone can like it or anything else universally. They don't even have to have a good reason. That is, unless they want to go public with it. The deal is this: if you're going to share the terms by which you adjudicate your decisions, they're going to be evaluated. And if you're making evidentiary claims about the truth of things, i.e. boxing is safer for children to watch, then you're going to have to deal with the warn, stinging smack of reality that rains upon you from the galvanized masses. Davis, it seems, finally figured that out.

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