The MMA world never stops turning and the final quarter of 2012 is certainly no exception. With the return of Georges St-Pierre at UFC 154, the GSP vs. Silva sweepstakes launched, but there's a question of whether the entire thing will actually happen. Bellator introduced rematches without tourney fights, December is stacked and UFC and FOX seem to be on good footing.
What to think of all of this? To help break down what it all means, the esteemed Shaun Al-Shatti has joined me in this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable.
1. GSP continues to throw cold water on the idea of a superfight with Anderson Silva. Is he serious about not wanting to fight him or just doing hardline negotiating?
Al-Shatti: In all likelihood the truth lies somewhere between column A and column B. St-Pierre's reservations about accepting this superfight are well noted, and to be fair, for the most part they're completely valid. Silva is the bigger man, is the one who instigated this drama, and at 37 years old, is on the tail end of his career while the 31-year-old St-Pierre is still well into his prime. The last point is most telling, since Silva is obviously looking to close out his career by squeezing in as many big money fights as possible. That's all well and good, but for St-Pierre, who still has an untold number of years of earning potential ahead of him, it does him no favors to succumb to Silva's public pressure and accept terms that are inherently disadvantageous when any loss, even to Silva, could dampen that potential.
Besides, St-Pierre already has a big money fight out there at his own weight class in Nick Diaz. Combine the indelible 209 intrigue and the pair's tumultuous history, and that fight would easily become one of the biggest blockbuster pay-per-views of 2013. St-Pierre's camp knows this, Tri-Star's Firas Zahabi has already started to float the idea out into the media under the guise that Diaz "deserves" it more. And if you strapped St-Pierre and his management into a lie detector test, my guess is you'd find out how perfectly content they are to avoid messing with proven formula and continue dominating the 170-pound division while raking in top dollar pay-per-view earnings.
That's why, in many ways, St-Pierre throwing out the 170-pound caveat to Silva was the perfect power play. There's little chance Silva accepts such a massive (but fair) discrepancy, meanwhile St-Pierre doesn't wind up the public scape goat for a heavily-hyped match-up failing to come to fruition. Plus, if Silva somehow accepts and slashes down his weight, then hey, the lopsided dynamics of this fight change completely.
Thomas: For reasons that won't match my answers here, I'm still optimistic about the chances of this fight happening. I have irrational impulses that are too unjustified to publicly air, but I'm also clinging to a hope that miraculously this will all work out. Ultimately, though, Shaun's right: we just don't know. And 'don't know' is most certainly a grade below 'yes' with conditions. That's troubling.
One has to admit GSP has been remarkably consistent over time on his answers when pressured about fighting Silva: he basically says no each and every time. It used to be the move to middleweight would take too long and besides, there's too much at welterweight to worry about. Now weight is still an issue (although the pressure to go to middleweight is basically off), but a little less so. Instead, the timing isn't right, at least not as GSP would tell us. Besides, there's still work at welterweight to do.
I certainly would never dream of demeaning GSP or stupidly suggest he's afraid. But he's saved from having to give into the pressure by being king of a division in MMA that's talent rich. He's consistently able to lean on the fact that, well, why not stay at welterweight? There's plenty to do there, right? That's not an option available to every champion of every weight class.
Strangely, I'd hate for negotiations to go too well for GSP. What if Silva does decide to make the cut all the way to 170 pounds, but looks like death and fights terribly in the process? What is the point of that? My hope is that 170 for GSP and 177/178 for Silva are the starting negotiating points.
2. December will feature a ton of good fights from all over the MMA world. Which one are you looking forward to most?
Al-Shatti: If you asked me this last month, the words "JDS vs. Cain II" would have been out of my mouth before you even finished the question. But alas, after watching a revitalized B.J. Penn shadowbox around the streets of Hawaii and then hearing his smoldering, show-stealing act on this week's conference call, I have to admit, I think I've fallen for it again.
Two things often prove troublesome in athletic retirement. One, obviously, is the abrupt lack of competition and sudden upswing in free time. But the other aspect, the one that's often overlooked, is the meat market discussion about "legacies" that inevitably seems to take place. An athlete is forced to watch as his/her entire career is poked and prodded, achievements criticized and minimized, until the public comes to some form of collective conclusion, fair or not, about an athlete's life work.
For Penn, after offering us one brutal final memory at UFC 137, that conclusion seemed to land somewhere at "he was great, but he should have been greater." Such a dismissive slight couldn't have sat well with the 33-year-old when he knew he could still do something change it. Penn basically said as much on Tuesday, when he bemoaned how scarcely he's brought up in the conversation of pound-for-pound greats. Even if it's a one-off, this sudden fire, also fueled by Rory MacDonald effectively dismissing the former champ as nothing but a fat has-been, is the reason a match-up that once looked tremendously one-sided, no longer seems as such. It's become one of the longest running clichés in the sport, but a motivated Penn has proven to be a monster for anyone to deal with.
Thomas: Like Shaun, I'm a sucker for Penn, too. There's just a weakness I have about his declarations that things will be new or amazing the next time out I simply cannot get away from. But I also have to say that's where Shaun and I part ways. Even if Penn wins, I don't expect him to stick around MMA very long. In fact, if he stopped Rory in the first round (however unlikely that may be), I still see him retiring after this fight. Without more gravity to the bout, it's not enough for me.
Instead, I'm looking at the rematch between Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez. I won't call their first fight a fluke, but I don't think we saw the best of either man. We certainly didn't get much out of Velasquez and we didn't get the chance to truly see JDS tested in a way Velasquez has the capability to do.
Everyone talks about JDS' takedown defense and it may well be good, but that's based on as much speculation as it is limited evidence. What JDS has yet to prove - and may well do in this fight - is that he can sustain his takedown defense over the course of several rounds from a consistent attack. I'm told in sparring Velasquez gets hit early, but by the time the third round comes along is basically unhittable. He'll need to make this a wrestling match as early and often as possible and for a fighter like JDS who has questionable cardio down the stretch, this fight is as interesting as ever.
I'd also say Velasquez winning is important for the UFC's attempts to get into Mexico, if not Latin America. In case you hadn't been paying attention, Mexico is on the come up. While I'm hesitant to underscore this point too much, I do believe MMA typically better succeeds in countries where a strong middle class with purchasing power exists or is rapidly developing. You'll note Brazil was never overly fond of MMA until it's economic climate changed for the better. Velasquez is still the UFC's best hope in opening up the Mexican market, which will help them develop inroads into Latin America. If those aren't huge stakes, nothing is.
3) Bellator recently changed their long-held policy of championship opportunities can only be earned through tournament victories by allowing title fight rematches. Does this open the door to any other future changes in format and is it ultimately a good thing?
Thomas: It most certainly is a good thing. Is anyone even complaining about this save for the next tournament winner who has to wait an extra turn before getting a title fight?
Bellator is wedded to the tournament model, for better or worse. They're looking for a differentiator from the UFC that helps them stand out. The tournament format does that, but it also carries significant costs. Fighters who could be popular attractions but are not necessarily the best fighters won't get the kind of promotional shine they would otherwise receive. This isn't to say the tournament model lacks any redeeming qualities, but there are restrictions it places on the ability of Bellator to leverage popular or would-be popular talent.
This new policy of allowing rematches without the use of a tournament is an excellent idea. It also is a way to circumvent the control the tournament places on Bellator's promotional needs. It, too, carries cost and I'm sure the next tourney winner who has to wait for his chance to fight so someone else can rematch will be perturbed. So what? That's a small price to pay for the chance to settle dispute, promote the best talent and relive ultra exciting moments beyond the narrow confines of what the tournament affords.
Al-Shatti: Luke is correct in that, at the very least, the decision shows us that Bellator is open to flexibility and willing to make changes for the good of the organization, which in and of itself is a good first step. With a major move to Spike imminent, the last thing Bellator needs is to step on its own toes.
Like it or not, history has proven that rematches tend to be big business. The drama of a bitter rivalry builds personalities for the public to latch on to, and in a promotion sorely lacking on bankable stars, any move that would aid the creation of those stars is a worthwhile pursuit. Though it’s somewhat telling that this change in policy was made almost a year after the reason for it -- Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez -- became irrelevant.
4) Fox has stated they are very bullish on the UFC despite some ratings troubles in the first year of their 7-year deal. Will their recent changes (UFC on FOX prelim fights on FX, changing TUF nights, etc.) give them a bump in year two?
Thomas: It's impossible to declare things will automatically be better, but I do have some cause for optimism. It appears after a year of realizing they can't put any fighter anywhere and get good results that more appropriate placement is necessary.
Let's start with FUEL. As I previously wrote, they're getting better about learning where to stage these events and which fighters to use. Overseas expansion dovetails nicely with FUEL's limited broadcast reach and it is possible to use exciting newcomers or rising prospects (although not close contenders) to bolster the fight card's strength without sacrificing larger interests.
With FOX, UFC is finally putting title fights for those weight classes where the star power needs a boost, namely, lightweight and below. That isn't without risk, but it's far better to put title fights on than No. 1 contender eliminator matches. Title fights are easier to promote, have generally better talent and often better known names.
With FX, things are a little murkier. That's especially true as it relates to the future of FOX Sports 1. Still, FX is already making a bigger commitment. They're moving the air date of TUF, they airing Primetime at a semi-reasonable hour and they're showing the UFC on FOX prelims rather than putting those on FUEL. That's progress.
There's still much work to be done. MMA is not as hot a property as it was in 2008. But these changes are encouraging. I also think it's worth noting Zuffa are better as competitors than they are as conquerors. Bellator's move to Spike can only be good for MMA and MMA fans.
Al-Shatti: I agree that while it’s impossible for us to predict automatic success, the UFC’s 2013 campaign on FOX is looking optimistically bright. It's important to remember, the FOX deal was vastly extensive and unprecedented. Everything wasn't destined to be sunshine and rainbows from day one. It was, and still is, a partnership unlike anything a major network and anyone in MMA had engineered before, and as such, the learning curve was inevitably going to be steep.
Frankly, the most important takeaway from a rough first year is the that UFC seems to have learned it can’t just throw any fighter on a network card and expect the brand to carry the ratings, as Luke mentioned. If the next two FOX cards are any indication, it’ll be a while before we see a second or third tier name like Jim Miller and Brandon Vera headlining one of the quarterly events. And considering how stacked FOX 5 and FOX 6 are, it’ll be surprising if the UFC doesn’t start seeing a gradual upswing in viewership as a result.
Likewise, the FUEL TV cards seem to be finding their niche as first-step platforms for burgeoning contenders and fun, exciting introductions (or revisits) into foreign markets. Although when it comes to TUF, it remains to be seen it the upcoming changes will stick or if the series really has jumped the shark. Because if Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen and an escape from a poisonous Friday time slot can’t save it, it’s safe to say the series has run its course.
Nonetheless, learning how to maximize your properties is a slow but important process, and if that can be only thing the UFC and FOX take away from Year 1, it’s hard not to be encouraged.