MMA Roundtable: Rampage's future, UFC on FX 7's best fights, ranking Bellator's lightweights and more

Jon Kopaloff

In this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable, Mike Chiappetta and I wonder what on earth Rampage is going to do when his UFC run is over, how to rank Bellator's best two lightweights, whether Gilbert Melendez is deserving of an immediate title shot and much more in this week's edition.

Of importance, he's right and I'm wrong. Or maybe it's the exact opposite. It might be. I've lost count. Either way, you read and decide.

1. Rampage Jackson reiterated on Tuesday that he's done with the UFC after fighting Glover Teixeira. What are the chances he ends up in Bellator? Is that a good match?

Chiappetta: On Tuesday, Bellator's Bjorn Rebney seemed to leave the door open to examining the possibility of bringing Jackson into the fold, though he acknowledged it was something of a "square peg, round hole" situation. There are some reasons to believe the two sides could forge a relationship. First, Rebney and Spike see Jackson as a major name who is capable of drawing eyeballs. Second, Jackson has in the past spoken about possibly doing pro wrestling and Spike can make that happen. Third, Jackson is interested in boxing, and Bellator is more likely to allow him to do that than the UFC ever would.

On the flip side, with nearly 14 years of MMA behind Jackson, it's unlikely he would want to enter into the Bellator tournament system and fight three times in three months. And if he doesn't want to do that, it's hard to see a match. In the end, I think Jackson is much more likely to end up fighting special one-off MMA fights in far-off places like Japan while dabbling in kickboxing.

Thomas: I have to agree with Mike. If I'm a betting man, Rampage is going to end up picking a deal that gives him flexibility and the time to do what he wants to do. Fighting in Japan probably means relatively good paychecks and getting them on a schedule he'd prefer. Of all the possible outcomes, I see this as the most likely.

That said, I wouldn't rule out a Bellator contract, especially if they're able to get things moving with GLORY. Rampage has dabbled in K-1 and it'd be a welcome alternative to the monotony of MMA training. He also wouldn't necessarily have to worry about getting a win while earning a check. That's hardly the worst of all worlds.

But as Mike notes, is he really going to want to do the tournament? Seems debatable at least. And if he isn't in the tourney, he could fight at catchweights, which means heavyweights could meet him somewhere in the middle. But does Rampage really want to fight Rich Hale? I just don't know. What I do know is he probably doesn't want to risk his future of gym fees and rap songs on MySpace.

2. Outside of the main event, which fight on the UFC on FX 7 fight card do you find most intriguing?

Thomas: There are actually a number of really good fights on this card, at least as far as prospects or divisionally unique fighters go. Edson Barboza returns, which is always worth a view. Nik Lentz is going to try to keep the magic alive at featherweight against featherweight stalwart Diego Nunes. Nunes dos a lot of work in the Octagon, but it never seems focused. For a guy like Lentz who has something of a new lease on life at 145 pounds, it's the perfect kind of fight to see where he's really at in his new weight class home.

For my money, though, it's Ronny Markes vs. Andrew Craig. Middleweight isn't MMA's most exciting division and I'm not curious about this because I think either is on a collision course with Anderson Silva. I like this fight because it's two well-matched, fairly blue chip middleweight prospects who both need the kind of victory they can earn on Saturday. There are lots of prospects on this fight card, to be sure, but I would argue this is the best meeting of two of the better ones who are at similar positions in their career. One takes a fairly significant step forward (I suspect Markes) with a win, but I suspect it's going to be hard fought and entertaining. And when a bout is both of those things plus meaningful, that's when the magic happens.

Chiappetta: I'm hoping that Luke is right and that there turns out to be a number of "really good" fights on this card, but the match-ups outside of the main event aren't all that intriguing to me. But with some of the UFC's recent cards and upcoming fight announcements, that's just a minor complaint on my end.

I'm going to go with the Barboza vs. Lucas Martins match-up as my answer. Barboza is a pleasure to watch, particularly in the striking, where his combination of gracefulness and power may be unparalleled in his division. Barboza though, is coming off a knockout loss, and will have to do it against an unbeaten Brazilian prospect who came out of nowhere to have a huge 2012, fighting and winning 10 times during the calendar year. Amazingly, nine of those victories were by finish, including seven KO's, a remarkable number for a lightweight.

There is almost no video of Martins' fights online, so it's hard to know just how good he is. What we know is this: he has an impressive record (12-0), he trains with Chute Boxe, and he has a strong Muay Thai background. Match that up with what we know about Barboza and it's easy to imagine that fireworks will ensue.

3. Whether its Rick Hawn and Michael Chandler wins on Thursday night, where would you rank the winner in the top 10 of MMA's lightweights?

Thomas: I'd plant the winner firmly in the top 10, but outside of the 5.

The upside for Chandler is huge. He has some pretty clear issues to iron out in terms of improving his defense, but he's young at 26 years old. He is an excellent MMA wrestler and very good athlete. He also trains with a strong, world-class team. For all of these reasons, we can expect him to improve in a meaningful way over the next few years. For Hawn, it's a little less so. He's got the skills and punishing power punching, but he's 34. Time is not on his side.

The question, though, is where we rank them and why. I can't place either in the top 10 because they simply won't face enough of the truly elite in the division to test where they are. Talent aside, that matters most. But I am comfortable in placing them in the top 10 because of their demonstrable skill, which I'm confident will be on full display tomorrow night.

Ranking fighters is guesswork and we can all be wrong about it, but Hawn and Chandler are deserving of recognition even if they're a step short of being the very best.

Chiappetta: Perhaps I'm in the minority here but in my opinion, Chandler has already cracked the lightweight top 10. His issue will be further elevating himself given the superior status of the UFC's lightweight roster. If he is seen as far and away the best Bellator lightweight and most of his fights are considered lopsided match-ups, he won't gain much from victory. He's a little bit more than a 2-to-1 favorite over Hawn, a former U.S. judo Olympian with heavy hands.

Hawn is simply looking to wade into the top 10, after all, he's only been a lightweight for all of three fights.

The rankings are quite obviously, very subjective, and some people solely base them upon who a fighter has or hasn't faced. In my personal feeling, while compiling ratings at some point you have to project that talent's skills against the other names of the division, and I see Chandler as a potential top 3.

4. Gilbert Melendez was awarded a title shot against Benson Henderson in his Octagon debut. Is he worthy of that opportunity without ever having fought in the UFC?

Chiappetta: Yes, he is. The complaints of those who feel he isn't deserving of the spot come from those who feel the UFC on FOX 6 bout between Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone will yield a more worthy adversary for Henderson.

More specifically, the thought is that if Pettis wins, he should vault to the No. 1 contender slot. But there is no overwhelmingly compelling case for him. Sure, a win over Cerrone would be an impressive victory, but it would only result in a modest three-fight win streak, and make him 3-1 overall since coming over to the UFC. The push for Pettis seems to be a lingering affect from the title shot he was promised and that never materialized when he came over from the WEC. At the time the WEC closed down, he was the reigning champ and was supposed to fight for the UFC lightweight belt, until an unexpected draw between Frank Edgar and Gray Maynard necessitated a rematch. Instead of waiting it out, Pettis chose to fight again, and lost. Since then he's done well, but it's not too much to ask to win four in a row before getting to compete for the belt.

The funny part of the situation is that some people feel that Melendez hasn't proven himself to be a worthy contender because he has yet to fight in the UFC. That was the same criticism levied at Pettis way back when, and as fighters like he and Ben Henderson have proven, you don't have to have fought in the UFC to be world-class. Melendez is 21-2 with a seven-fight win streak, and Henderson will have his hands full with him.

Thomas: Mike's logic is sound. I think for all the reasons he states, Melendez is deserving. I don't even believe Melendez will beat Henderson, but clearly recognize he's done enough to earn a title shot. In fact, one could take a completely different approach than the sound one Mike adopts here and arrive at the same position. Namely, the fate of Strikeforce champions who crossover into the UFC.

Now, it's true that someone like Alistair Overeem had to take a fight against Brock Lesnar first before getting a title shot. And Diaz ended up having to fight Carlos Condit before anything was going to happen for him. But as we know, Diaz was supposed to get Georges St. Pierre first and before he decided to not attend pressers. The point is this: there is clear precedent of Strikeforce fighters who matriculate getting title shots or number-one contender fights right away. Melendez is the Strikeforce lightweight champ, so he certainly qualifies. He's also been consistently ranked in the top 5 if not top 3 of the division for years. He's not the biggest fan favorite in the world, but neither is Henderson. The two need some exposure and given the timing and the location of San Jose, it all works out. There should be no reason to question Melendez's title opportunity.

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