It's the first edition of the MMA Roundtable for 2013, so that means we're naturally making predictions about the new year. So why waste any time getting into it? My MMAFighting.com colleague Dave Doyle joins me to discuss 2013 predictions, Invicta, Bellator, and more.
1. It's a new year. Make a prediction on anything MMA-related for 2013.
Doyle: By the time Jan. 1, 2014 rolls around, Daniel Cormier will either a. have a UFC championship belt around his waist or b. depending on how the timing of everything plays out, at worst, will be lined up to fight for a championship by Super Bowl weekend of next year. And that's regardless of whether Cormier decides to fight at heavyweight or light heavyweight. The general assumption is that Cormier will go down to light heavyweight because he doesn't want to cross paths with teammate Cain Velasquez. But a year is an eternity in MMA. If Velasquez loses his title, gets hurt, or if anything unforeseen comes up, Cormier would still be on the short list of top 265 contenders. And if he drops to 205, as expected? Dana White has already indicated he's high on the idea of Cormier vs. Jon Jones. For good reason. Cormier provides Jones the type of stylistic puzzle he's yet to face. Jones has never faced a wrestler as strong Cormier and Cormier's striking improves by leaps and bounds every time he gets into the cage. So yes, regardless of the division, Daniel Cormier is either going to be a champion or in position to get a title by year's end.
Thomas: I like Dave's Cormier prediction. I share his enthusiasm for the former Olympian's MMA future, but if I had to guess his future in terms of title shots will be at light heavyweight.
But that's not my prediction. Instead, I'm betting that if Chris Weidman gets a title shot in 2013, he's your new middleweight champion. Note what I am not saying: I am not suggesting it's a foregone conclusion he will get it. But I am predicting that should the opportunity come his way, he'll come out on top. I think his highly proactive offense that specializes in takedowns with aggressive jiu-jitsu can cause problems for any middleweight. Add in his rare gift for being able to learn techniques quickly and improvise on the fly, and you've got all the makings of someone who is going to be very, very special in the sport.
2. Invicta returns to action Saturday. A lot has changed in the women's MMA world since the company's last show. How do you see Zuffa's foray into WMMA affecting Invicta?
Doyle: Invicta's relationship with Zuffa was win-win when Invicta fighters competed in Strikeforce. It gave Strikeforce a steady pipeline of women's fighters while also allowing Invicta to retain top-notch fighters for their own shows. All you have to do is look at Liz Carmouche, who fought and won a couple fights in Invicta coming off Strikeforce losses, and is now in a position to headline against Ronda Rousey.
Zuffa would be smart to keep the same open-door policy now that the UFC is presenting women's fighting. The UFC's relationship with Invicta is a different situation than the UFC has with competing men's promotions. There is no other full-time women's group to support the sport, and only so many slots open in the UFC. Unlike Strikeforce, which didn't have enough quality fighters of either gender to fill out a full fight schedule toward the end, the UFC already has to keep eight divisions full of men's fighters busy before they add women to the mix. While there's no doubt the Rouseys and Cyborg Santoses will fight with the big group, they still need a solid core of opponents to make it work. So keeping Invicta healthy and occasionally sending them, say, a Sarah Kaufmann-level fighter, is in Zuffa's best interests in the long run.
Thomas: I don't see much affect at all. I can't think of a single regional promoter of predominately male fight cards that's sent fighters to the UFC and seen major boosts of popularity as a consequence. It's true a number of promotions have good regional footholds, particularly in the Midwest or southern California. And it's also true Invicta's model of all-women fight cards creates a certain kind of novelty that I acknowledge could create special developments. Generally speaking, however, Invicta will serve as a feeder organization. Maybe that status as the only feeder that specializes in women's fighting will help boost its popularity, but either you're a fan of women fighting or you're not. And even if you are, are you really that interested in seeing them compete at the regional level? I have my doubts.
3. We're now in 2013 and there's more talk of the UFC getting into Mexico now more than ever. At this time next year, what will say about what the UFC was able to accomplish in that country?
Thomas: I suspect if they're as serious as they say they are, you'll see a show on FUEL or FX by the end of the year. I'm hesitant to say much more given the television partner ambiguity and sketchy details on a future season of 'The Ultimate Fighter' there. I'm also hesitant to say they'll have a season of TUF. It's not simply that fighters in Mexico are, generally speaking, not as good as the rest of their North American counterparts. It's that they are profoundly behind the curve. Let's see what their scouting trip turns up and as I've said before, Mexico is going to be a huge player in MMA in another generation. But right now? It's probably best to think of it more as a staging ground than territory ripe for conquest.
Doyle: I can't claim to be hip to the intricacies of American companies doing business in Mexico. What I do know is that the UFC has long wanted to put on shows there, and for whatever reason hasn't been able to. In the time since they've first expressed interest in going to Mexico, they've gotten into Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Abu Dhabi, the People's Republic of China, and I'm sure there are one or two more I'm forgetting. If they've been able to crack all those markets, some of which aren't necessarily the easiest places to do business, and still haven't been able to put on a show in a country a just a few hours' drive from Las Vegas, that would seem to indicate that this is a pretty tough nut to crack.
But that said, with Cain Velasquez's second title reign underway, the impetus for the company to finally make it happen south of the border has never been stronger. Velasquez is already a superstar among Latino fight fans in the Southwest U.S. I don't know whether the UFC will be able to get it done in Mexico, but this represents their best chance to make serious inroads.
4. Now that Bellator is finally on Spike, what about their move to the channel and upcoming shows excites you most? Conversely, what concerns or bothers you most?
Thomas: Here's a news flash about Bellator if you aren't watching: their product is very, very good. Sometimes its downright excellent. What I am curious to see is how much the leap to Spike makes them a bigger MMA organization that can recruit better talent, pay fighters more and while being a distant number two to the UFC's one, nevertheless provide a very real measure of competition. That's good for the UFC as much as it is Bellator, but the biggest winner would be the sport and its fans. Hard to hate any development on that front.
If I have concern, however, it's going to be their ability to juggle employing the tournament format with what appears to be a growing realization that the model has some restrictions. In a case like this year where the consensus favorites advanced to the finals in Lyman Good and Andrey Koreshkov, the tournament model worked perfectly. But as Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has noted, there's room for rematches in title fights if the conditions are right. That's truthfully only a minor change, but it is a departure from tournament parameters. Some of the best fights the organization can make may or may not happen in a tournament. It'd be unfortunate to see those lost unnecessarily.
Doyle: I have to agree with Luke's take on the positives of Bellator's moves. The bigger the sport can become, the better for all concerned. Even though the UFC has a habit of buying off most of their big competitors, there's no doubt the company simply puts out a better product when motivated by real competition. It can't be entirely a coincidence that Zuffa started to stagnate around the time it bought Strikeforce. And likewise, with Showtime's MMA future uncertain, Bellator's step up into the limelight is coming at the right time.
As for my main concern: What happens in week three of Bellator on Spike? Week one is loaded up with two title shots. Week two features "King Mo" Lawal. Then what? Are fans enough fans going to stick around once the marquee value -- though not the level of action -- falls in ensuing weeks? Will TV ratings hold up and new stars be created, or will there be a sharp drop? I think we're going to find out quick whether Bellator has the legs to make it as a major-league group with a major-league TV slot.