MMA Roundtable: Hunt as contender, FOX Sports changes, Lombard's future and more

Mark Kolbe

Busy week. Among the developments: Mark Hunt kept his improbable run going, Hector Lombard lost again, and a matchup between Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans was announced. Oh yeah, and UFC programming is moving to a newly announced, all-sports network.

Joining me to discuss the fun, feedback and fallout is my colleague Luke Thomas. Let's roll ...

1. How, if it all, will the inclusion of UFC programming on the new FOX Sports 1 channel affect the UFC?

Chiappetta: Well, that's a question with a long-term answer. On the surface, the change should turn out to be a net positive for the UFC, as it marks the first time the company's programming is regularly featured alongside other major sports on an all-sports network. Believe it or not, this is still fairly important in the way the sport is perceived by both middle America and Madison Avenue. Just because we watch and accept doesn't mean the sport is widely accepted everywhere. The more it is surrounded by "legitimacy," the better.

The impact of the move will be harder to measure in the short-term. On the plus side, some of the promotion's auxiliary programming like UFC Tonight and Countdown specials will be exposed to larger audiences. On their old home on FUEL, only 36 million households had access to them; on FOX Sports 1, that number will balloon to near 90 million. On the flip side, other programs like the Fight Night events and FOX and pay-per-view prelim cards are moving from FX (98 million homes) to a channel slightly smaller. It's also a channel that will take some time to find as TV viewers adjust to the change. Given the fact that it's competing with ESPN, well that's just another obstacle to be solved.

Looking at FOX's history, they basically invented a network from scratch and made it a powerhouse. Then they created a news channel that has also become an industry leader. So with FOX's overall investment and their aggressive strategies, the marketing of the channel and its partners including the UFC should ensure a fruitful outcome.

Thomas: I agree with much of Mike's analysis here, particularly the point that positioning UFC alongside college football and soccer and whatever else as part of a sports fan's diet is an important development. I also share his concern about the exposure issues. UFC fans were asked to go all over the place after Zuffa and Spike parted ways. They'll be asked to do so again as will other sports fans who wonder why NASCAR is sharing so much space with cage fighting. There's lots of adjustments to make for everyone involved, no group more so than consumers.

I also think it's noteworthy Wednesday night is going to become important to the UFC. Sharing space with other sports is great for image issues, but presents logistical challenges when there's conflict on Saturday night. Moving to the weeknight isn't without risks, but it could be a long-term payoff as fans settle into the groove.

But as Kevin Iole reported on Yahoo, part of the impetus for this decision is to get UFC programming largely in one place. Yes, there will be shows on FOX and pay-per-view, but basically everything else is to be on Fox Sports 1 (we'll see what happens with The Ultimate Fighter). FOX execs admitted there was a ton of confusion when UFC left Spike. This new move is a way to correct for the old one. Perhaps more than anything else, settling in on an easy-to-follow routine is what UFC and MMA needs.

2. Hector Lombard is 1-2 in the UFC and reportedly has a hefty contract. Is he on the verge of being cut after his loss to Yushin Okami?

Thomas: The verge of being cut? Yes, but he's still got some life left in him. I don't believe this bout will result in his dismissal, but it's also fair to say he's probably on thin ice.

It's true Lombard is expensive, rumored to be earning between $300,000 to $400,000 a fight before pay-per-view points. UFC officials have been able to somewhat cut down on costs by placing him on free television cards. Still, that sort of sum of money means the recipient has to deliver a return on the UFC's investment. That sort of pressure is on every fighter within the organization, but at a time when the UFC is having to make some difficult and controversial choices about roster reduction, standing out like a sore thumb by being a high-dollar draw with a losing record is hardly advisable.

There's this pathetic rumor that some wish to see Lombard fail for whatever silly reason conspiracy theorists concoct. The truth could not be more dissimilar from that nonsense. Middleweight needs as many true contenders as it can get. Lombard, at one point in time, seemed like a safe bet. The truth is the UFC needs to give Lombard a tough bout in his next UFC contest. Either the guy is going to win his way into a contendership or he isn't. If he's not, the UFC needs to explore the option of giving him a new, less lucrative contract. Should that not be possible, then releasing him has to at least be an option on the table.

All of this is to say the current path is not sustainable. Something has to give. Either Lombard starts winning against top 5 opposition or negotiates a new contract or moves on to another organization. Making (relatively) big bucks while losing won't last forever.

Chiappetta: It sucks that it's come to this, and that we have to speculate on the futures of fighters who have a rough patch. But this is a sport that demands performance, and to date, Lombard hasn't produced in the way that was expected of him or that validates his expensive contract. The crazy thing about it all is two of his losses are by split-decision, so despite the fact he's 1-2, he's also two close rounds away from being undefeated.

But to cut to the nitty gritty, Lombard desperately needs a win. If Jon Fitch, a longtime contender who built up his name in the UFC, could be cut for one win in a four-fight stretch, there is little doubt Lombard could be, too. As far as I know, UFC brass doesn't have any close ties with Lombard. He was just someone they saw as a potential title challenger given his tremendous success outside the promotion. If they change their view of him, and he's suddenly no longer that potential challenger, and no longer worth that investment, he, too, will become expendable.

3. Last Saturday at UFC on FUEL 8, we saw Mark Hunt capture his fourth straight win. Is he a legitimate title contender?

Chiappetta: I think we've hit the stage where we are obligated to proclaim him "in the mix." The heavyweight division has always been a difficult one in which to generate contenders, and by virtue of his walkaway KO over Stefan Struve, Hunt now has the longest win streak of any UFC big man. That's stunning when you consider the UFC tried to pay him to leave a couple years back, and even more shocking when you consider he lost to Sean McCorkle in his octagon debut.

Let's look at this way: who is ahead of him in the pecking order? Aside from champ Cain Velasquez, there's Junior dos Santos, Antonio Silva, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir, and I suppose, you can throw Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Roy Nelson in there. That's eight guys, so while Hunt isn't a likely challenger right now, he realistically is one or two more wins away from doing so. Of course, as competition levels rise, his challenge does, too. Would he survive the mount position with Mir, Nogueira or Werdum as he did with Struve? Would his striking-heavy style play as strongly in a pairing with Overeem or dos Santos? The matchups definitely get less favorable, but after what he's done so far, it's hard to count him out. If he wins one more fight, his story and streak would be an easy sell in a title match.

Thomas: Eh, I can't get overly worked up about Hunt as any sort of contender. Not yet, anyway.

For starters, Mike also forgets Daniel Cormier, which pushes Hunt even further back in the queue. The biggest issue, though, is that Hunt's major achievement is not transforming himself into something decidedly new inasmuch as it is finally making use of what was already there. That's why he's winning, but that's why it is highly unlikely he goes much further.

I recall during the 'rally for Mark Hunt' these utterly absurd notions floating around that Hunt had all the tools to be a better contender than Mir or Werdum. What nonsense. Hunt is a hell of a competitor and his late career turnaround at this level is sort of unprecedented. That's why what he's doing is impressive: it's coming from a deficit. On its own, his accomplishments are very good, but we're all magnifying them because this is one, giant come-from-behind victory party.

Here's my take: Hunt wants a top 5 opponent and he should be given one. He's probably earned it. If he beats someone there (or even in the top 7 or 8) without controversy, then let's talk about Hunt: The Contender. Until then, though, let's manage our expectations just a bit.

4. Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans are both coming off of losses and are now set to face each other in June. What are the implications for the loser of that bout?

Thomas: I certainly don't think it means retirement, at least not for Henderson. He's stated he wants to fight two more years and while coming off of a loss against Lyoto Machida at UFC 157, it was controversial. And unlike Henderson, Evans has lost two in a row. Worse, he lost to someone he was widely expected to defeat in a terribly listless performance. Henderson's showing wasn't particularly dramatic, but in retrospect can't be much of a surprise either.

Evans is the one who worries me. He's never lost two in a row until now. It's hard to imagine how he'll handle three consecutive setbacks, especially considering he admitted mulling retirement after losing to Jon Jones at UFC 145. Three in a row isn't a death knell necessarily, but for a fighter whose mind may be on pursuits other than fighting, it could be just the push he needs to make the leap.

If Henderson loses, I think he keeps trucking on. He'll win eventually and he's always looking for the biggest fights possible. Evans, though, appears to be in a more precarious position. My hope is that he doesn't retire without giving middleweight a try. Changing weight classes isn't the cure-all for fighter problems, particularly if motivation is the issue. But not giving 185 pounds a real push seems also like a wasted opportunity for Evans to find some necessary reinvention.

Chiappetta: When you're creeping up on 43 years old, as Henderson is, time chases you around every corner. The former two-division PRIDE champion was underwhelming in his loss to Machida. Even he admitted that. But it's hard to know if that was due to his age, his 15-month layoff or some combination of the two.

What we do know is that a matchup with Evans gives him a chance to change perceptions fast. If Henderson wins, he rebounds to near his previous spot. After all, the loss to Machida was a split-decision, so it's not like he was steamrolled. If he beats Evans, it becomes a blip. But if he loses, things are not so rosy. Two defeats in a row don't have to be the end of his UFC run, but at his age, you don't often get the benefit of the doubt. You don't have the luxury of time. Even if he does lose, Henderson has a remaining ace up his sleeve because he could always cut down to 185. He's done it in the past and he's capable of it again. So he'll likely go on either way.

Evans? It's hard to know what to expect from him. I was at UFC 156 and heard him talk about his previous struggles with motivation. Those days were behind him, he said. But the Nogueira fight didn't prove that. If anything, it made you wonder if he was truly focused on fighting. The interesting thing to me is that Evans didn't take any time to consider his future. He took the bout with Henderson right away. I think he understands the importance of the bout, and while I'm not sure a loss to Henderson would be the end of his career, I wouldn't be surprised if it led to a temporary hiatus from fighting.

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