MMA Roundtable: Cesar Gracie's legacy, Uriah Hall, Rousey vs. Zingano, and more

Esther Lin

An eventful April in the sport of mixed martial arts marches on. Last weekend's events left plenty to discuss and this weekend promises plenty more.

From the prospects of Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano, to what exactly does and does not constitute an illegal elbow, to the upcoming lightweight title fight between Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez and what it means for the latter's gym, and much more, the topics seem endless.

So without further ado, it's time for the latest edition the MMA Roundtable. My MMAFighting.com colleague Mike Chiappetta joins me for this week's edition.

1. Jake Shields, Nate Diaz and Nick Diaz all came up short in their UFC title shots. If Gilbert Melendez loses to Benson Henderson on Saturday, would it be fair to conclude Cesar Gracie's gym is a bit overrated?

Doyle: Fair or not, in 2013, a UFC championship is the mark of a world-class camp.

You can go without winning a UFC title and still be a well-respected and even great gym. Think of the American Top Team, for example, which has long been a solid player on the national scene and boasted a WEC champ in Mike Brown. They've never had a UFC champion under their guidance, but if Antonio Silva pulls off the upset over Cain Velasquez, their status will elevate further.

There's no doubt Team Cesar Gracie is a solid camp which has earned its stripes. If you produce fighters the caliber of the Diaz brothers, Shields, and Melendez, you've obviously done something right. And they've held titles in promotions from Strikeforce to Elite XC to the WEC to Shooto.

But the ability to reach the pinnacle separates the very good camps from the world-class ones. If Melendez doesn't win on Saturday, then Team Gracie goes 0-4 in UFC title fights, with no further potential opportunities on the horizon. If the gym has aspirations of being considered on the level of the sport's Team Jacksons or Tri-Stars, then Saturday is make-or-break.

Chiappetta: This is a hard question to address for several reasons. Overrated? Is someone power ranking the camps on a regular basis? Is there some consensus on Team Cesar Gracie aside from the fact they're very good? And what about the fact that most of these talents are home-grown? While many "super camps" are able to draw in top talent precisely because they are "super camps," Cesar Gracie started with a bunch of kids that have stayed loyal to him, many of which have done very well. If anything, that is more impressive than recruiting from a worldwide talent pool.

Let's not forget that at one point in 2010, Gracie could boast the Strikeforce lightweight, welterweight and middleweight champion all under his roster. How many camps can make that claim?

I understand the point that Dave and others have made that winning a UFC championship is a prerequisite to bestowing the title of "great" on a camp, but in my opinion, consistency and excellence are hard to come by, and Gracie has done a strong job in getting his charges there. Given the comings and going of most big camps, he also deserves credit for building, retaining and guiding his core four for so long. At best, Melendez's result on Saturday night adds something shiny to the team resume, but at worst, it reinforces how good Gracie's team has been so long.

2. In the wake of Uriah Hall's upset loss to Kelvin Gastelum, what are his prospects in the UFC middleweight division?

Doyle: If nothing else, the fact that Uriah Hall's hype reached the level it did -- I actually got Fightweets questions last week asking me how he would fare against Anderson Silva -- is a testament to what a solid job FX did promoting the show. TUF 17 had a focus it's lacked for years, the more documentary-ish feel gave it a fresh look, and Chael Sonnen is on the short list of the best coaches who ever worked on the show.

All this helped give Hall the biggest buzz of any fighter who has graced the show in quite some time. Which meant he was also set up for the biggest fall when he came up short against Gastelum.

That said, don't write Hall off. His raw skills are undeniable. His body of work suggests he's nowhere near the elites at middleweight, but there's nothing wrong with that.

If you go back to the aftermath of TUF 1, Forrest Griffin was brought along slowly after his Stephan Bonnar fight, getting matched up against Bill Mahood and then Elvis Sinosic. Diego Sanchez got Brian Gassaway as his first post-TUF fight. A similar path, with expectations adjusted to a more reasonable level, would be the best route forward for Hall.

Chiappetta: I always felt the betting line on the Hall-Gastelum fight was crazy, not because Hall was overhyped, but because no TUF fighter deserves to be such a prohibitive favorite. If he was that unbeatable, he probably wouldn't be on the show.

The first thing that must be said here is, you can't blame Hall for the hype. He wasn't actively seeking attention by saying crazy things. All he did was go into the TUF tournament and destroy whoever was in front of him. There were plenty of signs in his semifinal fight with Dylan Andrews -- and even in his past pro fights -- that he had some takedown defense deficiencies. Hall is 28 years old and has been competing on-and-off since 2005, so he's not exactly a rookie at this thing. Still, he is offensively gifted, and certain matchups will certainly allow him to shine.

If he is brought along at a comfortable pace and works hard on his takedown defense, he has the talent to be a factor at 185. Perhaps in the long run, the loss to Gastelum will free him from the wild, suffocating expectations the show created for him in the first place.

3. With her win last Saturday, Cat Zingano earned a title shot against Ronda Rousey. After watching her UFC debut, what realistic chance does she have to unseat Rousey?

Chiappetta: It's an intriguing matchup. While Zingano has gained a reputation as a striker for her brutal Muay Thai knees, she actually has a long background in wrestling -- she captained the boys team in high school and also competed in college. That's something she'll have to draw upon greatly in order to stay on her feet against Rousey and force the champion into a different kind of fight. To date, no one has been able to do that for any extended periods. Some feel that former Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann would be the most likely to stop Rousey's throws, but could it be Zingano?

There's no one in Zingano's pro fighting past that compares to Rousey, but in her fight with Tate (a strong wrestler), she was taken down three times, which is probably not a great sign for a future date with Rousey. Zingano admitted she was a bit flustered by the emotion of the moment early on. Against Rousey, that loss of concentration may have been enough to cost her the fight. But Zingano has the luxury of working her way into the fight and getting more comfortable with her newfound stardom through her upcoming coaching stint on TUF, and so I wouldn't expect her to be so nervous next time around.

More foreboding for Zingano than her troubles against Tate was her issues with Takayo Hashi, a 125-pound fighter who took her down twice, although Zingano ultimately won the fight. I just don't think she can give up the takedown against the crafty and aggressive Rousey and still win. From what I know, I'd still consider Rousey a solid favorite.

Doyle: I mostly agree with Mike's take here. I'd also add that one of the more potentially troubling things I saw from Zingano was her seeming inability to avoid a punch. Several times in the fight, particularly in the opening round, Zingano exhibited little head movement and left herself wide-open to be tagged by Tate. And she telegraphed when she was getting ready to close the distance and ate several stinging jabs because of it. I'm not sure why Tate didn't follow up on this line of attack, but if Zingano doesn't shore up her standup defense, Rousey is likely to pounce.

That said, while Zingano should go into the fight as an underdog, she's clearly a live one. She had the heart to get out of several dicey situations. She obviously has finishing power as solid as anyone in the women's bantamweight division. And unlike the other elite striker Rousey faced, Sarah Kaufman, I don't expect Zingano to freeze under the bight lights once the cage door locks, as Kaufman did. Zingano presumably got the big-show nerves out of her system the first time. Rousey's earned her spot as the favorite, but don't count Cat out.

4. Gabriel Gonzaga will protest his stoppage loss, saying some of the elbows thrown by Travis Browne in the fights finishing sequence were illegal. What is your interpretation of it?

Chiappetta: I've watched the replay numerous times, and I'm fairly certain that the blows that immediately precipitated the knockout were all legal. Browne wasn't slamming them straight downward. He was going out of his way to shoot them diagonally in order to legally target the side of Gonzaga's head and stay away from the back. The fourth elbow came in at the same angle, but by then, Gonzaga is falling to the ground. Because Browne has an overhook on his left side (Gonzaga's right), he almost serves to hold up the big Brazilian, so as Gonzaga's body collapses, gravity pulls down his left side first, changing the angle of his head. Browne's elbow then slams into the back. Keep in mind this all happens in a split-second in real time.

While strikes to the back of the head are illegal, ones that strike the ear are not, and the first three of Browne's elbow strikes seem to fit that mold. The fourth is illegal, but by then Gonzaga was already knocked out and the fight had already been decided. All that was left was for referee Chris Tognoni to step in and stop him.

Unfortunately for Gonzaga, he was hit two more times before Tognoni rescued him, and one of those seemed to land to an illegal spot. That is no different from fighters who get hit a split-second after the bell. Yes, it is technically illegal, but officials must have the discretion to use their best judgment in doling out possible punishment. Browne went out of his way to strike within the rules while trying to hit a moving target, and he shouldn't be penalized for an unintentionally illegal strike that happened after the fight's outcome was already sealed.

Doyle: I've said this before and I'll say it once more: "The fighter was already out" is not a valid reason to dismiss an illegal strike. Whether you interpret it as a strike which occurs during the body of the fight (since the referee has yet to stop it, and the fight goes on until the referee does) or as a post-fight blow (because the fighter was knocked out), there are rules on the book for both situations. An illegal strike is an illegal strike no matter when it occurs. The idea it's OK because the fighter on the receiving end was unconscious already is the most wrong-headed idea I've heard thrown around in MMA in a long time.

So the question from there becomes rules interpretation based on each individual infraction. And in this specific case, I just don't think Gonzaga has a case to overturn the result. The first several of Browne's elbows, the ones that essentially ended the fight, were legal. The last two weren't, but they also weren't intentional. They happened in the heat of the moment, and they happened in part because Gonzaga's head involuntarily turned. In this case, it was circumstantial, and it wasn't as if Browne was going out of his way to act in an unsportsmanlike manner. I can't blame Gonzaga's camp for trying to get the result overturned, but it smacks a bit of desperation.

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