This week's MMA Roundtable might as well be subtitled: championship edition. It's all about gold, and chasing it.
On consecutive weekends, UFC titles are up for grabs. Last Saturday night, Gilbert Melendez barely missed out on adding a UFC belt to his collection, while this weekend, Chael Sonnen chases his dream for possibly the last time.
What's next for Melendez? Does a drop to featherweight make sense? And where would a Sonnen upset rank in history? My esteemed colleague Dave Doyle joins me to discuss these questions, as well as which Team Alpha Male member is most likely to capture a belt and whether the T.J. Grant vs. Gray Maynard winner is worthy of facing champ Benson Henderson next.
1. Three main card fighters from last weekend's UFC on FOX 7 -- Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier and Nate Diaz -- have talked about changing divisions in the immediate future. Which move would make the most sense at this time?
Chiappetta: As far as I'm concerned, top-level fighters should make career decisions based upon what gets them into title consideration the fastest. Based on that reasoning, I would say that a Melendez shift would be the most sensible.
Looking at each individually, Diaz would get a clean slate at 170, but not much else. Yes, there is a possibility that he'd be stronger at a weight that didn't require a deep cut, but the division is teeming with trouble, with a deep group of wrestlers waiting for him. He'd also likely be at a constant size disadvantage. Better to stay where he is and regroup.
Cormier really has no reason to leave heavyweight except for his friendship with Cain Velasquez. He is unbeaten and ranked in the top three. He's right there on the cusp of fighting for a belt. Given his past kidney issues, he doesn't even know if he can make 205 and could actually be jeopardizing his own health in trying. He is making a sacrifice for his team ahead of himself. That's noble, but not necessarily sensible.
That leaves Melendez, whose stock as a lightweight didn't lose anything in such a close loss. Still, the fact is that he's not likely to earn a title shot anytime soon at 155. On the other hand, he might expedite that process by moving to 145, following in the footsteps of Frankie Edgar and Anthony Pettis. Even if he has to do something Edgar and Pettis didn't do, which is take one fight at the weight class before competing for the belt, it would still seem to be a clearer path to fight for gold.
Doyle: I agree with Mike’s assessment on Diaz. If the Diaz boys should be looking to change up anything, changes in approach and/or scenery seem more relevant than new weight classes. The last time Diaz fought at welterweight, as soon as the competition level ratcheted up, Diaz looked out of place. He was outmuscled by both Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim. And it’s not like the welterweight division has become any less dangerous since Diaz left.
I’m not sure a move to featherweight is necessarily best for Melendez, simply because, at some point, the UFC is going to actually have to start granting title shots to guys who have earned it within the division, rather than continue to let former lightweights cut the line. The Chan Sung Jung-Ricardo Lamas winner will have a pretty clear case for the title shot after Pettis fights Aldo. Given that, I’m not sure Melendez would have any quicker a path to the featherweight title than he would at lightweight.
Which brings us to Cormier. I agree Cormier is well-suited for his current spot at heavyweight. Despite all the grief DC got for his performance against Frank Mir, the fact is, in his past four fights, Cormier has manhandled two former UFC heavyweight champs and owns a knockout of the guy getting the next title shot. But Cormier’s clock is also ticking. He’s 34, he seems serious about not wanting to fight Cain Velasquez, and Velasquez will be part of the title picture for some time to come. Cormier knows what’s best for him. Of the three fighters listed here, Cormier at light heavyweight seems the fastest title-shot path. It’s his call to make.
2. Team Alpha Male is hot again after the addition of Duane "Bang" Ludwig as a striking coach. Which of their marquee fighters do you think stands the best chance of winning a UFC title in their weight class: Joseph Benavidez, Urijah Faber, or Chad Mendes?
Doyle: Short answer: Benavidez.
In the case of Faber, the clock’s ticking. Will he even get the opportunity to fight for another title? Perhaps if Dominick Cruz’s injury situation continues on and Renan Barao continues as interim champion beyond his fight with Eddie Wineland, we could see a Barao-Faber rematch. But even if events play out in his favor, will it be enough? Of the three on this list, Faber has looked more the same style fighter he's always been since Ludwig came on board.
Mendes’ vicious finish of a hot Darren Elkins on Saturday was an emphatic statement. Unfortunately, no matter how crisp Mendes’ striking, he still has the prospect of Jose Aldo Jr. at the top of the featherweight division. Can you see an Aldo-Mendes rematch going much different than the first? I’m not sure I can. Mendes’ best bet for a title might be the winner of Aldo vs. Anthony Pettis going up to lightweight from there, leaving a vacancy.
Benavidez, however, is a different story. This is someone who has been right on the cusp and is still in his prime. He’s had a pair of split decision losses in title fights in which he won one card and came a point away from claiming the title on another: first against Dominick Cruz at WEC 50 and then against Demetrious Johnson at UFC 152. Those are two champions who haven’t been defeated at their current weight class. That’s how close Benavidez has come to championship gold. Granted, Benavidez won’t be able to hunt down Johnson as easily as he did Darren Uyenoyama last weekend. But the added edge to his striking, combined with DJ as a bit of a question mark coming off surgery, could be what Benavidez needs to finally reach the top.
Chiappetta: I agree with Dave that it's Benavidez, mostly because Johnson appears to be the most vulnerable champion. As Dave mentioned, Johnson is coming off surgery, and even though he's expected to come back at full strength, that is never a guarantee. Also, as good as he's been, he's never been a dominant fighter. Opponents consistently take rounds from him, meaning that with a few tweaks, he can be beaten.
Benavidez already has a familiarity with what Johnson does. Most athletes tell you they learn more from failure than success, because there are mistakes to correct and problems to address. Winners tend not to tinker much in fear of creating a problem where there was none. So I feel that Benavidez can make more adjustments to change the result of a rematch.
Mendes has looked great in his recent wins, but despite his surge in power, I can't help but think he'll still be outgunned by Aldo in a firefight, and Aldo's wrestling is top-notch, so there's no real advantage for him there, either. It's still an uphill fight for him.
For Faber, it might depend whether he draws Barao or Cruz. At this stage, Barao is more dynamic than he is, so I would give the Brazilian the edge, but who knows what to expect from Cruz after two knee surgeries? In a style so dependent on lateral movement and footwork, any loss of mobility could tip the odds back towards a challenger.
3. Dana White announced after UFC on FOX 7 that the winner of an upcoming match between Gray Maynard and T.J. Grant would next challenge champion Benson Henderson. Is this the right call?
Chiappetta: The first thing I'd like to say here is that I like when the UFC has a clear plan in place. Even if I disagree with it, I can appreciate that they've already thought through different scenarios and reached a conclusion that leads the sport's observers in a straight line. While part of the fun of watching sports is wildly speculating about the future, a structured plan can lead to more focused anticipation.
For now, eyes will be on Las Vegas in May, when Maynard and Grant compete. Is this the best outcome for the division? All I can say about that is that it would be nice if Anthony Pettis was still waiting in the wings. That would have been the best scenario, but that ship has sailed for now. The UFC plugs one hole at a time, and the best remaining lightweights for Henderson -- aside from a rematch with Melendez -- are any combination of Maynard, Grant and Josh Thomson. No one else has any significant case. I'd like to see the Maynard-Grant winner fight Thomson for the right to face Henderson, but timing issues (i.e. filling scheduled dates) would preclude that.
So what you're essentially left with is two top 10s competing to fight for the belt. Right now, it doesn't seem like there is much excitement about that direction, but this is fighting; that can change with one big knockout. Is it the right call? Let's put it this way: it's the only call.
Doyle: I’ll have to disagree with my friend Mike here: Not only is it not the only option, it’s the wrong one.
First off, I’m in the camp Melendez should get an immediate rematch. The fight was that close. While the decision was by no means a robbery, I’m not the only person who thinks "El Nino" deserved to get the decision and should be the champion today.
But since that’s off the table, I would have rather had Thomson get the title shot than the Maynard-Grant winner. Thomson is as hot as he’s ever been. He just finished Nate Diaz. Not only couldn’t Henderson finish Diaz, no one else in the UFC has been able to do it, either. The network television exposure has given Thomson a huge boost. He hasn’t been finished since 2004 and his tight trilogy with Melendez actually left many fans asking for a fourth bout. It’s a pretty solid resume.
As for Maynard-Grant, Maynard’s already had two title opportunities. I don’t think anyone outside of his accountant is in a hurry to see him get a third shot. I’m guessing the UFC’s desired result is an impressive Grant victory, so that Grant can plausibly be pushed as a top contender with a five-fight win streak and a win over a veteran like Maynard.
The end result here is the UFC will grant a title shot to the fighter with, at best, the third-best claim to a crack at Henderson’s title. And they’ll do so at a time when either Melendez or Thomson could easily be matched with Henderson from a timing perspective. Wrong call by the UFC here.
4. Few give Chael Sonnen a chance to unseat Jon Jones on Saturday. If he did, where would it rank among the great upsets in UFC history?
Doyle: It would be in the top three for sure. As I pondered this question, a few recurring thoughts came up. It’s hard to weigh some of the great upsets of the early days, like Maurice Smith vs. Mark Coleman, against current upsets, simply because the level of competition has amped up so much since the early days. In Randy Couture’s case, he’s had so many upsets that it almost works against him. And Tim Sylvia, for example, is no Jon Jones, no matter how old Couture was at the time he defeated Sylvia.
The two bouts I consider the biggest upsets in UFC history are B.J. Penn’s victory over Matt Hughes for the welterweight title at UFC 46 and Matt Serra’s TKO win over Georges St-Pierre for the same belt at UFC 69. What was the common thread in those fights, other than the fact they occurred at 170 pounds? Both vanquished fighters admitted afterwards they took their opponent too lightly. Penn, like Sonnen, was going up a weight class. Serra, who was only in a title fight because he won The Ultimate Fighter comeback season, is the ultimate case of an underdog tagging an opponent with a lucky punch.
Jones has never had a legitimate loss in his career, has already mowed through a string of former champions, and could very well be considered the greatest fighter of all-time when all is said and done. He’d have to treat Sonnen the same way Hughes regarded Penn and GSP on Serra to lose. I’d have to see how, exactly, Sonnen would pull off the upset before giving it a specific ranking. But it would be in Hughes-Penn and GSP-Serra territory without question.
Chiappetta: I've never quite understood the media's obsession with ranking things. I can't even tell you what my favorite song is. I suppose it's because we prefer order over chaos, or it's an attempt to provide context to past events. The problems with it are, first, that most rankings are completely subjective and unprovable and second, that history is fluid.
All that said, Sonnen over Jones would obviously be a huge upset. Serra beating St-Pierre remains the gold standard, for the reasons Dave stated, along with the fact that before Serra KO'd GSP, he was not known for his power at all. Most figured his best chance of victory was on the ground. Because of that expectation, the method of finish was just as shocking as the result. That would matter for Sonnen, too. If he one-punch KO'd Jones, or immediately bullied him to the ground and choked him out in less than a minute, that would be stunning. If he won on a cut stoppage or disqualification, would that be looked at quite the same way? Of course not.
But even if he clearly knocked out Jones, I wouldn't view it as a bigger surprise than Serra vs. St-Pierre, or Frankie Edgar vs. B.J. Penn, for that matter. Sonnen is a massive underdog. A historical one, even. No one outside of his camp disputes that his opportunity was an unearned one. Few believe he has a real chance to win. So if he earns a place in history with a win no one saw coming, that's going to have to be good enough.