As a loaded April schedule gives way to a steady summer schedule, we're finally afforded a moment to catch our collective breath and reflect on everything that's happened and everything that's ahead.
For that I'm pleased to be joined by my partner in crime, Luke Thomas, for this latest edition of the MMA Roundtable. We'll change the Unified Rules, talk highs and lows of 2013, and examine the upcoming MMA calendar. But first, let's attempt to tackle the debate that doesn't really have an answer.
1. With every lopsided Jon Jones victory, the pound-for-pound debate between he and Anderson Silva grows louder. If you had to bet your life's savings on it right now, who are you taking for that superfight at 205 pounds?
Al-Shatti: The simple answer: Anderson Silva. The longer answer: Anderson Silva, but I'd be absolutely terrified for my financial future and probably would start syphoning off assets into foreign bank accounts in preparation of my escape from the country.
I'm of the camp that believes MMA's version of Mayweather-Pacquiao will eventually take place, if only because it has to. The massive dollar signs, which skyrocket after every destructive title defense, are much harder to ignore when you're not pulling in $32 million purses like candy. Last week Jones told a Vancouver radio station, "Normally I beat around the bush, but it's going to happen for sure." That's a far cry from where we were at a year ago when Jones and Silva wouldn't dare dream of fighting each other, much less overtly speak about it. Likewise, Silva called UFC President Dana White to request an unspecified superfight right after watching Jones destroy his old pal, Chael Sonnen, so who knows where we're at?
As for why I would bet the house on Silva if pressed, I can't really explain it. Jones certainly takes all the tangibles. He's a few inches taller, at least 15 pounds heavier, 12 years younger, and of course carries that seven-inch reach advantage. He's a better wrestler, both offensively and defensively, seemingly excels where Silva is weakest, and owns the more impressive hit-list between the two. Logic says he'd win.
Yet logic also says human beings shouldn't be able to do this (or this, or this) to full-grown men, much less world-class professional fighters, at the ripe old age of 38. More so than any of athlete I've ever seen in my life, Silva's performances fluctuate between that of an artist to a magician, often appearing otherworldly -- hyperbole be damned. So it really doesn't matter what my brain tells me. If you put a gun to my head and make me bet my life's savings on one man or the other, I'm erring on the side of the wizard.
Thomas: I'd go with Jones and without much hesitation.
Shaun actually sold Jones for me. I don't have to write much here. He's slightly bigger, but has a much longer frame. His wrestling skills in every capacity are better than Silva's. Jones is also much closer to his athletic prime. Were this a kickboxing or boxing contest I wouldn't be so sure about my chances, but as long as there's wrestling, ground and pound, slams and the like, this is Jones' to lose.
This is all a very different question than who is the pound-for-pound best fighter. That requires us to measure their resumes and while Jones' C.V. is certainly quite excellent, the longevity of Silva's run is simply too much to ignore.
But 'The Spider' is 38. This idea he's going to Randy Couture it for a few more years, I'm betting, is fantasy. I don't think he's necessarily setting himself for a skid he can't recover from, but I'm not buying the idea he does into his 40s what he did in his 30s. Something's going to give.
2. The first four months of the year are behind us and already it's been one to remember. What is your top highlight and lowlight of the third of 2013 in MMA?
Thomas: Let's start with the positive material. There's lots of different ways to view what's going well, including the entire health of the sport. Despite the UFC's protestations to the contrary, 2011 and 2012 were down years. Personally speaking, the sport wasn't very much fun to cover last year (although there were obviously some really great moments). Matters have turned around dramatically in 2013 and despite what Darren Rovell says, there's no denying it.
But my true highlight has been the inclusion of women in the UFC. I contend they've added a long overdue value add to UFC shows. And as I've stated before, I'd rather see the world's best women compete in a single, developing division than TUF soon-to-be-washouts flailing about.
There's no denying UFC was late to the party in terms of including women on their roster, but it's also true despite the excellent and well-intentioned efforts of Invicta, no single entity or promoter is capable of affecting change in the women's game and giving it architecture like the UFC. That's a bit of an oversimplification. UFC also needs promoters like Invicta to iron out more divisions, establish contendership and the like at both the high and mid-level of the current women's game. But no one can attract the cream of the crop, athletes from similar combat sports and move the process along as quickly or at the highest level as the UFC. Their inclusion on this side of the sport has been a huge win for everyone.
The lowlight, sadly, would be continued commission negligence or even malfeasance. MMA promoters continue to improve their efficiency and understand what their place is in delivering MMA to the masses, but commissions seem frozen in time. They've historically gotten better, but at a snail's pace. There are still basic issues of competency even in established states with referees, time keepers, judges and other officials. In Quebec, they're making things up as they go. For all of MMA's progress on the promotional end of things, the regulatory side is still woefully lacking.
Al-Shatti: I'd agree wholeheartedly with Luke on both fronts. So to go in a different direction, the highlight for me thus far in 2013 is the overall lack of major injuries. With a few exceptions (*cough* Gustafsson *cough*), when UFC/Bellator/Invicta/etc. announces a high-profile headliner or co-headliner this year, the match-up tends to stay intact come fight night. And even in the case when it doesn't, things usually work out, à la Hendricks-Condit. It sounds simple, but we all saw what happened last year when that wasn't the case.
The consistency generally leads to more creative promotion since officials don't have to scramble to re-work cards. And more creative promotion leads to us becoming emotionally invested, which ratchets up the magnitude of specific fights. I know I'm not alone in hoping this trend continues for the next eight months.
As for the lowlight, other than the always-present judging epidemic, I'd have to say that I, like others, have been disappointed by the UFC's matchmaking trend of style over substance when it comes to title fights. I mean, I get it. Fights like Diaz-St-Pierre, Jones-Sonnen, and Aldo-Pettis do big business, and that's really all that matters. But outside of dollars and cents, the first two made no logistical sense (and ultimately weren't even competitive), and the third match-up, while enticing, slows the featherweight division to a halt while it gradually kills the buzz for the blockbuster lightweight sequel that should be on the books right now (Henderson-Pettis II).
I'm all for fun fights. You want to give me Anderson Silva vs. Stephan Bonnar every once in while, then hey, that sounds great. But when ‘once in a while' becomes ‘time and again,' what's to stop ‘time and again' from becoming ‘more often than not?'
3. Now that we've looked past, let's look forward. Is there a particular fight or event in the next four months that you've got your eye on?
Thomas: For sure. I'm laser focused on Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman. I believe we're going to have a new middleweight champion in July.
The truth of the matter is arguing for Weidman is very difficult. Critics who scoff at the idea of Weidman being the current pound-for-pound best fighter alive point to Weidman's relatively meager resume as evidence of his inexperience and more. They're right, in a sense. You can't really look to Weidman's resume as the definitive answer for why he'd beat Silva. I wouldn't say there's nothing impressive about what's he done, but there's no denying it's, in a manner of speaking, incomplete.
What I think happened is Weidman lacked the signature victory he was supposed to get after blasting through Mark Munoz. As we all know, he was basically injured at a point last year when, I posit, he was ready to break out. Daniel Cormier got a big bump in popularity not after beating Antonio Silva, but Josh Barnett. It was a respected name in a high stakes battle and a coming out party for the former Olympian. That was really when Cormier did more than turn heads. He turned skeptics into believers. Weidman was supposed to have his moment after beating Munoz, but the shoulder injury stopped everything in its tracks.
I will admit my choice is made on conjecture. In Weidman, I do see a fighter with a 'nightmare' skill set for the former champion. I argue many people get wrapped up in a phony narrative about Silva in that they believe he's a) incapable of losing or b) will only lose on some grand event by the next great thing in MMA. They view any potential loss he might suffer not as a fluke or by someone as unheralded as Weidman, but only in some fantasy scenario where it's a stadium show, Silva's on the last fight of his contract and is barely defeated by the new master of the universe. Spare me. Silva is as mortal as they come and while his streak is beyond impressive, his weaknesses are real. Weidman, in my judgment, has all of the tools necessary to exploit them for his benefit.
There is no grand event. There is no literary passing of the torch. Silva doesn't have to lose to only one of the game's other greats. He can lose to a guy who's got a lot of the skills he doesn't and is hungry to prove it.
Al-Shatti: Well, Luke kind of stole my thunder on this one, since I don't think I've been more eager for an Anderson Silva title defense than I have been for this one, other than maybe Sonnen II. So instead of rattling on about more of the same, I'll shift gears to my second-most anticipated moment.
At first I was going to pick the top two bouts of UFC on FX 8, simply because I'm loving these Strikeforce vs. UFC fights and am immensely interested to see how Luke Rockhold and Jacare Souza fit into the UFC middleweight mold. But then I pulled up the fight card for UFC 160, remembered the co-main event actually existed, and the stupidest, widest grin crept across my face.
Junior dos Santos vs. Mark Hunt. How can you not love that? The allure of heavyweight MMA is an unforgiving beast. Two mountains of human beings colliding, 240 pounds of unstoppable force vs. a 265-pound immovable object. "Cigano" matching blow for mighty blow with the "Super Samoan," one vying for revenge, the other vying for an unexpected shot the champ? That's about as visceral as it gets in this sport. Sign me up.
4. UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner plans to request several rules changes at this summer's ABC conference. If you were made Czar of MMA for a day, what ONE aspect or criteria of the Unified Rules would you change?
Al-Shatti: My immediate answer: SOCCER KICKS. SOCCERKICKSSOCCERKICKS. But then I'd probably stop being selfish, mull over the reintroduction of some form of the yellow card, then finally land on a general reworking of the Unified Rules' skewed judging criteria -- mainly in the overvalue it places on takedowns and top control.
We all know the system is broken, so I won't harp on that. We also know that fixing the problem is a lot harder than complaining about it, so again, I won't even begin to act like I have the magic fix that will stop one judge from scoring a fight 30-27 and another from scoring it the complete opposite way. What I will say is that it's getting increasingly frustrating to watch fighters win rounds by doing nothing more than eating elbows and defending submissions from the top without passing guard or half guard once.
Somehow even the threat of a takedown has become overvalued. Take Lorenz Larkin's recent debut loss to Francis Carmont as an example. The opening frame saw Carmont land one -- I repeat, one -- strike throughout five minutes, while racking up a tepid 0-for-4 takedown mark. Two judges awarded him the round. Wait... what?
That's not to say I want MMA to become kickboxing. Far from it. Hell, I enjoy watching competition jiu-jitsu matches. But a takedown should mean very little until you do something with it. Short strikes, submission attempts, working to advance position -- anything. Otherwise, when the goal of the game is simply to gain top position and ride out five minutes inside someone's guard, regardless of how much damage you suffer and how many times you nearly have your limb ripped out of its socket, then we're just watching a glorified, slightly more violent version of wrestling.
Thomas: I don't agree a takedown with little to offense behind it should count for 'nothing'. For starters, UFC pros make it look easy, but takedowns are hard to execute. You're also exacting a move to affect change in a way your opponent does not want you to, and you're changing phases of the game. If there's no offense behind a takedown, we should certainly limit how much we award the fighter executing a takedown. But a takedown with no follow-up is not the same as a jab that misses.
But in answer to the question about what I'd change, my response is a few things. First and foremost, the eyepoke rule. What a nonsensical, entirely avoidable problem that is. Second, I'd allow knees to the head of a grounded opponent if the other fighter is in side control. Third, I'd make clear procedures about fencing grabbing and warnings, namely, you're not allowed three of them. By default, points should be taken. I'd alter the rule about knees to the head of a downed opponent by reshaping the three points of contact that matter. I'd also do away with marijuana testing or force states to charge promoters more for blood tests that measure inebriation and time the euphoric effects of the drug taking place.