On this week's MMA Roundtable, we're looking into the future. Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are set for their third fight, but are a fourth and maybe even a fifth in their futures? Also, while Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson seem hellbent on fighting each other, we wonder if Glover Teixeira is a more dangerous matchup for the light heavyweight champ.
Finally, we analyze T.J. Grant's chances of unseating lightweight champion Benson Henderson, and ponder whether Dana White is doing the right thing by pressuring aging fighters to retire. My west coast colleague Shaun Al-Shatti joins me at the roundtable to ponder all of these burning questions. And away we go ...
1. Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are set for their rubber match. Is it inevitable these guys fight four or five times?
Al-Shatti: It certainly seems like it. At 30 and 29 years old, respectively, Velasquez and dos Santos are both occupying their fighting prime and could conceivably do so for the next several years. Both guys have clearly distinguished themselves as the No. 1 and No. 2 heavyweights in the world, and honestly, given the thinness of the division, it may not even be close. So the cards definitely seemed to be aligned for a historic rivalry.
I spoke to Velasquez about the idea prior to the second Bigfoot fight. He seemed convinced that if he ruined dos Santos a second time, just like he did at UFC 155, the topic would become null and void. I question if he has a point though. Due to the inversely lopsided nature of both meetings between the two goliaths -- one a 64-second stunner and the other a 25-minute sustained beating -- it’s true that any potential fourth or fifth match-up largely depends on the manner in which the rubber match is settled. Though, even if it’s another rout, I’m not sure Velasquez’s assumption is realistic.
If dos Santos, or especially Velasquez, falls behind on the scoreboard by a 1-to-2 mark, and then keeps knocking off contender after contender, it’s hard to see how the UFC could possibly deny them another attempt to even the score. Rivalries are big business in the fight game, plus that's a built-in backstory -- two foes linked in revenge throughout their careers. The pay-per-views would sell themselves.
Truthfully, there’s only one thing I could see standing in the way of this game of one-upmanship, and that’s if/when Jon Jones decides to try his hand at heavyweight. Until then, the division is these two’s playground.
Chiappetta: For all of the reasons that Shaun stated, it seems obvious that it's going to happen, but will it really? There hasn't been any other UFC rivalry that's gone past three fights. Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture didn't, and neither did Matt Hughes vs. Georges St-Pierre or even Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski when the heavyweight division was thinner than a fashion week model.
The biggest reason to believe it will happen is the compressed time frame for the first three. Dana White said the third fight would happen by the end of this year, which means they will have fought three times in two years. Given that Velasquez is 30 and dos Santos is 29, the two still have a few years left in their respective primes. So, who will wedge their way in between them?
As I wrote on Sunday, after watching both blow away their opposition, it's obvious they are the division's elite, and no one else is close. I believe that Daniel Cormier could have crashed the party, if only he didn't have a sense of loyalty to Velasquez. And as Shaun notes, Jon Jones may also have a say if and when he decides he's ready to move into the shark tank. The rest of the division is fighting for table scraps.
If the third Velasquez-dos Santos fight is more competitive than the first two, that only makes a fourth fight more likely. At the end of the day, as long as fans see value in the rivalry, it will continue. It doesn't hurt that the fight-loving Brazilian and Mexican fans are along for the ride.
2. Glover Teixeira continues to build himself as a title contender, but over the weekend, we saw Alexander Gustafsson and Jon Jones attempt to build their title fight while in Russia. Which fighter has a better chance of beating Jones: Gustafsson or Teixeira?
Chiappetta: Both fighters can make a strong case for their candidacy as a top contender, although Gustafsson has the edge by virtue of his seniority in the division, along with more significant wins over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Thiago Silva.
However, when it comes down to which man has the best set of tools to give Jones a run for his money, I would have to say it's Teixeira. While Gustafsson has shored up his wrestling game in the days since his loss to Phil Davis, he can't match Teixeira's offensive or defensive wrestling. That's going to be a big key against Jones, who mixes things up as well as anyone in the division right now. Case in point, Saturday when he wanted to knock out James Te Huna in front of his idol Mike Tyson, but settled for a takedown and later, a submission win.
Standing, I'd give Gustafsson a slight edge over Teixeira in technique, but the Brazilian has the power advantage. He also seems to have an excellent gas tank, and he's a jiu-jitsu black belt. In short, he's about as complete as it gets for a challenger. The wild card is his ruggedness and aggressiveness. I believe the man who eventually beats Jones is going to be someone who can win a grinding, exhausting fight and simply outlast him. I think at this point in time, Teixeira is better equipped to do that than Gustafsson.
Al-Shatti: I’d actually tend to agree with everything Mike said here. Gustafsson, while larger in stature and farther up the division ladder, hasn’t quite shown the defensive wrestling to be able to nullify Jones’ overwhelming talents, while the ‘punches in bunches,’ peppering striking assault he subscribes to is a recipe for failure against someone like Jones, who knows how to take full advantage of his eight-inch reach advantage.
On that same front, despite his inferior résumé, Teixeira appears to be the more credible threat to Jones for all the reasons Mike mentioned -- well-rounded grappling credentials, plus dump trucks for hands and the one-shot KO ability that comes along with them.
The more interesting angle to me, though, is how Gustafsson and Jones have seemingly united to coerce the UFC into booking the Swede for Jones’ next title defense. It’s a page right out of the Chael Sonnen playbook -- you can’t get what you want unless you ask for it, and if you ask very loudly, chances are it just might work.
For Gustafsson, who has been out of action since early-December, somehow being able to parlay the Mousasi debacle into a title shot without even entering the cage would be a masterful play. And wouldn’t you know it, he very well could get his wish. Jones has been talking up the Swede for some time now, hoping to shut up critics who claim the light heavyweight champ only wins because of his length and size. That sounds good in theory, although it doesn’t mean much when you realize Gustafsson possesses roughly the same reach of the much shorter, stockier Teixeira.
Still, after two straight title defenses against blown-up middleweights, a Jones-Gustafsson and Teixeira-Henderson/Evans winner mini-tournament as the main/co-main on a pay-per-view would go a long way towards reigniting waning interest in the 205-pound division.
3. Over the weekend, UFC President Dana White announced the retirement of Forrest Griffin, then called for the same of B.J. Penn while omitting Rich Franklin. Is what he’s doing, seemingly making a majority of the decision for these guys, a good thing?
Al-Shatti: From a business standpoint, no. From a moral standpoint, probably; though that’s a lot easier for me to say when I’m not the one losing out on future six-figure paydays.
White catches plenty of flak for his various charms, most of it deservedly so, but in this case, it’s hard not to admire what he’s doing. Which other promoter in the world is so genuinely, painfully honest with his most cherished fighters, to the point where he’s willing to forfeit further profits off of a shopworn athlete’s name just to save another few rounds of irreversible head trauma? White is a businessman first and foremost, but finding a businessman eager to put the interests of his employees ahead of his company’s bottom line is a rare sight.
It doesn’t hurt that in the case of Penn, White probably has a point. Selfishly, I wouldn’t mind seeing Penn return for at least one more go-around. But only at 155 pounds, and again, that’s prefaced with the word ‘selfishly.’ Yet it’s always necessary to remember that combat sports exist on a different plain than other athletic pursuits.
If Penn was a 34-year-old former NBA All-Pro losing his physical gifts, he could simply spend a summer working on a post-game or three-point shot, then reinvent himself as a cagey, off-the-bench grinder for a contender. In fighting though, that doesn’t exist. It’s one on one, man against man, and when your physical gifts betray you, there’s no one in there to save you from yourself. That’s where White’s uncommon candidness shines.
Penn has already retired once, and his last two outings were utterly brutal experiences, so if the only other option is to see Penn go the way of Chuck Liddell and stay one beating too long, then in this case, I take no issue with White’s calls for an early retirement.
Chiappetta: This is one thing for which I won't criticize White. It would be easy for him to keep running Penn and Griffin out there as nostalgia plays. After all, the UFC goes into business with hundreds of fighters each year. They take the financial risk of producing events and marketing their athletes. But only a few become bankable stars with the ability to draw money, and it usually takes a few years and a lot of dollars to get to that level.
Penn and Griffin obviously reached that rare air. The UFC could put them on cards opposite a broomstick and a crash test dummy and most fans would be interested, so to have them out of the rotation at 34 and 33 respectively is disappointing for all parties involved. But White simply doesn't feel right about running them out there and further risking long-term injury.
For all of the talk about head trauma in sports, it's worth noting that you never hear any owners or coaches in football, for example, saying that they're cutting a player out of fear for his future health. The only issue they care about is whether that athlete can perform. His mental health is someone else's future problem. White, though, directly addresses the elephant in the room. He has concerns about the damage fighters take, and when he believes that enough is enough, he tells them. Even though I'd want to control my own future, I'd rather have someone who treats me with respect and empathy than someone who treats me like a piece of meat.
4. T.J. Grant sealed his top contender status with a knockout of Gray Maynard. Is he the man to knock off Benson Henderson?
Chiappetta: Before UFC 160, I would have flat-out said no. Grant had looked very strong at lightweight, but there was nothing to suggest he was an elite talent at the weight, but simply someone on a good streak.
A lopsided vanquishing of Maynard paints him in a new picture. Grant is 29, and five fights into his run as a lightweight, he is settled into his new body and is comfortable in his skill-set. Interestingly, as a welterweight, Grant had only two knockouts in 21 fights. As a lightweight he now has two knockouts in a row. That suggests that he was undersized all along. While he's certainly not a massive lightweight, he has good size and power to go along with it. He is a formidable challenger.
However, if I were a betting man, Henderson would still be my hunch. The most significant reason is that Grant has always had problems stopping the takedown. In his career, according to FightMetric, he's only stopped 37 percent of the takedowns against him. That's a fairly poor number, and it's actually quite amazing he has the record he has with it. But a closer look at his fights shows that the bouts he lost are the ones in which he couldn't stop a takedown. He suffered four against Dong Hyun Kimg, eight against Johny Hendricks and six against Ricardo Almeida. With Henderson's above average wrestling and well-rounded game, I can see him winning the majority of the rounds on points after stealing them with takedowns.
Al-Shatti: At this point, who knows? For all we know he very well could be.
It was incredibly telling when Henderson admitted that he didn’t know a single thing about Grant on this week’s MMA Hour. I think Henderson spoke for a lot of the community there. Looking back, I can’t remember a quieter, more under-the-radar 5-0 run to a title shot than Grant’s. Just the same, I can’t remember any middling fighter who’s ever been helped more by a drop in weight. Grant is like Tim Boetsch, multiplied by 1,000. It’s actually kind of remarkable.
Grant’s takedown defense is worrisome against an athletic freak of a wrestler like Henderson, but it should be noted that he’s really only been taken down four combined times in 49:10 worth of Octagon time as a lightweight. Frankly, judging on his recent performances, it seems unfair to throw any numbers from Grant’s past life as a welterweight against him. He’s just a different fighter now, one who knows exactly what he’s good at and has perfectly adapted his body to fit his bulldog style. Plus, Henderson may be a massive 155-pounder, but so was Maynard, so size obviously isn’t as big of an issue for Grant as it used to be.
One week ago I was far from ready to anoint Grant the next lightweight champion. Now, I’m still hesitant to do so, although the idea doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched. I still have Henderson winning, but at this point would anybody really be surprised if the opposite were to come true?