As the weather heats up and the summer schedule plows forward, it's that time again to grab a seat and debate the latest comings and goings in the MMA world.
For that I'm happy to be joined by my West Coast amigo, Dave Doyle, for this latest edition of the MMA Roundtable. We'll talk the UFC heavyweight title, reflect on the merits of BJJ pay-per-views and peruse through Bellator's recent signing spree. But first, let's look ahead towards the weekend.
1. A year ago Rashad Evans vs. Dan Henderson would've been a huge fight. Now it's met mostly with grumbles. Is there a chance either of these men regain any of their former momentum with a win at UFC 161?
Al-Shatti: It's crazy to see how much can change with one lethargic performance. Both of these guys, Evans and Henderson, were inches away from fighting for a title when last they gathered for a fight week. If he hadn't pattycaked his way to a bizarre loss, Evans could've been locked against Anderson Silva right now. Same goes for Henderson and Jon Jones. So in more than a few ways, this question is pretty surreal.
Unfortunately, it's also somewhat inescapable. Of course you can never say never in MMA -- all it takes is one brutal H-bomb or one Salmon-esque head kick for either of these men to be propelled back into the conversation. Yet for some reason I can't shake the feeling that the light heavyweight division has passed Henderson and Evans by. Lyoto Machida is firmly entrenched above both guys, while Glover Teixeira and Alexander Gustafsson are the next big things. Where's that leave Hendo and ‘Shad?
Perhaps this sentiment applies more so to Evans than Henderson, purely by virtue of his one-sided loss to Jones. Henderson, after all, has the "unfinished business" card on his side. But the road is treacherous from here on out. Teixeira wants the winner of this bout and it wouldn't surprise me if he gets his wish. A 42-year-old Henderson beating Evans and Teixeira in succession wouldn't be the most surprising thing we've ever seen, but it's still a long shot, and sadly for Hendo -- a true legend of the sport -- that's probably what he needs.
Doyle: Pretty much agreed with Shaun here. Hendo has the better case for continued relevance of the two. If he scores an impressive win, then he's probably one more solid win away from a title shot, depending on how things break. And given how everything went down last year, a Jones-Henderson fight would probably be more bankable now than it originally was.
But it's still a tough road. Time obviously isn't on Henderson's side. Was his UFC 157 loss merely attributable to Machida being able to effectively play his game, or was Henderson unable to get off because he's a 42-year-old with a bum knee? UFC 161, if nothing else, should help clear that up.
But while Henderson at least has a path, it's hard to argue the same for Evans. Even if he looks good against Henderson, and even if he manages to win a relevant follow-up fight, is there really a market for a rematch with Jones? Win or lose on Saturday, a trip to a less-crowded middleweight division is likely Evans' best option.
Doyle: It's hard to say. First, let me get into what Metamoris did right. I was at Pauley Pavilion on Sunday and the event was a first-class production. From the big screens to the lighting setup to just the mere fact that the event ran on time and went without a hitch, Metamoris was top-notch. I didn't see the pay-per-view, so I don't know if the arena experience translated to the broadcast. But assuming it came off online as it did in the building, the presentation of the product in and of itself was a good first impression and was the opposite of the fiasco which was last year's World Jiu-Jitsu Expo in Long Beach.
That said, I'm not sure Metamoris is going to grow beyond a well-presented version of a niche product. Casual fans who were asked to pay $19.95 and checked in for the first time saw the first two matches go to draws. The judges didn't have to give justification for their choices, leading to a lack of transparency. Rodlfo Vieira was announced as a 2-1 split decision winner over Braulio Estima. How did the judges come to their conclusion on a tightly contested bout? For all the flaws of the 10-point must system in MMA, at least it gives us a quantifiable look at the judges' thought process.
You didn't have to be a jiu-jitsu diehard to know something was a little off about the Brendan Schaub-Roberto Abreu fight. And after many fans had watched eight submissions during a UFC card the previous night, they had to wait more than three hours to see a submission on a submissions-only card.
Hey, if this is your cup of tea, if you live and die for jiu-jitsu, this is the product for you. There's nothing wrong with that. I just didn't see much on Sunday night that would turn a casual fan into a regular consumer.
Al-Shatti: I hate to say it, but Metamoris' inherent problem is that competition jiu-jitsu just isn't a very exciting product to the general public. Hey, I actually enjoy watching BJJ matches, but I also train regularly enough to have familiarized myself with the fundamentals of the sport. The thing is, for the uninitiated, watching 20 minutes of methodical grip fighting, spider guarding and knee-on-bellying generally just isn't enough action to keep a short attention span from wandering off into thoughts of face punching.
Considering that, the scope of media coverage Metamoris has been able to achieve thus far is pretty remarkable, and rightly so. For what it is, Metamoris is already first in its class; crisp presentation, stellar marketing and intriguing match-ups featuring some of the greatest players in the world.
Jiu-jitsu is such a niche sport that I doubt Metamoris will be able to extend its reach much farther than what it is now, but including known MMA fighters was a brilliant move. The mixed martial arts community is an incredibly tight-knit group, so it's wise of the Gracie's to understand the cross-promotional appeal that comes with seeing identifiable names like Aoki and Schaub try their hand at something unfamiliar.
Although when we circle back to the main question, whether Metamoris made any new fans on Sunday, I can't help but wonder what the curious first-timers who opened their wallets to see Schaub play glorified pattycake for 20 minutes had to be thinking afterward. Sure, there's a certain morbid interest in seeing a train wreck unravel before your eyes, but $20 is a steep price these days, and it wouldn't surprise me if those same fans were a bit more hesitant to fork over that cash next time around.
3. The past few months have seen Bellator sign an ongoing parade of former UFC fighters. For a promotion that once famously voiced hesitance against such a business model, is this the right move?
Al-Shatti: Depending on how you look at it, yes and no. Bellator's newfound strategy is interesting to me in a few different ways.
Glance at a few of the promotion's notable recent pick-ups: Rampage, Nunes, Riddle, Matyushenko, Sass, Alessio, Davis, and potentially Kongo. The first thing that jumps out is that all of these guys, especially the bigger names like Rampage, Kongo, Nunes and Riddle, are all extremely beatable compared to fighters already within the Bellator fold. That matters. If, say, Nunes tore through Bellator's featherweight division, then dismantled Pat Curran and seized the promotion's strap, it'd be natural for fans to widen whatever they perceive to be the talent gap between Bellator and the UFC. A mid-tier UFC washout holding your division hostage isn't a good look for Viacom. (Perhaps that's why Bellator didn't care to invest in Jon Fitch, because Fitch could seemingly pull it off.)
But the opposite, more probable option -- the one Bellator is likely banking on -- can be exceedingly beneficial. If one of Bellator's young prospects defeats a journeymen mid-tier fighter on their way to capturing a tournament crown, that's one thing. But it's another entirely if that same prospect blitzkriegs through a Nunes or Riddle under the same circumstances. Those are known commodities within the MMA community. Almost always, victories over known commodities are respected far more than those against middling journeymen.
It's star building 101. Line tournaments with a mix of budding prospects and respected but beatable names, then throw it against the wall and see what sticks. Best case scenario, one of your budding prospects carries a massive swell of public momentum into his title fight, then parlays it into becoming the next Michael Chandler.
Also, another more philosophical point I've heard brought up, one which seems credible, is that Bellator's new practice directly impacts the UFC's traditional model. It used to be that a Nunes or a Sass would hit the open market, fight on a few regional shows, then sit by the phone and wait for a phone call from Joe Silva to fight as an injury replacement at an upcoming UFC event. Now that option is being taken away, while Bellator sends a firm message to UFC matchmakers: ‘If you cut this fighter, expect not to get him back.'
How impactful that model really is remains to be seen, after all the UFC cut these guys for a reason, but there's no question it generates interesting theater in the meantime.
Doyle: Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney was asked about this at last week's press conference for Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in Santa Monica. To paraphrase his answer, Rebney essentially said that the landscape of the industry has changed dramatically over the past three years, and Bellator has reached the point that it doesn't make sense to wall off every fighter who has once appeared in the UFC simply because of perception's sake.
That makes sense enough to me. I think the core audience understands that, outside of the fact that most of the super elites in MMA compete in the UFC, once you drop beyond the championship level, there isn't a huge talent gap in rank-and-file talent between the companies. And with UFC signing the likes of Hector Lombard and attempting to take Eddie Alvarez, if Bellator is smart about how it signs ex-UFC fighters, it can create the perception there are fighters going back-and-forth between the companies, which makes it look like they're playing on the same field.
Rampage is a separate category unto himself. Jackson is there to move ratings. Bellator's ratings in their first season on Spike were decent. They weren't killer and they weren't embarrassing. The way the television business is these days, though, if the ratings aren't slowly but steadily moving up, eventually you're in trouble.
Jackson's first fight, whenever that ends up being, should be far and away the biggest number Bellator's ever done on Spike. And hey, if an established Bellator name manages to beat Rampage in front of a big audience, as Shaun notes, then Bellator has a new star.
4. Does Fabricio Werdum deserve to skip ahead of Junior dos Santos for a title shot based off his win over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira?
Doyle: No. We in the MMA community sometimes have a habit of overreacting to someone's latest win or loss: look no further than several of the same people who called the Jon Jones-Chael Sonnen fight a joke then turning around and saying Jones' win over Sonnen was proof Jones was the world's best fighter.
As impressive as Werdum looked, at this stage, everyone is fighting for the No. 3 spot behind the champ and the man he own the title from. Werdum becomes the de facto No. 3 in the longview, since Daniel Cormier is presumably on his way down to 205.
It's probably best for Werdum to hang off and wait for the Velasquez-dos Santos winner, even if, at first glance, another period of prolonged inactivity doesn't seem like the best idea. If he stays in shape and either Velasquez or dos Santos get injured, he'd be a logical choice to slide into the substitute spot. But for now, that's the only way Werdum should get the next shot at either.
Al-Shatti: Overall I'd tend to agree with Dave, and rightly so since that's the most likely outcome, although I'm not as bullish as he is in regards to the necessity to book Velasquez-JDS III just yet. Allow me to play devil's advocate for a second. A rubber match is obviously going to happen, Dana White said as much, but even though Velasquez and dos Santos are clearly the world's No. 1 and No. 2, this rivalry just feels a bit lacking to me.
I'm not quite sure why, but it all just seems hurried. Both men have plenty of good years left -- what's the rush? Traditionally, buzz generates for a classic rivalry not through the actual fights themselves, but through anticipation. It's a completely, utterly unrelated analogy, but Ali fought 13 men before he avenged his loss to Frazier, and then four more before the trilogy reached its crescendo with the Thrilla in Manila. Within that period, the public had ample time to consume a slew of savage beatings handed out by both Ali and Frazier, all the while wondering, hoping and waiting for what would happen the next time the two men met inside the ring.
Obviously mixed martial arts is a entirely different sport. I understand that. I'm not sitting here saying Velasquez should rattle off eight more victories before we settle this. But would at least one hurt? Velasquez and dos Santos fought each other once a year for the past two years, and they're likely going to settle their rubber match before the end of 2013. JDS defeated two non-rivalry opponents during that time, while Velasquez defeated just one (twice). That's virtually no airtime to generate buzz.
It'll never happen, but hypothetically, if Velasquez was given a fresh opponent like Werdum to show off a different range of his skills, while JDS lined his highlight reel with another big name (say, the winner of Overeem-Browne), would it really be that bad? If both men won in impressive fashion like they'd be expected to, the community would be clamoring for a rubber match ten times more than they are. We'd all have new material and new perspectives with which to judge these guys, while the UFC would have boatloads more promotional ammunition. Most of all, they'd both get a break from each other. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, after all.