MMA Roundtable: Anthony Pettis' next move, free-agent gambles, 'Fight Master,' more

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There's no UFC events this weekend, but there's still plenty to discuss in the world of MMA. Bellator is back with an event on Wednesday, as well as the premiere of its "Fight Master" reality show, which brings up questions on just how important such a vehicle can be.

My colleague Dave Doyle joins me on the Roundtable to discuss that, as well as Roy Nelson's gamble heading into free agency, what Anthony Pettis should do next following his unfortunate injury, and what the best moment of 2013 has been thus far.

Let the questions begin ...

1. Roy Nelson took a gamble by not re-signing with the UFC before his last fight, and as a result of his loss, his free agency leverage has almost certainly diminished. With Bellator seemingly increasing its recruiting efforts for bigger names, do you think many fighters will follow Nelson's lead?

Chiappetta: While I don't expect it to become the norm anytime soon, I do believe more fighters will be likely to bypass an extension in favor of taking their talents out on the open market.

We have to remember that such a move is a calculated risk. If the fighter loses, as Nelson did at UFC 161, a serious amount of leverage goes right out the door. It would be one thing to head out to free agency riding a four-fight win streak; it's quite another coming off a loss to an opponent who had never before cracked the top 10.

If a surging fighter were to hit the open market, Bellator would have no choice but to look at them. Stealing a fighter away from the UFC would be seen as a coup, and obviously would bolster their roster. But they'll think long and hard before signing free agents coming off of defeats, even if they're as well known and successful as Nelson.

On the other hand, we have to look at the realities of the sport, and that most fighters would still prefer to ply their trade in the UFC. For some, it's emotional, because UFC was the organization they grew up watching, and they want to be able to add their name to the list of champions the promotion has developed. For others, it's economic, because the UFC's biggest paydays have and will continue to trump those of any other MMA promotion. For now, the possibility of gaining wealth while competing in MMA exists in only one place. In the future, that could change, but until it does, most fighters who sign with the UFC in the first place are going to want to stay there and continue what they've started.

Doyle: Nelson’s bargaining power took a hit, for sure, but I don’t think it’s a killer. Nelson’s fans seem to have a pretty solid understanding of who and what he is, and that he’s going to win some and lose some. Obviously his performance against Stipe Miocic didn’t help, but then, Chris Weidman, who is in a whole lot better shape than Nelson, gassed pretty hardcore against Demian Maia when he accepted their fight on a similar amount of notice. So perhaps some of the criticism of Nelson has been a bit unfair.

I think Nelson still remains a test case for how others might handle impending free agency, regardless of what happened in the Miocic fight. Nelson still has value to Bellator as a popular fighter who could move ratings and sell tickets if he’s matched up with a heavyweight Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. If "Big Country" finagles a solid deal from Bellator and a prominent position, even after the loss to Miocic, it sends a signal to other fighters heading for free agency to go ahead and go for broke in their final fight.

The figures that have come to light in the Eddie Alvarez case have shown that Bellator will spend money on the handful of fighters they think fit their plan. Just like Dan Henderson walked away from the UFC for Strikeforce a few years back, if you’re in that position and you know it, then yes, it makes sense to take the gamble.

2. What is Anthony Pettis' best move going forward, given his injury situation and the fact that title fights are already scheduled at lightweight and featherweight?

Doyle: You’d have to be pretty cold-hearted not to have some sympathy for Pettis’ plight. When he was promised a lightweight title shot and did what he was told and waited, the title shot never materialized, and worse, the guy he beat to win the WEC belt, Benson Henderson, ended up with the belt. When Pettis decided to follow the trend of calling fighters out in order to get a title shot at Jose Aldo, that ended up backfiring as well when he got injured.

You can’t blame Pettis at this point if he feels like no matter which route he takes, he’s screwed. But it seems like the only real answer at this point is for Pettis to wait and see what happens, and more importantly, to be ready. If this really is a three-week injury for Pettis, as his physical therapist claims, then it would behoove him to get in shape, just in case anything does happen to either Ben Henderson or T.J. Grant leading up to their Aug. 31 bout in Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee. After both waiting and cutting the line didn’t work, wouldn’t it be ironic if Pettis found himself in the main event as an injury replacement?

Chiappetta: It seems like his best move is simply to get healthy and see how things shake out. While Pettis insists he only needs three weeks to recover, Dana White was quite adamant that he needs about six. That would take him until about the first week of August to be fully healed. From that point, if you consider that Aldo-Jung is on Aug. 3 and Grant-Henderson is on Aug. 31, you can see he won't have long to wait to find out when both winners will be ready. This could again put him in a position to fight either.

While Pettis has faced his share of setbacks, he's still only 26, and squarely in the mix. The timing of his recovery puts him at right around the same return timeframe as the winners of the lightweight and featherweight title bouts. It could have been a lot worse. Imagine if he had been knocked out of action for six or nine months.

Personally, I'd like to see Pettis stay in line for the Aldo-Jung winner. The victor there is more likely to be ready to fight again faster than the lightweight title fight. And if Aldo emerges with the belt, it's the opponent he was already preparing for, and the fight the fans were already expecting to see.

3. Bellator's "Fight Master" reality show debuts on Wednesday. Is their reality show even more important than their regular fight series?

Chiappetta: I wouldn't say it's more important, but it surely has the potential for adding new eyes to the promotion's fights. One thing we know about "The Ultimate Fighter" from its years on the air is that it has the potential to produce stars in a minimal amount of time.

From Forrest Griffin to Michael Bisping to the more recent Uriah Hall, visibility on the air can quickly turn a no-name into must-see television. That's pivotal for fight promoters, whose ratings and buy rates often hinge on the names above the marquee.

Does "Fight Master" have anyone of that caliber? The cast list aside from the coaches doesn't wow you, but then again, few people heard of Hall or Kelvin Gastelum a few months ago, and now now the vast majority of MMA fans know exactly who they are.

The real value of "Fight Master" is in its supplementary nature. Not only will it provide the organization with some fight talent, but it will also push viewers towards the fights and perhaps build a star or two along the way. It is more important than the live fights? No. Those will always matter more in the end, but the moments where the reality show develops talent that can be absorbed into the main show makes it worthwhile on its own.

Doyle: If reality shows were more important than the actual, live fight cards, then "Iron Ring" would have launched Marcus Brimage and Abongo Humphrey into superstardom.

I had the opportunity to see a sneak preview of Fight Master last week at an industry event, along with the cast and producers of the show. The opening episode, which the coaches and Bellator staff were seeing for the first time, does an excellent job of hooking casual viewers who are familiar with the likes of Randy Couture and Frank Shamrock.
It also does a strong job of promoting the Bellator fighter they’re looking to push with this series, Joe Warren. He comes off as a star, rather than as someone who doesn’t belong in the company of some of the sport’s legends.

What didn’t come across so strong, which is something I had more than one Bellator-related person express to me afterwards, is the Bellator brand itself. What differentiates Bellator from other promoters, and why, in a world where the UFC brand name is so strong, should the casual viewer care about this product when they’ve seen so many other UFC competitors come and go over the years?

Perhaps this gets better addressed as the series goes on. For the sake of both Bellator’s future and Spike’s TV ratings, they best hope so, because if casual viewers who stumble on the reality show don’t stick around for the fight cards, it will be a big opportunity lost.

4. The first six months of 2013 are just about done. What was your single most memorable MMA moment of the first half of the year?

Doyle: There are so many of them, it’s hard to narrow it down to one. I’m going to limit mine to the events I’ve covered live so far this year. For one, there was the sheer electricity in the crowd in Anaheim when Liz Carmouche got Ronda Rousey’s back and the fans realized they might see the upset in the first women’s UFC title fight. The crowd didn’t stop all the way until Rousey got the tap. Then there was, well, not one singular moment, but a string of moments at UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose, when one fighter after another went down via knockout or TKO, making for one memorable afternoon into evening.

If I have to pick just one, though, I’d go with Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva’s knockout of Alistair Overeem at UFC 156 in Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend, When you sit about 10 feet away from Silva unleashing all his fury in a hellacious display, then watch Overeem crumple to the mat, that’s in image that sticks with you awhile. Such a visceral moment cuts through all the B.S. in the fight game and reminds you why you were attracted to the sport of mixed martial arts in the first place. Particularly in an instance like this, when you add in the frontier justice aspect, in which a fighter who openly disrespected his opponent paid for his actions and words.

Chiappetta: That's a strong call by Dave. I was also at the Silva-Overeem fight, and it was a charged atmosphere inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center when Silva felled the Dutch giant. The personal nature of the fight combined with Silva's stunning comeback and his underdog status made for an electric moment.

I think a case can also be made for Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche, given the historical nature of the bout, the buzz and the brief drama involved in the outcome, but I'm going to give my vote to Wanderlei Silva's knockout of Brian Stann at UFC on FUEL 8.

Since context is important let's remember the setup: Silva hadn't fought in Japan since 2006. He'd lobbied for a spot on the card, wanting to fight in front of loyal fans in the place where he became a legend. But when the fight took place, Silva was a fairly sizable underdog. Most people thought that at this stage of his career, Silva was out-gunned, or perhaps more importantly, out-chinned by the former U.S. Marine. It was thought that Silva could not stand up to heavy fire any more. He did, and then some. Silva and Stann engaged in one of the best fights of 2013 thus far, and the ending was positively storybook. After overcoming an early knockdown, he summoned the ghosts of PRIDE and finished Stann with a right hand and powerful ground strikes. While Japanese crowds are known for their respectful responses, this one erupted at the surreal scene it had just witnessed. For all that moment encompassed, it was the best of the year so far.

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