It's been a free-agent frenzy in the last couple of weeks. Major stars Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Josh Barnett were snapped up by Bellator and the UFC, respectively, along with the undefeated prospect Nick Newell (World Series of Fighting) and blue-chipper Bubba Jenkins (Bellator).
In this edition of The MMA Roundtable, I'm joined by my colleague Luke Thomas as we analyze the impact of these signings on the promotions and the fighters. Let's get right to it ...
1. What are Josh Barnett's realistic chances of winning the UFC title?
Chiappetta: Here are the two realities of the situation. 1) There are only a few fighters between him and a title shot, and, 2) He has a very short window to elevate himself.
When you look at a list of heavyweight contenders, there are about six to eight fighters ahead of him. Due to impending matchups (Fabricio Werdum vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne), a couple of them are going to lose. Another, Daniel Cormier, is on his way out of the division. So as long as Barnett wins, he will move up and do so quickly. And I do believe Barnett will beat Mir. So he may be one of those guys who can get a title shot if he can put together even a modest two-fight win streak.
I think his issue will be once he reaches the top-echelon performers. I just don't see logical routes to victory for him against either Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos. Velasquez is likely to follow the same formula that his teammate Cormier used to great success against Barnett, while dos Santos has a fairly lopsided striking edge, and his takedown defense is strong enough to ensure the fight stays standing.
Barnett may well get to the title fight, but his chances of getting to the winner's circle seem quite slim.
Thomas: Hard to disagree with any of Mike's analysis here. The realities of the heavyweight division's roster - plus Barnett's ability to sell a fight - make the possibility of him fighting for a title a reasonable one. By no means is it necessarily inevitable, but it could easily happen.
The chances of him winning, however, are far more remote. As I've stated over and over, Barnett matches up well with everyone in the division in that he typically obliges opponents by competing on their terms. That almost always makes for exciting action. The problem is he couldn't do that against Cormier. He certainly won't be able to do that against Velasquez or dos Santos. And even if he tried to go the other way by trying to exploit any perceived weakness, at 35 years old, I don't believe his efforts would be anymore rewarded.
Barnett is an important addition to the UFC heavyweight roster. He's very competitive albeit not the best. He's exciting to watch, can sell a fight and so much more. There are plenty of reasons to love his signing, but expecting him to win a UFC heavyweight title isn't one of them.
2. In terms of Rampage Jackson, what is the best use Bellator/Spike/TNA can make of him at 34 years of age and given his current fighting ability?
Thomas: The Rampage investment can pay off for all the parties involved, but it needs to be handled carefully.
First, I'd keep him away from TNA in terms of being a competitor as much as possible. This isn't a slight against TNA, but rather, a recognition he's going to have enough issues fighting for Bellator (more on that in a minute). Professional wrestling is hard on the body and takes investment and training to do it correctly. At 34, Rampage has little time to waste unless he wishes to transition to that full time after a couple of years of fighting.
Second, it's less than advisable to put him in a tournament. Not impossible, but far from the best idea. The Bellator tournament is where underdogs go to shine. Moreover, the system is designed around Bellator's talent acquisition model. That means if you're 22 years old and can fight three times against reasonable if not outright great competition without being injured, the tournament is for you. Rampage is 34, slowing down and just waiting to be picked apart by an upstart light heavyweight. There is a way for the tournament to make sense if they stagger the timing and are careful about the matchmaking, but otherwise, there is no sense in having him be part of the process. And would anyone really care if he isn't?
Third, just give him the fights the fans want to see. King Mo seems like the most obvious choice. If he wins the Summer Series and Rampage is available in the fall, find a way to make it happen. I often hear fans say there's no one for Rampage to fight in Bellator. I've got good or bad news for you depending on your perspective: yes, there is. Do I necessarily favor Rampage over Attila Vegh or even Emmanuel Newton at this point, much less King Mo? I'm not so sure that I do. Rampage can beat most of the Bellator roster no problem, but this idea he's going to 'can crush' is deeply, deeply mistaken.
So, he's there because he's a popular attraction, right? Then make use of his popularity while he still has it. Keep him healthy by keeping him out of TNA and the tournaments. Leverage his popularity by having him fight names people care about. If he's going to lose, fine, at least let him lose to someone where there's upside for the rest of the parties involved.
Chiappetta: While I agree with Luke's assessment that Rampage would best be used as a special-attraction featured fighter, I don't think there's any way to do that under Bellator's system.
Bjorn Rebney has sworn that through hell and high water, he will remain loyal to Bellator's tournament system, which is in his mind the only fair way to determine the best. To let Jackson freelance around in favorable or attractive matchups would destroy the integrity of everything they've been building. After all, Rebney wouldn't budge on that for Eddie Alvarez, and Alvarez was home-grown. He didn't change for Muhammed Lawal either.
The way I see it, Jackson has to fight in the tournament format. This is what Bellator is all about. They spent all last season trying to convince us they host "the toughest tournament in sports." Is it the best use of his star power and remaining time? Probably not. It'd be best to pick and choose his matchups for maximum entertainment value and attention. But that's never been Bellator's model, and I don't expect that to change. Regardless of the vocal minority that criticized the deal, Jackson will get extra eyeballs on the Bellator product, which makes it a net win for them.
3. Is World Series of Fighting Nick Newell's ceiling, or does he have a UFC run in his future?
Chiappetta: Having watched all of Newell's fights, interviewed him and spoken to some of his trainers, I fully believe he deserved the chance to fight in the UFC. His 9-0 record was enough to get him there. When you look at some of their recent signings like Robert Drysdale (6-0), Brandon Thatch (9-1) and Brian Melancon (6-2), you can see that his experience falls in line with at least some of the prospects they sign.
It didn't help his case that he fights at lightweight, which is the UFC's most populated division. There just isn't a lot of room for new signees.
One of the UFC's stated reasons for passing on Newell was his opponent level. He'd never beaten a past UFC fighter or anyone with any name value. In WSOF, he'll have the chance to do that. That promotion has several lightweights that Zuffa is familiar with, names like Dan Lauzon, Jacob Volkmann, John Gunderson and JZ Calvacante. Newell can certainly strengthen his resume by beating talents like that.
Now 27 years old, Newell has a sense of urgency about his career. He has spent extra time training at American Top Team, and he is about to face a new echelon of opponents. While there is a belief that the UFC is hesitant to sign him because of his physical disability, in the end, talent can not be denied forever. I think he has UFC-level talent, and I think he will eventually make it there.
Thomas: Once again, Mike's analysis is completely on point here. I'll keep my statement brief, but focus on a different issue.
I suspect Newell could have a UFC future, but he'll have to win and do so convincingly in WSOF. That's by no means a given, so we'll have to see how that plays out. I'm more concerned with the reasons the UFC is keeping Newell out.
If they don't think he's ready, that's fine. That's why this WSOF run is so important and should allay any fears or concerns UFC brass might have about his ability to compete. I worry, though, based on the statements from UFC brass we've heard that this simply boils down to the regrettable belief that someone who has a disability just doesn't belong among those who do. Obviously, not all disabilities are created equal. There is cause to filter those with disabilities when it affects the product or their own health. The problem is Newell's situation is so far from that, it's almost humorous. That's true both for his ability to compete and the fairness with which we treat their opposition.
I've heard all manner of arguments suggesting Newell's disability is an advantage, which would be funny were it not so cruel. It's similar to the scrutiny Anthony Robles earned for winning a national title in wrestling despite missing a leg. If there's anything that underscores the insecurity of the able bodied, it's those with disabilities beating them at their own game.
In any case, let's see what Newell can do. If he can string together good wins against tough opposition, the sky should be the limit for him. And we need not worry about what message it all might send, since it'll likely be held as a triumph of human will.
4. Was it a wise decision by Bubba Jenkins (and manager Tito Ortiz) to sign a long-term deal with Bellator?
Thomas: Without knowing what Bellator offered Jenkins, it's hard to say. Clearly it was enough for him to think this could be a home for him now and for many years to come. I suspect they've offered him (with conditions) various aspects of what the Viacom portfolio has to offer, which includes appearances on other networks, potential shows or specials based on him and more. But again, I'm just speculating.
My take about this is that if Jenkins is doing what he wants based on his own personal goals and value systems, who am I to tell him he's doing it wrong? MMA fans might be upset because Jenkins' choice doesn't dovetail with what they want for him, but that's as selfish as one can possibly imagine.
Would I eventually like to see Jenkins against the UFC's best if he continues to develop as a fighter? Sure, who wouldn't? But Bellator is doing what's best for themselves. They're investing early in top-notch guys to keep them in-house and trying to keep them entertained and/or compensated within their own Viacom ecosystem. If Jenkins believes he's getting what he wants, that's mostly all that matters until he either complains he isn't getting what he was promised or his interests and values change. If and when that happens, we'll revisit the question.
Chiappetta: Bellator has always aggressively chased young talent, so it doesn't surprise me that they're a match.
I can see the lure for a young fighter. In Bellator, the possibility exists to go from unknown to champion within a matter of months. That's unheard of in the UFC. You also have the opportunity to win $100,000 over that time, which you can't do in your first few UFC fights given the pay structure. Those are strong lures. And with Viacom's backing and support, there are ways to incentivize a deal to make it more competitive with potential UFC pay over the long haul.
Beyond that, it's possible Jenkins and Ortiz didn't think he was quite ready for the UFC. Three fights into a career, you're not yet a finished product, you're still a project, so will it be easier to develop in Bellator, or in the UFC? Neither will give him an easy run, but there's no denying that Bellator does not have the depth of talent that the UFC does. That will give Jenkins the chance to get some winnable fights under his belt, and they have already announced that he'd fight several times before entering a tournament. That's a solid plan.
Jenkins is a blue-chip talent with value, and he sees a match. At the end of the day, you can't begrudge someone the right to chart their own path. I think the more intriguing and unnoticed part of this story is that both of Tito Ortiz's key clients have gone somewhere other than the UFC. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues.