This weekend, we finally get back to some major MMA action, as the UFC invades Seattle with a flyweight championship bout. So far, the heavy focus on the card has gone to the headliners as well as co-main event stars Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger, but we wonder if there's a potential sleeper elsewhere.
My colleague Dave Doyle and I dive into that, as well as wondering what a John Moraga win means for the division, if Dana White should reverse his stance on Paul Daley, and which Bellator champion fighting on July 31 is more likely to relinquish his crown.
Away we go ...
1) The bulk of whatever attention UFC on FOX 8 has gotten has gone to Demetrious Johnson vs. John Moraga and MacDonald vs. Ellenberger. Other than the main event and co-main, what's your sleeper pick for a potential fight of the night?
Doyle: Without a doubt, Julie Kedzie vs. Germaine de Randamie, which is the opening fight on the FX portion of the card. Anyone who knows anything about women’s MMA knows that, win or lose, Kedzie at her best is one of the sport’s most exciting fighters. Her 2007 fight against Gina Carano put WMMA on the map and her three-round war with Miesha Tate last August in San Diego was the best women’s fight of 2012.
de Randamie, meanwhile, is a former kickboxer who now trains with AKA and and is still in the process of adjusting to the differences in the sports. She was on point last August when she battered Hiroko Yamanaka for 15 minutes and got a decision win to improve to 3-2 in MMA.
Neither fighter has fought since that night in San Diego, so the inactivity cancels out as an excuse. A motivated veteran in Kedzie who has waited her whole career for this moment vs. a fighter in De Randamie who has seemed on the precipice of putting it all together for awhile. This should be a good one.
Chiappetta: That's a strong pick, but I'm going to give my vote to Yves Edwards and Daron Cruickshank. For whatever reason, I'm drawn to the fighters like Edwards who span across more than one generation of MMA and still find success. It is amazing to me that he is still just 36 years old, and even more amazing that he's still relevant.
What's more, he has a very unique offensive style. He's cagey and clever, but he also has pop despite a wiry frame. I find him a pleasure to watch. Cruickshank is a great visual fighter, too. He uses flashy techniques but with thought. He's not just trying to make a highlight reel, he targets specific spots and sets up his attacks with a veteran's poise.
Matching these two up should prove to be a standup chess match.
2) John Moraga is a virtual unknown, even to most MMA fans. If he beats Demetrious Johnson on Saturday, is that a step backwards in regards to the establishment of the flyweight title?
Chiappetta: It is more dependent on how he wins than if he wins.
Johnson has received quite a bit of spotlight over the last two years. He fought for a title with Dominick Cruz, he was in a UFC on FX main event, was the co-headliner to a Jon Jones fight, and most recently, fought on FOX. While he has yet to develop into a major star, people are quite familiar with him. If Moraga goes into the cage and knocks him out, that makes a statement. And let's face it, people love dominant champions. Or more specifically, they're interested in them. Johnson is fun to watch, but you sometimes leave his fights wondering if he actually was the better man. Finishes usually put those doubts to rest.
Moraga isn't very well known, but there is no better way to announce yourself as a star than by crushing a respected champion. If he ekes out a win, probably not the best thing for the division, but he seems to be the type to go out on his shield. That means he's capable of either winning big or bringing the very best out of Johnson. And that's ultimately good for the division and its belt.
Doyle: I always got a bit of a chuckle when people complain about relatively unknown title challengers. You have to start somewhere, right? Manny Pacquiao had 44 pro fights before he appeared in a pay-per-view main event and it took several years from there before he exploded into megastardom.
Or, if you want to keep this to MMA, you could use Jose Aldo as an example. The night he won what was then the WEC featherweight title from Mike Brown, there were only 1,835 fans in attendance at The Palms in Las Vegas, only 1,135 of whom were paid. Aldo was the guy who was finishing opponents on the undercard, like Moraga, and Brown had already defeated Urijah Faber in a rematch. What was Zuffa supposed to do, not give Aldo a title shot simply because he wasn’t a big headliner? Aldo won the title that night, built his reputation for exciting finishes, and has become a consistent PPV headliner.
Sometimes you simply have to roll the dice in the fight business. Sometimes you have to spotlight someone today as a bit of a loss leader in order to potentially build for the future, with no guarantee it will pay off. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.
I’m obviously not saying Moraga will be the next Pacquiao -- or even the next Aldo -- but if he defeats "Mighty Mouse" in the manner he’s finished his two other UFC opponents, then the UFC will be well on its way to building its first breakthrough flyweight star, regardless of what Saturday’s ratings might show.
3) Paul Daley has won four straight fights in convincing fashion since his Strikeforce loss to Kazuo Misaki. Is it time for Dana White to get over the Josh Koscheck incident and give him another shot in the UFC?
Doyle: Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: Look, what Daley did at UFC 113 in taking a swing at Koscheck after the fight was over went against everything mixed martial arts is supposed to represent. I do believe White was correct in kicking him out of the UFC at the time. And White’s been consistent about this sort of thing: "Babalu" Sobral never got another shot in the UFC after he refused to let go of his choke of David Heath at UFC 74, either. White's actions send a strong message.
But still, was the transgression worthy of a UFC death sentence? Three years have passed since the incident. He fought a bout under the Zuffa umbrella when he met Diaz (a bout which was signed before Zuffa bought the company) and the world didn’t come to an end. Daley is 30, he’s still in the tail end of his prime, and he’s overwhelming subpar competition. He hasn’t had anything remotely resembling the Koscheck incident since then. I say it’s time to give him a second chance.
Chiappetta: Are we just assuming here that Daley will never again fight in Bellator? I guess we are, mostly because he hasn't competed for the organization since last July largely as a result of visa issues. Anyway, sources have indicated that his return is quite unlikely.
We've seen Dana White change course on other proclamations, so it's not impossible that he does the same here. I'd have no problem with White doing that in this case. It's not like Daley has a long record of breaking the rules of engagement in the cage. Yes, he's had some issues with missing weight, but hasn't missed his contracted number since 2011, so it seems as though that problem is behind him. Aside from that, he's generally been a successful fighter. So we're left with a big-league talent languishing on the sidelines.
All of that said, I don't think anyone is really pining away for Daley's return. There's always been a belief that his game is limited by his wrestling deficiencies, and while he's actually improved at that aspect in the last year or two, that perception likely remains in the public, leading many to the conclusion that he'll always have some problems in the wrestler-heavy UFC welterweight division. Sure, if you match him up with the right guy, there's much to be interested about, but it's not a make-or-break proposition for the UFC.
4) Both Michael Chandler and Ben Askren will attempt to defend their Bellator titles next week. Which challenger has the best possibility of unseating a champ?
Chiappetta: At this point, I'd have to pick Andrey Koreshkov over Askren as a more likely upset than David Rickels over Chandler.
Askren looked strong in his last time out, earning his first finish in nearly three years when he stopped Karl Amoussou after the third round. It's not surprising to see him progress past his reputation as a glorified blanket. There's little doubt that he'll be able to take Koreshkov down but there is a question in my mind about whether he can do it enough to win. Let's remember that Koreshkov has had eight months to prepare for him. We've seen opponents adjust to Askren in the past, as well as his takedowns lose effectiveness in the later rounds. Koreshkov, meanwhile, has shown the ability to adapt as fights wear on. That, along with Koreshkov's sharp and superior striking skills, is a fair recipe for upset.
Rickels is as game as they come, but he seems to prefer the standup style, and I peg Chandler a notch above him whether they're fighting on those terms or in the grappling realm. Rickels' path to victory is much more riddled with detours.
Doyle: I consider Michael Chandler Bellator’s top pound-for-pound fighter. He’s the one guy -- Eddie Alvarez included -- I think would be most capable of stepping into the UFC and competing with the elites of his division. Alliance MMA has a way of producing sound all-around fighters and Chandler’s no exception. Rickels is no slouch and I can see him tagging Chandler, but when push comes to shove I can’t see Rickels as Chandler’s match on the ground.
So I, too, would go with Koreshkov over Askren as the more likely of the two. I actually think this fight’s close enough that I’m not sure a Koreshkov win would be all that big of an upset. Koreshkov’s less likely to to be overwhelmed by Askren’s wrestling as Askren’s previous foes and his striking is crisp and varied. If anything, I think Askren could be in for a long night.