The UFC is set to embark into a new era this weekend as it spearheads the launch of FOX Sports 1. But while we wait for Saturday's fireworks, it's time once again to pull up a seat and take a closer look at the latest headlines in the world of MMA.
For that I'm pleased to be joined by my colleague, Dave Meltzer, for this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable. We'll pick favorites on a loaded FS1 card, debate leftover superfights, and wonder aloud why the Velasquez-dos Santos rivalry lacks sizzle. But first, let's look back on Tuesday's big surprise.
1. The long, winding saga of Eddie Alvarez finally ended with Alvarez re-signing to Bellator. Realistically, is this the best outcome we could've expected?
Al-Shatti: Yes, all things considered.
Sure, when news of Alvarez's situation first broke in January, the perks and potential earnings of the UFC's contract far outweighed Bellator's "match." It was obvious and I don't think anyone outside of Bellator employment would claim otherwise. But once it became clear Viacom would drag this case out through the courts, leaving Alvarez without a paycheck and wasting precious years off his prime, things looked pretty bleak. To quote to the immortal Ramsey Snow, if you thought this was going to have a happy ending, you weren't paying attention.
By that point, Alvarez found himself left with two less-than-ideal options: scrape by and wait it out for at least another year, or reach a settlement. Of those two, Alvarez made the right decision.
At least now, in the short term, Alvarez jumps right into a monster fight. And don't mistake it, Chandler vs. Alvarez II is exactly that. We're looking at a top-5 lightweight vs. a top-10 lightweight. That's the real main event of Bellator's pay-per-view and everybody knows it. It'd been a year or so since I watched Chandler-Alvarez I, so when Bellator announced the rematch on Tuesday, I couldn't help but YouTube that sucker up. Jesus, what a great fight. Considering the growth of both men since their first meeting -- particularly Chandler -- fight fans have reason to be excited.
But in the long term, one has to wonder how this deal works out for Alvarez. He's already made it clear he wants to fight for the UFC. Meanwhile he looked borderline despondent in this aftermath interview. Best case scenario, Alvarez avenges his loss to Chandler, wins the inevitable trilogy match, then is back to where he started, stuck fighting the David Rickels and Dave Jansens of the lightweight division while waiting out his contract. Worst case, he loses yet again to Chandler, all his momentum is shattered, and the next time a UFC contract comes around, it pales in comparison to the original. Ultimately Alvarez made the best of a bad situation, but time will tell if he winds up regretting it.
Meltzer: I have to agree. Court fights are never fun. But at 29, a lengthy court fight was taking what is likely the prime of Eddie Alvarez's career away. As a fighter with a family, with his main source of income taken away, in a lengthy battle against a company that simply feels no financial or personal stress out of the same battle, ultimately there comes a point when you realize you have to be pragmatic.
I've felt bad for Alvarez from day one. When he signed a contract that gave Bellator the right to match any outside deal when the contract expired, it seemed like a no brainer. They were treating him well. And he responded in kind, living up to their expectations by becoming the company's biggest star. Even with his loss to Michael Chandler, it was the kind of a fight that helped both guys, and made you badly want to see them go at it again.
Years ago, Alvarez signed what was an excellent deal at the time for a lightweight fighter in lieu of the UFC spotlight. But if things worked out for him, and they really did with his success in the cage, his timing of when his contract expired was perfect. Bellator was just moving to Spike TV and needed anyone marketable they could. For that very reason, and because Alvarez had many exciting fights, he was a valuable fighter for UFC to take.
In Alvarez's mind, the clause gave the people who gave him his U.S. opportunity the right to keep him, but also guaranteed in the end, he'd have the best deal possible for his family.
But it wasn't that simple.
Unfortunately for Alvarez, he is the example fighters and managers have to use when negotiating, that such clauses have to be spelled out with far more detail, or risk the same thing happening. A clause that he thought guaranteed him his maximum earnings potential ended up costing him potential millions.
He's not going to get his potentially huge pay-per-view bonuses or the exposure he could have got as a UFC star. He's not going to fight on FOX. And he's not going to walk in and get a shot at the UFC lightweight title and a chance to build his name and star power to a level it can never reach with Bellator.
But by the time this case was over, the entire landscape would have changed. It has to be a bitter pill to swallow. But he is likely walking into Bellator with a very good deal, and with a lot more understanding that certain clauses aren't exactly what they appear to be.
Even in making this settlement, he's walking in facing the most impressive fighter on the Bellator roster, Michael Chandler, who seems to have gotten significantly quicker and more devastating since their match nearly two years ago.
Win or lose, he's always going to have a certain bitterness and thoughts about what ifs. But there was no guarantee, either timing wise of an ending or of the end result in a court fight. Ultimately, the people who were going to decide his fight would have very little understanding of the MMA business, so what may seem the obvious result to him, wouldn't necessarily be to a judge and jury.
For him, this in many ways has to be a sad ending, but it was the right decision for his career and his family. And given his first opponent, he can't afford to mentally dwell on it any longer or think of the what if's, or second guess.
2. This weekend's UFC debut on FOX Sports 1 is loaded with fun fights. Which one fight are you looking forward to the most?
Al-Shatti: Really, "fun" is a perfect descriptor here. Nearly every fight on the FS1 broadcast is geared towards action, so this is a tough one. I won't cop out and pick a few, but I do feel like I need to quickly mention the rest of my top-5 that didn't make the cut.
Joe Lauzon and Matt Brown are allergic to bad fights, so their respective match-ups come in at No. 5 and No. 4. Brad Pickett vs. Michael McDonald could conceivably headline a FUEL TV card, yet somehow they find themselves on the prelims, so they land at No. 3. Yuri Alcantara and Urijah Faber come in at No. 2, and give credit to Faber for doing what Vitor Belfort wouldn't by accepting a very dangerous unranked opponent in an essential lose-lose situation.
But I can't help it, the fight I'm looking forward to the most on Saturday is a 1-0 fighter, the pride of Ireland, Mr. Conor McGregor, attempting to top his stunning UFC debut when he meets Max Holloway. Yes, the hype has gotten to me. I admit it. Realistically, McGregor is still an unproven undercard fighter, despite the influx of attention he's received.
Even so, though I can't quite put my finger on it, this guy seems special. McGregor's exploits in Cage Warriors FC are a marketer's dream, and it doesn't hurt that he oozes charisma. Our own Ariel Helwani recently said he believed McGregor was two fights out from a title shot, and despite how preposterous it may sound, I find myself nodding in agreement. McGregor is the UFC's key to Ireland -- that can't be understated. If "Notorious" deconstructs Holloway like he did Marcus Brimage, it's entirely possible the UFC props him up against a guy in the lower half of the featherweight top-10. If McGregor wins that, I'd almost guarantee you he and the legion of Irish fans that ride alongside him could talk the 25-year-old into a title shot.
But again, this is MMA. We've seen hype trains like this derailed hundreds of times before. Look no further than the TUF 17'er fighting a few spots above McGregor, Uriah Hall. It's possible a pissed off Max Holloway has bulletin board material for days and decides to make a statement on Saturday. Either way, I can't wait to see how it all plays out.
Meltzer: The thing with a UFC show is that you never know what fight with steal the show. Joe Lauzon nearly stole the show the first time UFC came to Boston, and Conor McGregor, if he can repeat the scenario of his UFC debut, has that unique combination of a ring style and a persona to be a real superstar.
Because it is the main event and involves two name stars, I am looking forward to Chael Sonnen vs. Shogun Rua. Both fighters badly need a win or their big fight prospects will start to thin out. Sonnen's ability to hype a fight, and his changing weight classes again, will keep him getting decent fights as long as he's competitive here. A loss by Rua would be a bitter pill to swallow, because his future would take a tumble.
The Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne fight intrigues me. Is Browne for real? Can Overeem bounce back? How badly will Overeem be affected by that knockout? Both are big men and devastating finishers.
I do find Urijah Faber vs. Yuri Alcantara interesting in the sense Faber put himself in a dangerous position. He's facing a fighter that few know about, who is far better than his name value. Faber doesn't gain as much for a win as he should, and at this stage of his career, any loss is devastating. Plus the way they match up, I think it may be the most exciting fight on the show.
But in this case, I'm leaning toward the big men. I think it may be because I have a feel for just how good Faber, Alcantara, Sonnen and Shogun are. With Overeem and Browne, there are far more questions, and, most likely, they will be answered. And if Overeem answers them in major fashion, he's extremely marketable as a contender for the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos winner. And I don't see the Sonnen vs. Rua winner or Faber vs. Alcantara winner getting the next title shot even if they were to win in a devastating way.
3. With Anderson Silva now out of the picture, what champion vs. champion superfight do you think would garner the most interest and which one are you most looking forward to?
Meltzer: Jon Jones vs. Cain Velasquez. There are a number of reasons for my pick. For one, Jones has the frame where he can fight at heavyweight. For another, it's the challenge of Jones' career. Jones has handled All-American wrestlers like Ryan Bader and Chael Sonnen and made them look like high schoolers. But Velasquez is a relentless heavyweight, thicker and stronger than anyone Jones has ever faced.
For Velasquez, he's giving up tremendous height and reach. And Velasquez's game in the end revolves around his wrestling. But no matter what the paper credentials say, Jones has been flawless in the Octagon at that aspect of the game. Can Velasquez take him down? Can Jones keep Velasquez at bay for five rounds? Can Velasquez solve the problems with the reach and a level of athleticism that he's never seen? And how will both men react to lengthy adversity when their mettle is truly tested?
With all the talk of superfights, this one's rarely been talked about, more because Jones vs. Anderson Silva and Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre were the bigger money fights. But this is the one that intrigues me the most, and with Silva out of the picture, should Jones and Velasquez win their next fights, probably the one with the most box office appeal.
Al-Shatti: Dave's absolutely right on this one. Seeing those two physical freaks stare each other down in New York City was a chilling moment. Plus, no offense to Demetrious Johnson, but Jones vs. Velasquez is an absolutely scintillating stylistic match-up. Like he said, Velasquez excels at one of Jones' greatest strengths.
Jones may have put his heavyweight plans on ice for the moment, but both him and Dana White basically admitted there are three -- maybe four if you count Phil Davis -- challengers left for him at 205. So by the time a superfight could actually come to fruition, either late-2014 or early-2015, hype would be immense, provided both champions keep winning. The biggest stumbling block could be a Junior dos Santos victory in Houston, but even then, a JDS-Jones match-up is still big business.
The only caveat I might add, though, is that I wouldn't count Anderson Silva out of the equation just yet. If a renewed Silva just blows though Chris Weidman -- we're talking Chris Leben or Rich Franklin level destruction -- I'd guess all previous hype for Jones vs. Silva automatically picks up where it left off. Because honestly, when it's all said and done, those two men will wind up being two of the greatest to ever live, so why not pit them against each other while we still have the chance?
4. Why is it that the heavyweight division, which historically has been the money division in combat sports, with two dominant rivals like Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, thus far haven't been able to pull numbers like the biggest fights in the light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight divisions in recent years have?
Meltzer: When Junior Dos Santos knocked out Cain Velasquez on FOX in one minute in front of such a huge audience, there was an initial reaction that he just elevated himself into that elusive category of huge money draw and major superstar.
Dos Santos had never lost in UFC. He'd knocked out most of his opponents, and had never been in trouble in a fight. He's extremely likeable in person, which comes across on television.
But it didn't happen. Sure, he's a star, but as champion, he wasn't Jon Jones, Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre at the box office. Then he lost to Cain Velasquez.
Velasquez had things in his favor. He was of Mexican heritage, an ethnic group that at times nearly carried the boxing business. And he was the guy who beat Brock Lesnar, and in devastating fashion. The reaction to Velasquez's win was incredible that night. One longtime Los Angeles Times reporter compared it to the biggest reactions he had ever seen at a Southern California sports event. But he's also shy, in a world where personality is so important to one's appeal.
It's not like their third meeting isn't a big fight. It is. But in another era, two impressive heavyweights with this kind of record of dominance and finishing, in fight three, would be far bigger than any middleweight battle could be, and would obviously dwarf the attention of a 135-pound women's fight.
For all their successes, it feels like while having their primes at the same time as the other has given each what may be their career rival, it's also hurt them. So many people, more than ever watched UFC on television, saw Velasquez knocked out with one punch in one minute. To this day they may still think of him as some guy hyped to death that went down with one punch, no matter that the last three fights have proven otherwise.
But the number of people who saw those fights, with far less of a spotlight on them, was less than saw his knockout.
For Dos Santos, he was owned for five rounds in the rematch.
Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre were never owned. St-Pierre did have his moment with Matt Serra similar to Velasquez in the first Dos Santos fight, but he's had so many years in the spotlight and so many high profile wins since that time that nobody can question his standing.
The biggest thing I take out of this is to modern fight fans, the idea of the heavyweight division, simply because they are the biggest guys, as the marquee division, simply isn't the case. Boxing's biggest draws are smaller guys. UFC as a general rule draws better with bigger guys on top, only B.J. Penn has ever proven to be a huge pay-per-view draw at less than 170. But in the modern era, except for the Brock Lesnar era, because he brought in a major outside audience, it's never been the heavyweights as the top draws.
Al-Shatti: A myriad of factors work into this question, but the most obvious answer is: those divisions have Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre. Each one of those guys is (or was) a dominant, long-reigning champion, of which the UFC heavyweight division has had zero throughout it's history.
In this industry, dominance sells. It's an oft-repeated fact, but no heavyweight in UFC history has defended his title more than twice. Velasquez and dos Santos each haven't done so more than once. The Brock Lesnar circus notwithstanding, it's difficult to pull major numbers in MMA without some form of dominant track record to fall back on, or at least a heated rivalry to drum up interest.
Which leads me to another aspect: Velasquez and dos Santos are both just too nice of guys. Whatever grudge they're supposed to carry towards one another seems to be mostly forced by marketing and circumstance than any sort of smoldering ill will. As Chael Sonnen can attest, mastering the art of the sound byte can make up for any lack of a dominant reign. People get invested when the mud-slinging begins because they pick sides. And whether it's good or bad, you just can't get those kind of juicy quotes from Velasquez or dos Santos.
Finally, and I've mentioned this point before so I'll keep it brief, this entire trilogy just seems rushed. There's no sense of pacing. Velasquez and dos Santos have each followed this pattern since 2011: Cain-JDS 1, Random Opponent, Cain-JDS 2, Random Opponent, Cain-JDS 3. In Velasquez's case especially, he's only fought two men (JDS and Bigfoot) since 2010. That's a tad ridiculous.
Both Velasquez and dos Santos have plenty of good years left -- what's the rush? Rivalries are built on anticipation, and the easiest way to build anticipation is keep these guys apart for a while. Let them hand out of a few more savage beatings. The more fresh highlight reel footage the public consumes, the more people will begin to salivate at the thought of the rubber match. As much as I'm looking forward to UFC 166, it still feels like we've been here before. And it's because we have. Every year.