MMA Roundtable: Alexander Gustafsson's chances, Thomson vs. Pettis, T.J. Grant's future and more

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable, Chuck Mindenhall and I try to figure out of Alexander Gustafsson can do anything to Jon Jones, what's next for the seriously injured T.J. Grant, if Josh Thomson is the right substitute choice for Anthony Pettis and what's the closest thing MMA can put together to match Mayweather vs. Canelo.

The Man in Hat has his points. I have mine. May the best one win.

Star-divide

1) Obviously there's a reason they fight, and Alexander Gustafsson has a chance (blah blah blah) -- but how good are his chances really of beating Jon Jones at UFC 165?

Chuck Mindenhall: It's interesting that people's hunches on Gustafsson are a little bolder after having seen what Chris Weidman did to Anderson Silva. In essence, Jones has acquired a sort of vicarious vulnerability, which is the fight game equivalent of saying celebrities always die in threes.

Does he have a legit chance? The UFC is selling Gustafsson's height as something more than a novelty, and that's the smart hawk. Gusty himself reminded everyone that he has an 81.2-inch reach, too, the better to sock Jones' maw with. Gustafsson's coach Eric Del Fierro told me not long ago that Gustafsson is the best striker in the 205-pound division, and he didn't giggle afterwards or anything like that. Gustafsson kicks well. He uses spacing well. He puts a lot behind his punches.

But unless he can do those things from his back, it's all a bunch of window dressing. Jones should be able to take this fight down to the ground at will. Once there, Gustafsson -- even though he has submissions in his game -- is in deep trouble. The intrigue comes from Jones' own want of challenging himself. After hearing that Chael Sonnen's best chance was to take Jones down for nine months heading into their fight, Jones out-wrestled the wrestler as a point of sadistic pride. Maybe he stands with Gustafsson to prove he's the better striker (which in my mind he is). If he does that, then Gustafsson's chances of winning go up 20 percent, bringing his overall chances to 25 percent.

Luke Thomas:
I have to disagree with Chuck a little bit here. There's nothing even remotely clever or interesting about selling Gustafsson's height. For starters, no one cares and that angle isn't moving the popular needle at all. Second, from a statistical perspective, height has nothing to do with success in the Octagon. It literally is not determinative at all in terms of who wins or loses.

Moving on from there, I don't give Gustafsson much of a chance. I also don't see any parallels between this and the Anderson Silva-Chris Weidman fight. Even if you didn't favor Weidman's chances, you can still definitively state there are key, large aspects of the game where he's demonstrably better. There might be parts of striking where Gustafsson's better than Jones, but in terms of being effective in MMA, I don't think we can say that. And as Chuck notes, he's going to be on his back if Jones wants to put him there.

So, as we know, anything is possible. Gustafsson can win, but I find the chances of that happening rather small.

2. Is Josh Thomson the right substitute for T.J. Grant to face Anthony Pettis for the UFC lightweight title?


Luke Thomas: He certainly isn't the wrong one. In fact, he's really the only appropriate choice the UFC could've made in this difficult circumstance.

The reality is a rematch with former champion Benson Henderson is undesirable from both promotional and sporting grounds. Their last fight was essentially a blowout and while not a failure at the box office or pay-per-view sales counter, it wasn't a rousing success either. Something new is required.

As for the other potential choices, none seem better suited than Thomson. T.J. Grant is out for the foreseeable future with ongoing concussion problems. Gilbert Melendez just lost to Henderson and is tied up at UFC 166 opposite Diego Sanchez. In theory, the UFC could pull Melendez from that bout, but aside from not exactly deserving it, UFC probably wants to keep as many Latino fighters as possible to cater to Houston market demands. That leaves Gray Maynard, but he just had his doors blown off by Grant. Rafael dos Anjos is a possibility, but that's an even worse choice for box office considerations and they'd have to bypass Thomson in the process.

In other words, the question isn't whether Thomson is or isn't the best call. It's did the UFC really have any other choice but Thomson?

Chuck Mindenhall: Josh Thomson is the right choice because, like you said, everything else looks all wrong. Given the geography alone Thomson makes a certain amount of sense, too. He trains in San Jose, which isn't too far from Sacramento. For this card the UFC is really using the regional ingredients with Michael McDonald, Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes as well. They wanted to have Pettis on the card as a showcase for national television, so why not make it against not only a lightweight with some merit, but a hometown guy who smiles as he stalks forward eating punches?

The only other guy who might have been justifiable (in the Miesha Tate book of matchmaking) is Gilbert Melendez. He lost a close decision to Benson Henderson, and -- again -- lives in the vicinity. He holds a small trump card in that he's beaten Thomson a couple of times, and he did so pretty recently. But honestly, by sticking Thomson in there against Pettis you get a ridiculous fight. Both guys bring it, and for showcase purposes this feels like what lazy athletes like to refer to as a "no-brainer."

And if Thomson wins? Hey, we could be on a fast-track to Melendez-Thomson IV, which I know everybody has been dying to see.


3. True or false: T.J. Grant will get a title shot once he returns to active competition.

Luke Thomas: I'll say false. I won't say emphatically or be dismissive of any possibility going forward, but the above statement is more likely to be false than it is true.

The reality is we don't really know when Grant is coming back. His concussion symptoms don't appear to be slight or just negligible such that he can ignore them. These are serious issues he's dealing with and insofar as I understand it, there's no clear, set timetable for his return. Certainly some athletes are able to deal with concussions more rapidly, but many aren't. Being elite also has nothing to do with one's capacity to manage these pains. Sydney Crosby, hockey's golden child, only played 22 games in the 2011-2012 season (broken up after he started playing and had to stop again when concussion symptoms returned) is proof of that difficult reality.

And because of that reality, Grant's chances at reclaiming his spot diminish significantly. A role as number one contender isn't a role in perpetuity. One can only occupy it right now. The sport and UFC are constantly in motion and if you aren't moving with it, well, you're being left behind. New contenders emerge, champions lose belts and new champions are crowned. A fighter's place in the pecking order, with very limited exception, is a function of where they fight relative to their peers. An inert fighter is one who is removing himself from the ecosystem of contenders, champions and active players.

Never say never, of course, but by the time Grant returns, things will be different. Maybe Gilbert Melendez shines against Diego Sanchez. Heck, maybe Josh Thomson wins a controversial decision and there's a rematch with Pettis. Whatever happens, it won't involve Grant. He'll likely have to force his way back into the picture. Just like Karo Parisyan didn't and Rashad Evans almost didn't.

Chuck Mindenhall: "A role as number one contender isn't a role in perpetuity." I like that, Luke. I hope you have the heart to tell poor Jon Fitch all about it. He was a No. 1 contender for a dozen years before and after losing to GSP at UFC 87. A DOZEN YEARS. Or so it felt. And if there was one thing he was never getting, it was a second crack at GSP.

But seriously, this one definitely has the "what could have been" feel to it. Once Grant deems himself ready to go, it'll all depend on timing and availability, and in when dealing in those dictators there are no givens. Having spoken to Grant before he ruled himself out, he had mentioned fighting either Thomson or Gilbert Melendez as a fallback option. Should Melendez get through Diego Sanchez, Grant-Melendez seems to me is the fight to make. All depends on how long he's out. I know as of late August Grant had said that much of the nausea and depression had subsided, and that he was beginning to do some light workouts. Unless he suffered a setback that we haven't heard about, my guess is he'll be ready to go by January or February, and maybe Melendez's schedule (or Sanchez's) would jibe with that. Particularly for a February show.

What I don't see is Grant getting that title shot when he's ready. Not only will the roiling mass of lightweights turn up new intrigues, but there's the Jose Aldo factor, too. Dana White likes the idea of re-booking Aldo-Pettis, particularly when he can bill it as a "superfight," so there's that extra little bit of confusion to deal with. Not to mention, Grant may not want to be out until April or May, which is likely when the next lightweight title fight would go down.

That's my long-winded way of saying: False.

4) Which fight in MMA even remotely comes close to the PPV numbers that Canelo-Mayweather did? Does that fight even exist?

Chuck Mindenhal
l: In my mind the fight doesn't yet exist, in part because the sport doesn't exist for a large portion of the population. Our great grandfathers knew what boxing was. Boxing's been around for 200 years, since Pierce Egan's day, and well before. MMA, in the UFC-sense, is 20 years old (even if its concepts are ancient). There are plenty of people who have the vaguest notions as to what it even is.

Now, having said all that, if we're going to break through barriers and put on a fight that attracts everyone and feels like a tipping point event in the history of the sport, it's got to be Cain Velasquez and Jon Jones. For one, Jones is running roughshod through everyone in the 205-pound division. Him fighting at heavyweight somehow levels the playing field a little (if only imaginatively). Velasquez, if he beats Dos Santos again, would solidify himself as the greatest heavyweight the UFC has known. He's also Mexican-American, which gets him an ounce of what Canelo Alvarez had heading into his fight with Mayweather. The idea of him and Jones colliding is fun to think about.

Would it sell over two millions PPVs? No. But no combination in MMA would. Not yet anyway.

Luke Thomas: We'll have to see what the final numbers are, but let's assume they're close to Mayweather-De La Hoya, which hit the 2.5 million mark. Much to my dismay, there's nothing that comes even remotely close to this MMA.

There are amazing fights MMA can make, to be sure. And many of those will sell quite well on pay-per-view. Jon Jones vs. Anderson Silva, Cain Velasquez vs. Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva and so forth. And with a stacked card underneath, a top UFC pay-per-view might be able to reach the 1.6 million buy mark UFC 100 reached.

But that's about it and that's a reality MMA fans have to face. The truth is Mayweather's popularity isn't accidental. It wasn't a foregone conclusion either, but that's not what I mean. His popularity is a product of his own personal success and ingenuity as a self-promoter combined with a pivotal win over Oscar De La Hoya. De La Hoya's success has many ingredients, too, but he's iconic in part because of who he is and who he represents. And what he represents is a legion of Mexican and Latino fight fans who are generationally reared to revere fight sports and their leading figures. As Chuck notes, MMA doesn't have that yet. Not by a long shot.

There's simply a level not just of cultural acceptance but cultural penetration MMA hasn't hit yet. UFC and MMA don't suffer from the feast and famine cycle boxing and has to continually work through, but they cannot match what boxing means when it means the most it can. Over time, maybe one day it will. For now, though, all we can do is wait.

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