It's been a long time since we sidled up to the old MMA roundtable and threw down on some of the biggest questions of the day, so I invited my colleague Luke Thomas to his first showdown to see what he's got.
1. Who will be Gilbert Melendez's next opponent in Strikeforce?
Mike Chiappetta: There's been all kinds of speculation about who Melendez would face ever since he beat Jorge Masvidal in December. I think I unintentionally helped to jumpstart the possibility of Zuffa sending a UFC fighter to Strikeforce to fight him the day after the Masvidal fight when I proposed he face BJ Penn, and those kinds of rumors have persisted. Cesar Gracie recently fanned the flames by saying that Melendez would fight on May 19, and he hoped to face Penn or Anthony Pettis.
But recently, a well-placed source informed me that a different name was a possibility: Gray Maynard.
He hasn't fought since his knockout at the hands of Frankie Edgar last October, and given that he had two cracks at the UFC belt in 2011, he's not likely to get another title bout anytime soon. He also doesn't have a huge salary that would make the move to Strikeforce cost prohibitive. And because Maynard gave Edgar a run twice, it would also be a fight that could provide a frame of reference for just how good Melendez is. I like it, and I think it's going to happen.
Luke Thomas: I really hope Mike's inside information comes true. Gray Maynard would be an excellent choice for the Strikeforce organization, its fans and the two fighters involved. It's especially the right kind of challenge for the underserved Melendez.
No matter what happens, neither Josh Thomson nor KJ Noons are suitable contenders and the champion couldn't possibly be less interested in either fight. Who can blame him? He so outclasses both that the fights are basically matters of procedure. Keeping Melendez in Strikeforce is neither fair to the champion nor his challengers. It'd be much more equitable to the rest of the Strikeforce lightweight roster to move Melendez to the UFC and let the division sort itself out with it's existing talent.
If Maynard's not up for it or not available, but we still could move talent let's consider other top UFC lightweights. They'd have to be those who likely wouldn't contend for titles, but could be stiff tests for Melendez as well as provide a dose of excitement for Strikeforce. What about Joe Lauzon or Sam Stout? Couldn't we move Dennis Siver or Gleison Tibau? Lightweight is one of those divisions that's young enough and talent-rich enough where it can be carefully poached without truly doing damage to it. And as long as Melendez is isolated, the case for doing as much gets stronger by the day.
2. Since Frankie Edgar is staying at lightweight, what does UFC do next with Jose Aldo?
Thomas: Aldo is a truly frustrating fighter for the UFC. He's got all the tools to be a major star and is young enough that with the right promotion could be a lasting figure for the promotion. I honestly believe if Aldo spoke English fluently and could more readily participate in media pushes, he'd be a significantly bigger star. Yes, Anderson Silva has never truly spoken English, but it took him years to turn into a star and he was able to fight and beat known commodities that helped turn him into an attraction.
That is what the UFC must do with Aldo. Either entice lightweights to drop to featherweight or have Aldo move to lightweight. Hatsu Hioki and Dustin Poirier are supreme talents and worthy of everyone's respect, but Aldo will only be marking time (promotionally speaking) by fighting them. A much better option is to have him fight and beat known entities. That's how stars are born in MMA. Names on the way out are fed to names on the way up. Aldo's talent wouldn't exactly be squandered facing the current line of contenders at featherweight, but it's hardly best use of his time.
Chiappetta: First off, I disagree with moving him to lightweight. Why are we always so quick to tell fighters what weight their bodies should handle? It's no small thing. Anyway, dominant champions are historically big draws, and as Aldo continues to solidify his hold on the featherweight division, he'll become one, too. There's no need to push him up a weight class in order to make that happen.
So what now? Well, there's nothing wrong with Luke's first idea of having a lightweight move down to face him, as long as that fighter is a) a credible opponent and b) inclined to make that cut. Anthony Pettis has said he'd consider such an offer, but a rematch with Ben Henderson down the line seems like a more viable option for him, and a bigger money draw for the UFC. So I think UFC will stay within the division and Aldo will draw Hioki next. If I was a UFC decision-maker, I'd think long and hard about showcasing that fight on FOX.
3. Is Rampage vs. Shogun II the right call by the UFC?
Chiappetta: No. I stick by my column from Monday, that the UFC should have released Jackson. But in some ways, this is a decision I think can be looked at from different perspectives as a fan, and as a business decision.
As a fan, the Jackson-Rua rematch is an interesting fight, and I'll be intrigued to watch it, even though it's almost as if Jackson is being rewarded for his threats to leave the promotion. From a business perspective though, if I was a UFC decision-maker, I wouldn't offer him a fight that would allow him to go out on a high note, thereby increasing his value to prospective employers. The fact they did that makes me believe they think the relationship will be patched up ... again.
Thomas: Most certainly. I disagree with my colleague on this one.
Rampage has claimed the UFC has told him his appeal has waned. He even noted their argument was that rappers don't show up to watch him fight anymore. I have no idea if any of that is true (although it's hilarious), but if the UFC believes Rampage's star power has faded somewhat, then they're correct. It has. But it's not so faded that it's negligible.
There's a key consideration to understand that makes keeping Rampage around for one more fight borderline essential: the old guard of MMA is about to depart en masse. Consider that within the next two years (or less) the following fighters could be gone from the ranks of the UFC: Anderson Silva, B.J. Penn, Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, both Nogueira brothers, Roy Nelson and Rich Franklin. On the bubble (up to three years) are fighters like Chris Leben, Rashad Evans and Josh Koscheck. There may well be others. All of these fighters have either expressed sincere interest in retirement, will be deep into their thirties (or forties) in the stated time span or be both.
Stated plainly, UFC needs all of the star power they can get. The UFC brand itself is hugely important, but this is a star-driven sport. Perhaps the relationship with Rampage is too fractured to be repaired, but Rampage as either a headliner or co-main event makes sense as long as it's a viable option. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.
4. How likely is Nick Diaz's appeal defense of reducing or eliminating his suspension?
Thomas: Impossible to tell. Diaz is not working through a normal court of law procedure. He is not entitled to a traditional appeals system nor is an appointed, practicing judge presiding over his challenge. In short, whatever the commission wishes to do is what they'll do. They're both jury and judge here and that makes forecasting his chances of success rather difficult.
That said, his case is air tight in my opinion. I don't know if his lawyer lifted the blueprint for this challenge from a post written by Jonathan Tweedale over at BloodyElbow.com, but either way Tweedale was first. He's also a member of the athletic commission in Vancouver and an attorney. And what he found was a clear misapplication of the stated guidelines of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). Urine tests do not tell us when a fighter used, just that he used. Since NSAC follows WADA's guidelines on marijuana (it's not banned out of competition), then they must have testing measures in place that allow us to follow that rule. For Diaz, everything hinges on how the NSAC will try to define 'out of competition' and whether they'll directly follow WADA's guidelines there as they do with other banned substances protocol.
I'll just say this: there's bellyaching among the MMA community about Diaz trying to backdoor his marijuana use into legalized territory. I could not possibly disagree more. This isn't about Diaz at all. This is about making sure the athletic commissions we trust to regulate this sport are using and applying guidelines they are bound by correctly. It's not about Diaz. It's about every fighter who competes in Nevada and arguably any other state.
Mike Chiappetta: Diaz might have a legitimate defense here. There is precedent. In 2008, Belgian cyclist Tom Boonen tested positive for cocaine but was not suspended by WADA because his test came out of competition. Diaz's legal team will have to prove that his use was out-of-competition. That will be tricky because despite the fact that they claim WADA has excluded marijuana metabolites as a positive result, it has been accepted as a positive result in the past. The drugs were in his system and there's really no dispute he took them, it now all hinges on when he took them.
As Luke mentioned, this isn't a court, so the process isn't structured or easy to predict. Because of that, neither is the outcome. Some state commissions have shown a willingness to reduce penalties when faced with a strong defense argument, but NSAC hasn't historically been one of them. Given that it's his second offense, I still think Diaz will be faced with a 6-9 month suspension. But the good news is the fact that since he is appealing this result, he must be planning to fight again.