Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Hey, did you guys hear that Brock Lesnar is back ... in the WWE? Of course you did. You have to give the man credit: when he steps outside, it's news. While his return to pro wrestling basically ensures that his octagon career is over for good, it's also raised some questions about what exactly his legacy was when it comes to MMA.
Was Brock overrated, undervalued, or simply a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that defies rational explanation? I invited Luke Thomas down to the MMA Roundtable to discuss Brock, MMA's next reality TV show, Gilbert Melendez's recent fight announcement and more.
1) Now that he's moved back to pro wrestling, what is Brock Lesnar's MMA legacy?
Mike Chiappetta: Lesnar deserves a great deal of credit for his accomplishments. For all of his shortcomings as a fighter, he was incredibly game simply for choosing to take on the challenge of competing on MMA's biggest stage against the best available talent. You can point to Lesnar's collegiate background as a great base, but he hadn't wrestled in seven years when he decided to make a run at No. 1. At the time, he was bluntly honest in his own personal assessment, saying either he would compete at that high level or be quickly weeded out.
The crazy thing is, on limited training, he made it to the top. Sure, he had a short cut to a title shot, but beating Randy Couture, Frank Mir and Shane Carwin consecutively is a legitimate run that validated his championship. Unfortunately, we'll never know just how good Lesnar could have been due to his late start in the sport along with his recurring diverticulitis issues. He won mostly on brute strength and raw talent, and when his health began to erode, he left. I respect him for declining to stick around and make a big paycheck when that would have been the easy thing to do.
In the end, Lesnar won't be ranked among the all-time heavyweight greats; his run at the top was just too brief. But he used the tools he had to become a pay-per-view phenomenon and a champion, and that's a legacy that few can match.
Thomas: I agree with Mike. Lesnar deserved more credit than he often received, but I also think the criticism of him late was fairly on target.
Let's be clear about the terms here: it is highly unlikely we'll ever see another Brock Lensar in MMA. And by that, I mean someone who can come into the sport with virtually no experience and beat the top guys in the world in his division all while being a hugely popular figure among mainstream masses. It's possible an Olympian like Henry Cejudo could do it, especially since he has a small but notable background in boxing and like Muhammad Ali, has injected himself into political issues by speaking out on immigration policy. But even then that seems like a stretch. A lot of planets have to align to get the magic Lesnar brought to the table. I don't know if we'll see it again in our lifetime, especially with collegiate wrestlers going into professional MMA directly out of college.
However, critics were right to dismiss him at the end of his run. Lesnar's battle with diverticulitis snatched his soul and hampered his ability to keep pace with the growth of MMA heavyweight talent. Dealing with his own mortality was bad enough, to say nothing of how much time he lost not training and developing. By the time he tried his hand at defending his title, it was clear the road ahead was not going to get any easier. Against Alistair Overeem, it was even clearer Lesnar could not compete with the sport's top heavyweights anymore.
And that, in all actuality, is a good thing for MMA. Someone shouldn't be able to march into the UFC and wreck shop. Lesnar certainly couldn't do it in the NFL. Why should the UFC be any different? Let's thank Lesnar for what he did for MMA. He sold pay-per-views, accomplished some really incredible feats, energized the mainstream media to cover MMA and more. But he also was on borrowed time and needed to leave when he did. His legacy is important, but part of that is examining his exit and what that said about the state of the sport.
2) Strikeforce recently announced Melendez-Thomson III. Is this the right call?
Thomas: Unequivocally, no. There are a few ways to parse this situation, but let's look at the rankings for a clear illustration on why this "keep Melendez in Strikeforce" policy is madness.
According to the USA TODAY/SB Nation Consensus MMA Rankings, Melendez is currently the third best lightweight in the world. But since he's in Strikeforce and can only face Strikeforce fighters, that means the next closest contender is....? If you guessed, Pat Healy at number 20, you are correct. In other words, not only is Thomson not even the best possible contender Melendez could face, but the best possible contender Melendez could face isn't even in the top 15 of all MMA lightweights.
What is going on here? Does it not seem far more rational to remove Melendez from the organization and let him fight people closer to his skill level? That's obviously better for Melendez, but it's better for the Strikeforce lightweights. Short of some miraculous punch or accident, none of them have any shot of ever beating Melendez. And that's not the same as a Yushin Okami vs. Anderson Silva situation where at least Okami, at the time they fought, was clearly deserving above most of his others peers (Sonnen, notwithstanding). Healy or Thomson or Masvidal are all contenders by default, not by hierarchy.
Melendez may be in Strikeforce with fighters he absurdly outclasses, but he's in a league of his own. That's a lonely and deeply unfair place to be.
Chiappetta: No, it's not the right call, but for different reasons than Luke mentioned.
Melendez re-signed with Strikeforce only about one year ago, when the division wasn't much different than it is today. Yes, I know Zuffa didn't own Strikeforce at the time, but that's the decision he made. He probably made it because a) Strikeforce promised to build around him, and b) he felt he received a good financial deal. That's a deal he made in good faith, so he should honor it as he is doing. But that also means that Strikeforce needs to honor their side, and that's trying to bring him an opponent worthy of his talent. No knock on Josh Thomson, but his last performance didn't beg for a title match.
There are plenty of UFC lightweights that Zuffa could bring over to challenge Melendez. They certainly entertained the idea before settling on a third fight with Thomson. The bottom line here is that Dana White constantly reminds fans that he tries to set up the matchups that people want to see, and there's no question that fans want to see Melendez fight a top five lightweight, even if it meant bringing him someone from the UFC. White also said he was going to find a way to keep the Strikeforce fighters happy. Who's happy about Melendez-Thomson III? Well, I tell you who's not happy about it: Melendez and the fans.
3) What can Bellator do with their recently announced reality show that will differentiate them from TUF?
Mike Chiappetta: I thought long and hard about this one, and it's tricky because everyone in the world is going to be quick to compare it to TUF. That means one thing is for certain: they need a fresh angle.
This is obviously a good opportunity for Bellator to build some familiarity with their roster. If I was part of the team, I would insist that the series have some focus on the champions. The tournament format almost ensures that the champion has to sit around and wait while a No. 1 contender moves through the process. That means the champion can be highlighted while he awaits a challenger to emerge.
The scheduling might be tough, but I would feature a format where each episode is split. Half would be dedicated to the champion, and the other half would feature tournament contestants working their way towards him. That makes for an easy-to-follow narrative, and as the tourney advances and fighters are eliminated, more time can be devoted to each entrants' story and getting viewers emotionally invested in the eventual title bout.
In that way, it would be sort of a hybrid of Primetime and TUF, with the all-access behind the scenes of the former, and the tournament format of the latter.
Thomas: This is a really tough one. I've long been a critic of the 'The Ultimate Fighter' and said there was a poverty of imagination when it came to improving the show's content. It could very well be (and I'm sure is) that doing so is a lot more difficult than it looks.
Really, this show will forever live in TUF's shadow. So many other kinds of MMA programming have come and gone, but TUF is iconic. This show will have to have a core concept that's distinct from TUF. TUF has gone through a ton of iterative development, but at it's core is still the same show: fighters live in a house and compete to earn a six-figure contract in the UFC.
And much of what TUF has done is based on how all reality shows operate. The contestants live in a house, each week one person 'goes home', their personal rivalries and bickering are played up for ratings and so on. Some in MMA often decry these aspects of TUF, but in truth, it's simply what all of reality television offers with very little differentiation.
I certainly wouldn't go live. I admit I enjoy TUF Live, but satellite time is expensive and based on the ratings, I'm not sure FX is getting the right kind of bang for their buck. I'd also change up the prize at the end of the show and to what extent coaches are involved. But really, and some might call me crazy, I'd question the very premise of using prospects rather than established fighters. Bellator needs to create stars, but there's a reciprocal relationship here: they need all the existing star power they can muster for the show. I don't know what the perfect solution is, but watching a bunch of completely unknown names duke it out for dubious rewards is not something MMA fans really care about in great numbers.
I say make the show about what you've already got and worry about making that bigger and better. The prospects will come. We want to see your best, not your maybes, also-rans or John Does.
4) UFC action finally returns next week, with Alexander Gustafsson fighting Thiago Silva. Is this the fight in which Gustafsson makes himself a legit 205 contender?
Thomas: I believe so. At the end of 2011, I told CSN Washington Gustafsson was my breakout fighter for 2012.
Alexander has so much of the raw material critical for success: good athleticism, technical skills, high fight IQ and the capacity to add skills quickly to his game with a high level of proficiency. I'm constantly amazed at not just how he augments his existing skills, but adds entirely (and seemingly) foreign techniques to his arsenal yet implements them with aplomb.
Thiago Silva is certainly a tough test and the appropriate type for Gustafsson at this juncture in his career. He needs to work against someone who has faced championship caliber fighters, has legitimate offensive ability in two dimensions of the game, and is an aggressive and potent power puncher. But what we're looking for is not just for Gustafsson to beat him, but to see how he beats him. Can the Swede get by him in the way other elite fighters have? Eventual superiority in a relatively tough fight is what I'm expecting/hoping to see.
I certainly don't think he's ready for a title shot. He needs to beat several more established, high-ranking talents before talk of that is even merited. Without a shadow of a doubt, though, he is the sort of fighter that with more seasoning in a cauldron of world-class preparation and resources, can be the next-level talent everyone suspects that he is.
Chiappetta: Gustafsson certainly looks ready to make the leap from prospect to contender. As Luke notes, he's got a well-rounded skill set to work with, and his 6-foot-5 frame makes him a difficult physical matchup for many.
His best attribute is clearly his striking, as he has a great idea of how to use his length to his advantage. Since his lone loss came via submission, it will be interesting to see what happens if BJJ black belt Silva can get him to the ground. That's not likely though, as wrestlers Vladimir Matyushenko and Matt Hamill had trouble bringing the fight to the mat against him.
Silva is a great opponent for him because he'll be willing to bang with him on the feet but certainly won't shy away from any ground work. In the past, some of Gustafsson's opponents have been a bit one-dimensional. Even coming off a one-year suspension, Silva presents more problems than Gustafsson's seen in a while, and if the Swede solves them, we can conclude that he's just as legitimate a prospect as we originally guessed.
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