MMA Roundtable: This Weekend's Can't-Miss Fight, Ryan Bader as a Title Threat, More

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It's a great weekend for free televised MMA. UFC on FOX 3 goes down on Saturday in the shadow of New York City, just over the border into New Jersey, with Jim Miller and Nate Diaz headlining. Also back is Bellator, which returns from a brief one-week hiatus with a Friday night card featuring their lightweight champ Michael Chandler in a non-title bout.

The UFC has also made a series of intriguing fight announcements over the last few days. With things in full swing, there's plenty to discuss in this week's edition of The MMA Roundtable. Among this week's topics for Luke Thomas and I: what's the can't-miss fight of the weekend, which UFC champ is most likely to lose in the coming months, whether Ryan Bader can establish himself as a true title contender, and more.

1) Both UFC and Bellator host events this weekend. What is your one can't-miss fight?

Chiappetta: With apologies to Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler, who became must-watch material after his 2011 Fight of the Year candidate with Eddie Alvarez, I'm going to go with the UFC on FOX 3's Rousimar Palhares vs. Alan Belcher fight.

The weird thing is, I fully admit that's probably not the most compelling matchup of the weekend. Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks has more significance, Jim Miller vs. Nate Diaz guarantees more action, and the aforementioned Chandler is the only champ in action, but for me, Palhares has an unexplainable draw. For one thing, you never know what he's going to do next. Like the time he protested to the ref regarding Nate Marquardt's slipperiness in the middle of the match and got knocked out for it. Or the time he prematurely celebrated a win over Dan Miller and jumped atop the octagon fencing, only to be told to get back into the cage and fight. Throw in his dangerous submission game and he's equal parts fascinating and terrifying.

On top of it all, Belcher seems confident enough to play Palhares' game, so the result of the two personalities mixed together should be riveting.

Thomas: Belcher vs. Palhares is admittedly intriguing. And if Darren Uyenoyama hadn't pulled out of his bout with John Dodson, I'd probable have gone with that. For an amateur wrestling enthusiast like me, though, my pick is Hendricks vs. Koscheck.

There is so much riding on this fight. Can Hendricks - one of the few collegiate wrestlers now in MMA who likely could've gone on to freestyle international success - finally fulfill the hype that was placed on his career? While the win over Fitch was impressive, was it just as much lightning in a bottle? Is Hendricks the real deal?

As for Koscheck, he's obviously still formidable, but at 34 what does he have left? How has changing camps and dealing with the turmoil at AKA affected his preparation? Against a fellow national champion collegiate wrestler, who will be able to dominate the real estate in this fight?

The last thing to consider is this: Koscheck is in a contender's fight, but does anyone really want to see him fight for a title again? Hendricks winning would be better for UFC's purposes. What does the UFC do with Koscheck if he wins? Did they really give him this fight to kill off a contender and not reward him with a title shot or number one contender's bout? Only time will tell, but that's why I'm tuning in.

2) Last week, we learned Stipe Miocic vs. Shane Del Rosario will round out UFC 146. It isn't often UFC matches up two rising young contenders. Good idea or bad idea?

Thomas: Good idea, although one always has to be careful with predicaments like this. In this particular case, I like it because there's a lot the winner can take away without the loser suffering an equal amount. This one isn't a zero sum game.

The heavyweight division is thin. That's one of the most important considerations. Let's say Miocic wins and Del Rosario loses. Miocic moves on to potentially face someone like Matt Mitrione or Gabriel Gonzaga. Del Rosario would, by contrast, fight another entry-level UFC heavyweights and should he prove successful, move up the ladder. The point is this: two or three wins in the heavyweight division moves you up the roster quickly and one loss doesn't particularly derail you when you're a prospect.

Whoever the winner is in this bout will prove they are ready for the next step. The other needs more seasoning. But no one is too far behind. It is slightly unsettling that Miocic and Del Rosario are closer to 30 than 20, but this is the sort of appropriate matching of talent that lets us know who is and isn't on a contender track without killing the loser's career.

Chiappetta: I'm actually not a fan of this matchup, even though I advocated it back in February. The reason is timing. Miocic is taking the bout on short notice, and I think that's not a fair position to put a young, undefeated heavyweight into.

On one hand, matchmaker Joe Silva's hand was forced by the shuffling of the UFC 146 lineup due to the Alistair Overeem situation. UFC seemed hellbent on keeping an all-heavyweight card, which really wasn't necessary, but I understand the rationale behind it. That said, we must remember that Miocic is still relatively green. I don't object to the Del Rosario matchup except for the fact that it comes with only five weeks preparation time, not a whole lot of time, especially considering the fact that Miocic works fulltime as a firefighter and paramedic while training. That's a lot to handle in a shortened camp.

To be fair, Luke makes a good point about the fact that a loss won't necessarily ruin either man's career, but it doesn't make it the optimal setup either. I would have preferred this fight happening with full camps for both.

3) Ryan Bader vs. Lyoto Machida was just announced for UFC on FOX 4. Can Bader become a legit title threat after his previous hiccups?

Chiappetta:
This fight with Machida will tell us a lot about where Bader is going long-term. It's essentially make-or-break time for him in regards to his career trajectory. He turns 29 years old next month and has been in the game for five years. That doesn't make him old, but it also makes it difficult to refer to him as a prospect. At this point, he's seasoned enough to be winning big fights. To his credit, he has done that against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Quinton Jackson, but consistency is the hallmark of a champion.

Bader has yet to truly prove that in several aspects of his game. In some ways, that makes Machida a perfect opponent for him. First of all, Machida doesn't easily give up takedowns (only about 20 percent against him are successful, according to FightMetric), so Bader won't be able to rely on his wrestling to save him. He's also a far more accurate striker than Bader, and better defensively. Throw in Machida's southpaw stance and rarely seen striking style, and Bader has plenty to wrap his head around in training camp. All of the stylistic and matchup challenges Machida presents makes a strong barometer for how Bader will do going forward against the light-heavyweight division's elite.

While Bader is a very good fighter, my hunch is that he's likely to remain a step below the very top tier. If he develops true fluidity in his striking style and improves upon his striking-to-wrestling transitions, he can be an elite level talent, but even at 29, time is ticking.

Thomas:
I have no choice but to agree with Mike here. He's dead on. This fight is a big opportunity for Bader, but when we saw 'big opportunity' we only do so because the challenges here are so significant.

Bader, for my comfortability, still is overly reliant on wrestling. What do I mean overly reliant? I don't mean that he uses it a lot. There's nothing wrong with that and indeed, he clearly has formidable wrestling skills. It's that he uses it in many cases of fatigue or desperation. Every wrestling-based fighter does that to some extent and some could be smarter to use it more. In Bader's case, though, I find that as much of a physical powerhouse he is, he doesn't use his athleticism or wrestling efficiently. It's full steam ahead even chasing down takedowns in a straight line until he gets what he wants. That's fine for a round against opposition ranked in the bottom of the top 10 or top 15. It's not going to work for very long against elite light heavyweights.

Mike's articulation of Bader's lot in the division is correct. He's obviously very skilled, very athletic and hard to beat, but his offensive game is likely only going to find success amongst those not truly destined to contend for a title. It's just too inefficient. Let's see if Bader can prove us wrong.

4) Between May and August, five UFC titles are expected to be contested (Cruz-Faber, Aldo-Koch, Henderson-Edgar, Silva-Sonnen, dos Santos-Mir). If you had to put your money on one challenger to emerge with gold, which one and why?

Thomas: I'd probably go with Frank Edgar, but clearly a credible case can be made with Chael Sonnen.

Now, let me be clear: I do not outright think Edgar will win. I like Henderson to retain his title. That said, one of Edgar's most outstanding traits is his ability to improve between fights. That comes both from general skill building as well as correcting for what went wrong in previous outings. His three fights against Maynard are an illustration in the growth of a fighter who continually works to get better everywhere and specifically where he must in order to succeed.

What surprised me most in his first fight with Henderson is just now much he was able to win in the wrestling portion of the game. If he tactically adjusts by incorporating fewer striking exchanges and can execute to the same degree he did in their first fight, he's got a great chance to reclaim his lightweight gold.

Chiappetta: In order of probability, my guess would go: Edgar, Sonnen, Mir, Faber, Koch.

Edgar has the best odds for the reasons Luke indicated. He's shown constant improvement between fights and proven the ability to make adjustments in-fight. The first bout between him and Henderson was relatively close, so he's clearly capable of making it a contest. But there's one other important factor to consider, and it's proving the critics wrong. Edgar has been hearing he's too small for years, even while he was the champion. When he finally lost the belt, it was time for the "I told you so" crowd to have their moment. I can't imagine Edgar can be any more motivated for a fight as he will be in the rematch.

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