MMA Roundtable: Benavidez's Foe, Chiesa's Potential, Bellator's Push And More

Mark Kolbe, Getty Images

It was eons ago when Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall fought to a draw in Australia. OK, it might not have been eons -- our math is about as good as the judges who originally proclaimed the result a Johnson win -- but it sure seems that way. Johnson and McCall finally begin round four on Friday, 98 days later.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Joseph Benavidez, who might have a thick, gray beard by the time he's ready to face the winner and crown the first UFC flyweight champ.

Speaking of beards, Michael Chiesa won last week's TUF Live and Martin Kampmann can take a punch. All of these men, along with the future push of Bellator, are topics in this week's roundtable. My colleague Dave Doyle -- also bearded -- joins me in the fray.

Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall fight on Friday. Which would be the greater challenge for Joseph Benavidez?

Dave Doyle: Johnson. I’m not counting McCall out, but I see "Mighty Mouse" taking the rematch on Friday. I had him winning the first fight, taking the first two rounds and losing the third. Johnson says the reason he looked so bad in round three is because he gassed. He insists he’s made dietary changes to fix that this time around and I have no reason not to believe him.

In terms of who would make a bigger threat to Benavidez, I’ve got to give "Mighty Mouse" the edge on that count as well, for the simple reason that he’s been there and done that. Johnson fought Dominick Cruz for the bantamweight title in the main event of the final UFC Live on Versus card. He knows what it’s like to go through fight week when you’re in the main event and challenging for a UFC title. McCall hasn’t experienced this yet.

Whomever he faces, Benavidez goes into the final as the favorite. But between a superior all-around skill set to "Uncle Creepy" and the mere fact he’s been there before and won’t be swayed by potential distractions, "Mighty Mouse" makes the better matchup.

Mike Chiappetta: I disagree with Dave here. I believe McCall would be the greater threat for Benavidez for a couple of reasons, namely his power and wrestling. I have a hard time seeing Johnson's finesse approach working against Benavidez, mainly because his speed edge will be minimal. Benavidez might not land quite as often, but he's going to land harder. He also has the wrestling to take the fight down in a pinch.

Because of the style matchup, I like McCall as a bigger threat to Benavidez. He has punching power and strong takedowns to go with it, and I think the similar skill set makes it an even matchup. By the way, I also think McCall will win Friday's rematch. In the first fight, he got better as the fight went on and he became accustomed to Johnson's speed, and now that he has that experience behind him, it should benefit him the second time around. He also proved he was the better wrestler in their first encounter, scoring four takedowns while stopping all of Johnson's four efforts. Johnson has definitely proven that he's not very easy to hit, and that's going to be McCall's biggest issue, but I think he'll do enough to get it done in another close bout.

Michael Chiesa was the feel-good story of TUF Live, but what is his ceiling as a UFC fighter?

Chiappetta: Chiesa gives off that Forrest Griffin vibe as a fighter with enough heart, conditioning and persistence to win fights he shouldn't. That's what he did during the recent season of TUF Live, as well as the finale. It's possible he does the same as he moves to the main UFC roster, but he's going to have to address his biggest problem: his striking deficiencies. He certainly looked outmatched in more than one bout on TUF, and that problem is only going to get magnified in the UFC against more seasoned foes. His wrestling also needs refinement, as it's based on his strength advantage.

That said, his size and durability will be two traits that serve him well going forward. If he is given time to grow with fair matchups early and makes the technical adjustments to go with his intangibles, he can be dangerous, but he's got some work ahead of him. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he'll match Griffin as a former UFC champion. On raw talent, I would project him as a mid-level UFC fighter, but he's shown the work ethic to take him further than that. The rest is up to him.

Doyle: Take a look at the list of "Ultimate Fighter" winners and runners-up when you get a chance. You start off in the early years with guys who became champions (Griffin, Rashad Evans) or names who otherwise went on to become stars (Kenny Florian, Michael Bisping). The list of fighters in legitimate contention for a title, though, stops cold with season five winner Nate Diaz.

There’s a reason for that. Season five was when, as Dana White put it, "anyone who could string together three letters" got in to the MMA business, and young, talented fighters suddenly had options to fight and gain exposure outside the "TUF" house. If you look at the standouts from the past 10 seasons, sure, you’ve got your occasional Ryan Bader and Roy Nelson, but you mostly see a mishmash of fighters who are simply names on the cards, at least those who are still with the UFC.

Which brings us to Chiesa. On paper, Chiesa seems limited. But as Mr. Chiappetta noted, Chiesa heart is undeniable, and it’s already carried him this far in the sport. The cynic in me fears that Chiesa will end up in the "where are they now" file a few years down the road, but I’ll concur with Mike that there’s something there with Chiesa which can be built upon. With the right matchups, the right training camp, and the same fighting spirit he’s already displayed, there’s no reason Chiesa can’t continue making a name for himself.

Bellator made media rounds in Los Angeles over the weekend in conjunction with Viacom, showcasing "King Mo" Lawal, Michael Chandler, and Pat Curran. Is this a sign that Spike TV will push Bellator next year as hard as they did the UFC?

Doyle: I don’t see why not. Whether the people running the network want to admit it or not, Spike TV was basically known as "The UFC Network" to the average viewer. Spike could have went in one of two directions when they lost the UFC property: Divest themselves of MMA and search for the next big thing about the males aged 18-34 set; or double down and stay in the game.

They chose the latter. If Spike didn’t think MMA still had a solid future on basic cable, it wouldn’t be aggressively counter-programming UFC’s Fox-related properties with the UFC re-runs it retained rights to through 2012. And Viacom wouldn’t have greenlighted to the move over from MTV2.

Making a dent in the UFC’s Secretariat-like lead in MMA brand recognition will be an uphill struggle, but it won’t be for a lack of trying. As we push toward 2013, Viacom and Spike will do everything in their power to get the name "Bellator" stamped on people’s brains. Last weekend’s promotional push in Los Angeles, in which fighters like "King" Mo were showcased at events like the MTV Movie Awards, is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Chiappetta: Given Viacom's investment in Bellator, you can expect a huge push just before the move to Spike happens in 2013. Make no mistake, given the UFC's early ratings drop upon moving to FX, the executives at Spike believe there is an opportunity to re-carve the MMA landscape.

While Bellator's ratings at MTV2 (about 170,000 viewers per show in season six) are a far cry from the 1 million that routinely tune in for shows like TUF Live on FX, there is a belief at Spike that the channel is so closely correlated with MMA that a far bigger number will tune into Bellator when it begins airing. The channel, for example, has pulled in around 500,000 viewers for some episodes of its MMA Uncensored Live show. With the proper push, Bellator could be a surprise when it comes to ratings. And Spike certainly intends on giving it that push.

Martin Kampmann hadn't really gotten much consideration as a top five welterweight until he beat Jake Ellenberger. Where does he rank in the division and is he a potential future champion?

Chiappetta:
To be honest, Kampmann has been a tough guy to figure out for me, and I think part of the reason is because win or lose, he always seems to end up in a war and looking beat up at the end. It was no different last week, when Ellenberger nearly finished him early on and left him bloodied after a first-round beating. I have a hard time believing that kind of style can ultimately take him to a championship.

The amazing thing is that Kampmann is a technician when it comes to his all-around game. He's very good at every part of MMA, but seems to take a big shot here and there that puts him in danger of being finished or at least losing the match. Obviously he's shown he's capable of beating guys like Condit and Ellenberger, so it's safe to say he's good enough to beat anyone on any given day, but I just can't see him beating Georges St-Pierre. I also think he'd struggle against Nick Diaz, so I'll put him No. 4 right now behind GSP, Condit and Diaz.

Doyle:
I think Kampann can defeat anyone in the welterweight division short of the champion, who I’ll get to later. It’s important to remember two things here: One is that he’s already handed Condit his only defeat in Zuffa competition, which dates five years. The other is that both of his losses in his current 5-2 streak over his past seven fights, against Diego Sanchez and Jake Shields, were decisions that many felt Kampmann won. If Mr. Magoo wasn’t assigned to judge the Sanchez and Shields fights, we’d be talking about a no-brainer contender for GSP with seven straight wins and a victory over the interim champ.

Mike’s right in pointing out that Kampmann often comes out of his fights more or less looking like he was assaulted with a baseball bat. That shows me can take a licking and keep ticking, which plays well in a potential matchup with Diaz. Could Kampmann beat GSP? The Dane would no doubt be an underdog in such a bout. But if you consider that two years ago, Kampmann wasn’t on anyone’s radar in terms of becoming a potential No. 1 contender at 170 pounds, when you consider he trains at a camp which emphasizes wrestling at Xtreme Couture, and the heart he’s displayed in getting where he is, I’m not about to rule Kampmann out against anyone in the division, including the champ.

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