The MMA Roundtable: Nick Diaz returns, TUF revamp, middleweights, and Rick Hawn

Esther Lin

There's much to talk about in a busy January. The Ultimate Fighter's revamped. The middleweight division is constantly shifting. Nick Diaz is back. And a dustup between Rick Hawn and a rogue sponsor taught lessons about mixed martial arts' tight-knit Internet community.

So without further ado, it's time for a new edition of The MMA Roundtable. My MMAFighting.com colleague Shaun Al-Shatti joins me for a discussion of all the latest goings-on in the MMA world.

1. Nick Diaz showed up for the UFC 158 press conference on Thursday. Is this a sign he'll actually make it to his March 16 fight with Georges St-Pierre without issues?

Doyle: Well, as of this writing, there are still 51 days left until UFC 158, so in theory, that gives Diaz plenty of time to wake up some morning, decide the whole world is out to get him, vanish, and then post a YouTube video rant from his car a couple days later.

But as of Wednesday's press conference in Montreal, at least, Diaz seems to get it. As my colleague Mike Chiappetta pointed out, Diaz was on time, cordial, and said all the right things in his first public appearance in quite some time. You have to think Diaz gets that he's been given his last, best career opportunity. Not only is he being given another chance at the big pay-per-view paycheck and a title fight, the event is set up in such a manner that if he screws up again, he can be seamlessly replaced on the card.

Bottom line: Never say never with Diaz, but barring an injury, I'd be very surprised if the fight doesn't come off as planned.

Al-Shatti: Dave is right on a couple fronts. Namely, the fact that Nick Diaz is still Nick Diaz, and with that guy, there are never any guarantees when exactly he'll show up. Case in point, last year's press conference, or if you'd so prefer, a certain charity BJJ match.

But still, Wednesday's Nick Diaz may have possibly been the friendliest Nick Diaz I can remember seeing in any pre-fight media work. He smiled, he cracked a few jokes, he articulated his thoughts well enough, he said he liked Georges St-Pierre "just fine" about five different times; all in all, he nailed it. But perhaps most telling was when Diaz admitted that even he, in his wildest dreams, didn't expect to come back from suspension and see a title shot sitting on his doorstep.

"I figured they'd probably stick me with some hard fights for a while and I'd have to work my way back to the fights I want," Diaz explained, rather gratefully. And ultimately, like Dave stated, that's the thing that may seal this good behavior. Diaz is well aware that he cut the line, so to speak, and if he goes 0-for-2 before even setting foot inside the cage with St-Pierre, the likelihood of him receiving a third chance is close to zero. Considering this, it seems far-fetched that either Diaz or his camp would allow him to slip up again during the next two months. So if we're not watching GSP vs. Diaz on March 16, it's probably because the dreaded injury bug decided to make an early cameo in 2013.

2. By now the first episode of TUF 17 is in the books. What are your immediate impressions of the season, and after seeing it in action, do you believe the combined star power of Jones and Sonnen can reignite the struggling series?

Al-Shatti: I have a confession to make. I haven't watched a full season of The Ultimate Fighter, other than the fights themselves, since Michael Bisping and "Mayhem" Miller heralded in the lighter weight classes on TUF 14, and I'm sure I'm not alone. After eight years and 16 non-international seasons, the largely unchanged formula had grown stale. By the time we finished with last season's mix of dead-weight coaches, middling talent, and borderline embarrassing reality show fodder, even UFC President Dana White seemed weary of the same old, same old.

But this was supposed to be season to drag us all back in, and I'll be honest, it may have worked. Based on Tuesday night's debut, everything has obviously been slapped with a fresh coat of paint. The improved production values were immediately striking considering what the series is accustomed to, and at least from what we've seen, the extra emphasis on story building is a welcome change. Allowing fighters' friends and families in for the elimination round added a previously lacking sense of drama for each bout. Fighting is an inherently dramatic sport, and it was easy to become invested in each fighter, like 34-year-old single father Kito Andrews, who lost in front of his two sons, only to have his oldest walk up and comfort him by saying how proud he was for what his dad had accomplished. If there was a more heartwarming moment in a TUF debut, I can't remember it.

The interactions between Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones were few, and mostly unremarkable, though Sonnen sniping at Jones about choosing his teammate was slightly hilarious. But overall, TUF 17 was the first TUF debut I've enjoyed in some time. I was fully prepared to be cynical about this season, but the shift to a more mature, serious tone is wholly appreciated. Now the question lies with whether the UFC can build on this momentum as the season picks up.

Also, Urijah Hall looks like he might be a monster.

Doyle: I think Shaun hit on all the key points here. This was the first time I went out of my way to watch the debut since Kimbo Slice season. When I saw a TUF promo during Sunday's NFC championship game on Fox, then saw Sonnen and Jones on SportsCenter on Thursday morning, I had a gut feeling Fox was going to put its money where it's mouth was. Presenting the show in a manner which makes it look more like a documentary than just another cookie-cutter TUF season is the first thing that jumps at you. It instantly gave TUF a fresh feeling. And I, for one, liked the fact they mainly showed fight highlights and not full fights (the fight-in round simply turned into a blur in previous seasons when they spit out one full fight after another, so no one stood out), while also taking time to introduce the characters who will clearly play important roles going forward.

If nothing else, the TUF opener was an opening-night hit, with a fast Nielsen number of 1.5 million viewers. Whether the number can hold remains to be seen, but it's off to a strong start.

And I agree with Shaun on Hall, as well. If you look at Hall's record, his only losses are to Costa Philippou and Chris Weidman. If you have to have losses on your record, that's not bad company.

3. Now that Michael Bisping is out of the running, who deserves to fight UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva next?

Al-Shatti: The qualifier "deserves" is an important distinction to make here. If you're asking me who among the current middleweight contenders deserves it most, the immediate answer that comes to mind is Chris Weidman. With back to back wins over respected opponents, including a ‘Knockout of the Year' candidate over a then top-5 guy in Mark Munoz, Weidman has the most credible resume in the division right now. If we're basing a title shot solely on merit, as the words "deserves" entails, Weidman shouldn't be punished because only 211,000 people saw him nearly break someone's face.

But that being said, if you're asking me who I'd prefer to see get the shot the most, and who presents the most compelling match-up in the current landscape, I'd have to agree with our colleague Mike Chiappetta. Rashad Evans is the route to go. Evans is a former UFC champion, stuck in a Franklin-esque situation at the top of a division without any real chance for advancement. But above all else, Evans is a name, and a huge one at that. Dana White once listed Evans among the top-5 pay-per-views draws in the company, and given the right opponent, Evans has proven his ability to land a big buy rate.

Sitting pretty at 37 years old, with his time in the sport slowly winding down, massive fights are exactly what Anderson Silva is eyeing at this point in his career, hence why he held out so long for GSP. With Bisping now out, Evans is the only worthy candidate still standing that would offer a guaranteed payday. Of course, first he must get past Lil' Nog in February, but if he does, I'd expect this idea to be revisited relatively quickly.

Doyle: Has anyone given Thales Leites a call recently? Seriously, though, it's hard to remember a time when a division went from looking stacked to falling apart in such short order. Just last summer, Weidman finished off his devastation of Munoz, Bisping was working his way up the ladder, Alan Belcher was hot, and Hector Lombard was expected to make a rousing debut.

Since then, things have unraveled. At least in Weidman's case, it was through injury and not a loss or unimpressive performance. Given the lack of viable options, sign me on to the idea of Silva vs. Evans as well. That gives Silva the type of big-money fight he's looking for, and also buys time for Weidman to return and have another fight -- maybe with Bisping? -- before potentially getting a title shot.

4. What lessons can the MMA community learn from the Rick Hawn sponsorship situation?

Doyle: There are a couple lessons to learn from this. One, for all the complaints that went down a few years ago when Zuffa instituted what amounts to a sponsor tax, doing so has helped weed out a lot of the bottom feeders. It hasn't completely kept UFC fighters from being ripped off by sponsors, since that's never a guarantee in the business world. But it's tangible step which helped head off a lot of potential problems.

I think the overriding takeaway is that this episode was proof that, yes, mixed martial arts is still in many senses a true community. The groundswell of Internet support for a fighter like Hawn, a top-notch athlete and former Olympian who simply had a bad night in the cage last week, was further proof that for all the downsides that comes with MMA on the Internet, fans and fighters alike will rally behind someone who appears to have been wronged. That's a good thing. As for the HTFU clothing line, it's up to fans to decide whether the incident was a miscommunication and whether they choose to support the brand going forward.

Al-Shatti: The Rick Hawn controversy was a fascinating narrative to watch, if only because it perfectly encapsulated the unique, self-policing way the mixed martial arts community handles its business when it comes to taking care of its own. All it took was one simple tweet from Hawn -- he didn't even give up the name of the offending sponsor -- and within a matter of hours, the situation had resolved itself. Never mind that within those few hours, HTFU CEO and founder Mark Gingrich received enough pointed personal threats to apparently become "quite emotional" when discussing it with our own Ariel Helwani. Just the internet at work.

Despite the contentious surface, there always seems to be an underlying sense of brotherhood within the MMA community, at least more so than many other sports. Perhaps because of its long-standing "outsider" status in regards to the mainstream, but fight fans are often far more passionate and quick to defend their own than, say, the average Minnesota Timberwolves fan or Seattle Mariners fan. So you can be sure any small-time sponsor watched with bulging eyes as Hawn brought down the wrath of the internet on HTFU in such a timely manner. Such instances reestablish the notion that MMA is no longer the wild, wild west, where everything goes and it's easy for dishonesty to be slipped under the cracks. Ultimately, every now and then it can't hurt to hurl that reminder out there for any two-bit company looking to garner a little attention at the expense of an up-and-comer fighter.

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