UFC 104 and Dream.12 are both in the news with the events taking place on back-to-back days this weekend.
With an action-packed weekend ahead, SI.com's Ben Fowlkes and I discuss some of the key storylines, including the UFC light heavyweight title matchup, whether Cain Velasquez is a legitimate title contender, what Dream hopes to gain from introducing a cage and if Alistair Overeem has any idea where his career is headed.
Check it out below.
Who will win the UFC 104 main event between Lyoto Machida and Shogun Rua?
Mike Chiappetta: The Machida bandwagon has suddenly turned into a runaway train. At 15-0, he is a heavy favorite for good reason, but here's your crazy MMA fact of the day: many MMA oddsmakers consider Machida a bigger favorite over Shogun than Fedor Emelianenko is over Brett Rogers. Re-read that if you must, because it sounds simply mind-boggling to me. Have we already forgotten that Rua has beaten Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alistair Overeem? He is indeed capable of springing an upset.
That said, to win, Rua would need to fight a flawless match or land a perfect strike, and given his predilection for hyper-aggression and Machida's ability to avoid being hit and capitalizing on opponent error, that seems a tall order. Machida's deliberate pace, impeccable timing and underappreciated footwork will likely flummox Shogun into making a mistake that leads to the end. I'm calling a third-round TKO in a match more competitive than most seem to be expecting.
Ben Fowlkes: I see the point you're trying to make with the Fedor/Rogers betting odds comparison, but honestly, I can see why Rua might be a bigger underdog than Rogers. At least Rogers has a size and strength advantage. There's always an outside chance that he can land one big shot and knock Fedor out. But Rua is known more for overwhelming opponents with his constant attack than for his one-punch power. Plus, against a defensive master like Machida there's no guarantee that he'll land any clean shots at all, let alone a knockout blow.
This is one fight where I think Rua's hyper-aggression, as you aptly put it, is more of a hindrance than a help. Anyone who tries to rush Machida does so at his peril. I think Rua is smart enough to realize that, so he'll fight a little more cautiously. Then again, that strategy didn't work out so well for Rashad Evans. I expect Rua to do a little better than Evans did in the striking exchanges with Machida, but not by much. He's still going to get picked apart, and when things aren't going his way that's when he'll resort to aggression at the expense of technique. That's also when Machida will shut his lights off. If I had to guess, I'd say it won't take more than two rounds.
Can Cain Velasquez silence the doubters by beating Ben Rothwell?
Fowlkes: In a word, absolutely. If Velasquez beats Rothwell, a big, strong heavyweight with years of quality experience and a well-rounded game, that will be a significant enough victory to prove that he's as much substance as he is hype. But will he do it? I have my doubts.
Without question, Velasquez is a great athlete and an excellent wrestler. But we have yet to see him tested by someone who can stop the takedown. Cheick Kongo certainly couldn't. The only time he was able to get the fight on the feet for any length of time was at the start of each round, and still he managed to give Velasquez a scare or two. Rothwell is bigger and more powerful than Kongo, and he trains at the Miletich camp, where you almost can't help but develop a sharp takedown defense, if only by osmosis. If he can keep this on the feet without letting the fear of a double-leg stifle his offense altogether, I think he'll take this one.
Chiappetta: Coming on the heels of his win over Kongo, a victory over Rothwell should indeed announce Velasquez as a real threat to the UFC title. I have a bit more confidence in him than Ben does, mainly because Rothwell isn't the striker that Kongo is. He has power but his strikes aren't as crisp, and Velasquez should be better able to see them coming.
Velasquez is incredibly tenacious, and Rothwell may stop a takedown or two, but Velasquez will continue to press ahead, and eventually put the fight into his world (even Andrei Arlovski managed to take Rothwell down twice). Once on the ground, he turns into a savage. After hearing critics question his last win, I think Velasquez will be on a mission and won't be denied.
What is Dream hoping to accomplish by changing from a ring to a cage for Dream.12, and will it work?
Chiappetta: Why does Dream do anything, really? Was there a point to the SuperHulk tournament? No, at least not a meaningful one from a pure athletic perspective. It was a blatant, unabashed attempt to draw more eyeballs.
The new, hexagonal cage likely has a dual purpose. First of all, since the fall of PRIDE, the popularity of MMA in Japan has waned. The cage gives MMA an edgier appearance and could be seen by Dream executives as a way to attract new fans. Secondly, Dream has a working arrangement with Strikeforce, and Strikeforce fights are also contested in a six-sided cage, so they can draw that parallel with their sister company.
Keep in mind though, that for now Dream is saying that the cage will only be used once each year as a special attraction. That alone makes it obvious that they see it as an attention-getter. Their job is of course to improve business, so the experiment is understandable, but the fighting surface won't solve the underlying problems that plague the company.
Fowlkes: I think of the Dream cage as the MMA equivalent of a TV show guest star. Remember when Tom Hanks used to show up on "Family Ties" from time to time? The hexagonal cage is Dream's ne'er-do-well uncle character: useful to shake things up when they run out of ideas, but ultimately a dead end. On the plus side, here we are talking about it, so it may have already accomplished its meager goals.
Dream's problem is not the fighting surface. Sure, the ring can be annoying at times, but it's more TV friendly than a cage and it resonates with the fans who want to think of Dream as a reincarnation of Pride. The trouble is, they just don't have the talent pool that Pride did. The deal with Strikeforce gets them a little closer, but I worry that fight promotion strategies in Japan and the USA are too different to allow anything substantive to come from that. I hope I'm wrong and we end up with a meaningful exchange of talent that benefits both organizations, but right now Dream seems desperate for any kind of attention, whether it's positive or negative.
What is Alistair Overeem doing with his career?
Fowlkes: The answer to that question is: whatever he wants. At the moment, he seems to want to pursue a quantity over quality approach to fighting. That's his prerogative, but what makes it so frustrating is that he's a top 10 heavyweight with an exciting fighting style and a ton of talent. He currently holds the heavyweight title in the organization that just signed the world's best heavyweight, and yet he's bouncing from one squash match to another in between K-1 kickboxing appearances.
Now, I know that both Strikeforce and Overeem's management say he'll return to defend his title in 2010 (after more than two years of keeping it on the shelf), so I suppose you can't fault the guy for wanting to make some money in the meantime. But there's something about turning down a fight due to a lingering hand injury, only to accept a kickboxing match a couple weeks later – followed by two MMA bouts in the span of a week – that seems suspicious. A guy who's worried about his hands doesn't book fights on consecutive weekends on opposite sides of the globe. Not unless he's either reckless or dumb. Overeem strikes me as neither, which means there must be something else afoot here.
Chiappetta: Ben's painting a picture or at least creating a color-by-numbers that most people can probably figure out. Rumors abound about Overeem's physique and if he is avoiding fighting in the US to bypass any drug testing (for the record, he has fought in the US three times, most recently in 2007 and passed commission drug tests). Since then, he's pubicly denied taking performance-enhancers, and embarked on a bizarre career trajectory that makes him seem aimless.
As Ben noted, Overeem has promised to defend his Strikeforce belt in 2010, but he also previously said he'd do it in 2009, and we're still waiting. As the champion, he owes the company at least one title defense, but if he's never planning to make it, he should just tell them now instead of drawing out this soap opera any longer. If the possibility of fighting Fedor Emelianenko on CBS is not enough to draw him in, it's probably time to move on. The saddest part of it all is that the heavyweight MMA landscape has more talent now that it's had in years, and Overeem is essentially sitting on the sidelines, watching the world go by.
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