From afar, matchmaking seems like one of the easiest jobs in MMA. After all, how hard can it be to pair up Talent A against Talent B? But the more you learn about the sport's inner workings, the more you understand how many moving parts can stand in the way of obvious plans.
Are Talent A and B on a schedule that sets them on a natural collision course or will one have to wait for months? Does a match between them make sense at this respective point of their careers? Are there any injuries involved? Do the fans want to see it? Is there another fighter more deserving of the opportunity? Do their salaries fit into the event's budget? These are just some of the questions to ponder as my colleague Luke Thomas and I gather around the roundtable to debate whether Frankie Edgar deserves to fight Jose Aldo, if the Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva superfight will actually happen this time, and if Lorenz Larkin had a legitimate case as Luke Rockhold's next challenger.
1. Did Frankie Edgar deserve an immediate title shot against Jose Aldo?
Thomas: Technically speaking, no, but it hardly matters.
I would've preferred Edgar fight a top contender at featherweight before getting a title shot, speaking candidly. As a former champion at lightweight, he'll get the benefit of the doubt and become an assumed top featherweight, but it would've been nice to make the move a little more deliberate. It's not that Edgar needs to practice the cut of 10 pounds, although having one run-through before fighting Aldo is hardly a bad thing. Rather, it's about firmly establishing hierarchy. I know he's recovering from injury, but an Edgar vs. Chan Sung Jung bout would've made a lot of sense. Jung was promised a title shot for beating Dustin Poirier, but no main event victor from UFC on FUEL shows has, in practice, ever actually received a title bout from that win. Still, he's obviously at the top of the featherweight food chain and an Edgar vs. Jung fight is about as guaranteed to deliver action while settling number-one contender hierarchy as you're going to get.
But that's fantasy matchmaking under ideal circumstances. Alas, they bear little resemblance to the ones actually faced by UFC. The truth is Edgar's drop to featherweight coincided with the need for an Aldo opponent all of which dovetailed with longstanding curiosity about how Edgar and Aldo would do against one another. These aren't exactly perfect circumstances, but they're probably good enough. Perhaps most importantly, virtually no fans seem to be complaining. If everyone else is happy, it's hard to find something to complain about.
Chiappetta: I'd say that Edgar is no less deserving than Erik Koch, who was basically green-lighted to the front of the line when Hatsu Hioki decided he wasn't ready to fight for the belt. Remember, Koch's last fight before being thrust into a title shot was a decision win over Jonathan Brookins. To be fair, it was Koch's fourth straight win, but he hasn't ever beaten a top 10 opponent. Edgar at least has a resume of facing top talent on a regular basis.
There seems to be a common belief that anyone moving into a new division should fight at least once before earning a title shot. I don't think that's necessarily a bad rule of thumb, but I think it's far more important for someone moving up a weight class than moving down to do so. Size does matter, after all, otherwise the point of this whole weight classes thing needs to be re-examined.
While I wouldn't say that any champion can move down a division and immediately challenge for a belt, if they are capable of making the weight cut, it simply stands to reason that they should immediately be considered a contender standing among smaller men. The special circumstance of a Koch injury pushed Edgar ahead only a few spots, which makes an immediate title shot for him perfectly reasonable in this particular incidence.
2. After several starts and stops, what are the odds of Silva vs. St-Pierre superfight actually happening?
Chiappetta: I think the chances of it happening in 2013 are the best they've ever been. The biggest reason is that two of the three parties are on board for it. To make the fight, you need the UFC brass along with Silva and St-Pierre. The UFC seems to be behind it, as company executives like Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta have voiced a hope it happens, and Silva badly wants the fight, recently saying that he'd be willing to fight GSP even if the Canadian lost to Carlos Condit at UFC 154.
That means there are only two potential stumbling blocks remaining. First, St-Pierre has to beat Condit. That's no gimme, but even if he squeaks by, the UFC can promote a superfight at a major venue, possibly even Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. That's a major bargaining chip the UFC can throw GSP's way if he is hesitant to move up even a few pounds to fight Silva in a catch weight fight. The prestige of headlining a superfight in a massive venue is no small factor.
At 31 years old, St-Pierre likely has more time remaining at the time of the fight than Silva, so he might be hesitant to take the risk of fighting the bigger man, but then again, he's coming off a major injury and might have also faced his own career mortality during the process. I think he'll ultimately decide that fighting Silva is worth the risk for the chance to cement his legacy. If he's the one to end Silva's streak while moving up in weight in the process, he suddenly has a much more meaningful case as the sport's all-time greatest talent.
Thomas: I'd say generally I agree with my colleague here. I don't know if I go as high as 80% chance, but I'm pretty close. As Mike rightly notes, UFC brass and Silva (as well as his team) are openly in favor of it. GSP and his team a much more mum (understandably), but one assumes because there's been no outright rejection by the Canadian that his is at least in principle accepting of the possibility.
The only potential wrench I could see getting thrown in operation is the Carlos Condit fight. Again, as Mike notes, if St. Pierre loses then all bets are off. But what about if he wins and does so unconvincingly or barely? What does that do to the fight?
In either circumstance, the fight goes forward. But if GSP doesn't look like himself, barely gets by, looks like a cheap facsimile of the fearsome fighter he once was, I bet that lowers the atmosphere about it all. Questions about ability and defining legacy are good for media and PR. Too many questions go past the tipping point and into territory about questions or relevance.
Let us not forget Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell. What could've been one of the greatest grudge matches among elite MMA fighters ever turned into a fun fight between two great light heavyweights past their prime. The time to make fights is when fans want them the most. The MMA matchmaking iron must be struck when it is hot. A GSP vs. Silva fight will be big business, but a win that is anything tepid or less from GSP undermines the entire operation.
3. Was Lorenz Larkin the right call for Luke Rockhold's next title defense?
Thomas: Yeah, probably, but not for reasons you might think.
Trying to build any meritorious, coherent case in the universe Strikeforce occupies is a fool's errand. Did Larkin really beat contenders at middleweight to earn a title shot? No, but does Strikeforce really have a clear queue of contenders that one has to convincingly defeat to make such a case? They sure don't. They barely have a division, much less hierarchy. Asking about whether normal protocol was followed in Strikeforce's world is itself nonsensical.
The trick to Strikeforce is 'can we get away with it?' In other words, is the fight they're making sellable, posses at least some kernel of truth to why it could make sense and are there potential upsides to it? If they can answer 'yes' to those questions, they run with it.
I favor Rockhold to win, but Larkin's particular style of offense should make for an interesting bout. And hey, with the loss to Mo Lawal overturned, Larkin is still technically undefeated. On top of that, it provides good exposure for whoever wins since it will serve as the co-main event to Daniel Cormier's bout with former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. So, it's fan-friendly, Larkin is at least a good middleweight fighter and there's a chance to get some eyeballs on these guys with the exposure the main event might bring.
Those are the calculations Strikeforce needs to pay attention to and mercifully, the fight makes sense under those criteria. I'm sure the hordes of fans clamoring for a Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza rematch will take issue and who can blame them? But perhaps they need to save that fight for later in the calendar. Whatever the case, there's no use being overly literal with Strikeforce matchmaking.
Chiappetta: I think Luke has pretty well nailed the status of Strikeforce in 2012. In each division, it's difficult to name more than five or six fighters, let alone contenders. That means that if you win a fight or two, you're automatically in the mix.
As it stands now, there are only a couple of names you can throw out as a challenger for Rockhold. One is the aforementioned Jacare, who according to his management was never even contacted about the fight. Another is Roger Gracie, who has only fought once as a middleweight. Besides Larkin, that's about it. So as Luke mentioned, it's not even worth the effort of scrutinizing the decision that Zuffa made. There simply isn't enough depth or quality to delve into it.
Dana White, who has an ownership stake in Strikeforce parent company Zuffa, was at one time fond of saying that the UFC was a company built on "smoke and mirrors." That's no different than the current state of Strikeforce, which can't look much past the show directly in front of them.