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MMA Roundtable: Rousey's future, grading Bellator, fighting TRT and more

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Another week, another crazy amount of changes, developments and possibilities to consider in the sport of mixed martial arts. In this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable, my colleague Mike Chiappetta and I take up the cause of considering what happens if Ronda Rousey loses to Liz Carmouche on Saturday at UFC 157, how we grade Bellator's progress since move to Spike thus far, the UFC's new TRT testing regimen and more.

1. It's not likely, but let's say Liz Carmouche defeats Ronda Rousey this weekend. What happens then?

Thomas: I'm sure everyone who has objected to the Ronda Rousey media blitz or Rousey herself will enjoy a moment or two of schadenfreude. I don't know how big that community is, but there is a portion of the fanbase who don't particularly care for Rousey or that she's a media darling. She's not credited with beating anyone of significance and is widely expected to get past Liz Carmouche, so a loss would be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.

Still, though, the show will go on. For starters, there is likely to be a rematch in the event Carmouche wins. The UFC has invested heavily in Rousey and up to this point, Carmouche. It wouldn't make much sense to put Carmouche in a place to defend her title while Rousey works from the back of the pack. Second, certainly Rousey losing is not the preferable outcome, it's not the doom people think it is. A losing streak by Rousey might be, sure. But one loss? Especially if she avenges it in the subsequent rematch? That's ultimately not nearly as much of a concern as some might suggest.

The Rousey detractors and denialists might feast at the table of her loss, but it's not guaranteed to be a particularly long or satisfying meal.

Chiappetta: Well, that would be interesting, wouldn't it? It would quickly test Dana White's mission statement of being in the Rousey business ahead of the women's fighting business.

I get what Luke's saying about a Rousey loss not being the ultimate doom of the division, but I do think a defeat would take some of the luster off Rousey as a gate attraction and mainstream media star. Rousey has two drawing cards. One is that she's a fantastic athlete who absolutely demolishes her competition; the other is that she's attractive and charismatic. When you're a pay-per-view fighter, a small minority is willing to plunk down $55 for the latter reasons. The rest are tuning in to watch you destroy someone else. And once you lose that aura as an assassin, it usually doesn't return. Sure, you can still be a draw, but Rousey has her best box office and pay-per-view days ahead of her as long as she continues to win.

As for the rest of the division, if Carmouche wins, it's a situation the UFC can work with. She has an interesting personal history as a gay former Marine who served in Iraq. That isn't exactly a difficult selling point given the media's longtime interest in gay athletes in sports. As Luke points out, a rematch with Rousey would be a strong probability that would draw eyeballs.

2. Bellator is six weeks into their deal with Spike TV. How would you rate their performance thus far?

Thomas: To date, I'd give it all a pretty solid review. I'm not sure how many stars or what letter grade, but generally speaking, I view what they're doing as favorable.

On the plus side, ratings have consistently been more than 700,000 each week, which is a decent floor to work up from. If you include replays, every Bellator show has been watched by more than a million viewers. It's too early to tell whether stars are being built, but there's reason to believe the push behind Michael Chandler and Mo Lawal (combined with their winning performances) is paying off for the Bellator brand. Also, they haven't even launched their supplemental reality show programming, which could have a strong effect on ratings, generally.

And hey, being positioned opposite UFC in a major New York Times story is nothing to scoff at.

Still, there are some issues to iron out. They're set to have shows for 25 weeks a year. To meet their tournament demands, they basically are forced into this schedule. Whatever else one thinks of the tournament, I would submit this is probably too many shows for the brand even though the ratings are holding in the timeslot. From an earned media perspective, it's hard to generate any momentum for fighters they're trying to build week over week. Sure, some guys are going to break through, but the question is are all the fighters who could be built more raising their profile? That remains to be seen, but I have some concern that Bellator won't be able to optimize their roster with shows at this pace. And it's not just 'earned media' as a goal in and of itself, but what earned media represents: anticipation and interest. Proper fight promotion takes grooming and time and investing on an event by event basis. Is Bellator really able to work in that kind of space given their hectic schedule? I guess we'll find out.

Chiappetta: It's been a good start out of the blocks for Bellator, regardless of Dana White's recent rant regarding their ratings. When White defended the disappointing TUF ratings last year, he pointed out how the show had moved networks and nights. Well, Bellator did the same, moving to Spike on Thursdays, and ratings are up substantially from previous seasons.

Now, the show isn't killing it in the targeted male 18-49 demographic, but since they are still introducing the product to an audience that was raised on the UFC and may have loyalties to that brand, that could still come in time.

Luke makes an excellent point about building stars. It is a difficult task for any fight promotion, but it is especially challenging for Bellator and Spike given the relentless weekly schedule. I would bet that Spike has a few tricks up their sleeve in the form of replaying events and repackaging matches to re-air to new eyeballs. After all, there were plenty of people who missed Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar the first time around, only to see it one of the approximately 2 million times it ran on UFC Unleashed. Bellator has to find creative solutions to work around the problem of building stars, but aside from that, they have performed well so far. From the human-interest feature pieces that precede fighter introductions to the live-event presentation, their production has improved, allowing Bellator shows to feel like the events they are supposed to be.

3. Dana White recently told the media he reversed his stance on the controversial testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). How impactful is his new viewpoint and strategy?

Chiappetta: It's impactful from a public relations perspective. As one of the leaders of the sport worldwide, White wields serious influence with the commissions that regulate the sport, so his stance will certainly be seen and heard by those men and women. But as a real-world plan to actually slow down the proliferation of PEDs in the sport, it's fairly minimal.

Let's look at it this way: White has something like 400 athletes on his current roster, and only a handful of them -- Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Vitor Belfort, and Forrest Griffin, among the active -- have been granted exemptions for the stuff. That's less than three percent of his roster. Extra testing of those athletes is fine. I believe that if you have a true need for TRT, you shouldn't object to a little extra monitoring of your situation to ensure everything's on the up and up. Only this select few will be subject to random, out-of-competition testing. The rest of the roster will still only have to pass the commission-mandated drug tests the week of their fights, which essentially amounts to an IQ test more than anything. So don't be surprised if this rush of fighters applying for exemptions comes to an end. They can do it quietly and without extra testing if they just stay under the radar.

Over the years, White has resisted the calls to randomly drug test his athletes out of competition because, he says, government regulates the sport, and it is their job. But with his TRT stance and new testing procedures, he has proven once again that he's more than capable of working around the system when he decides to. TRT use by a few is not nearly the threat of PED use by the masses, so it's time for White and the UFC to go the extra mile and implement random testing year-round for the entire roster.

Thomas: I'm with Mike that it's time for White and UFC to go the extra mile, but what does that really mean? Truth be told, we don't know what the new strategy really is. It sounds like an increased regimen, but does that mean random? Are test administrators going to show up at gyms at 9am and ask for a urine sample? Is it blood testing? How often during a camp is it going to be? What's the penalty for going over? Are the results going to be disclosed? We don't really know the answer to any of these questions.

So, my take is wait and see. I don't want to be overly negative. I'm glad White has had what appears to be a very real change of heart about the issue and that at least in spirit is trying to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. But in typical UFC fashion, everything is a secret where we're left to guesswork on the outside while those on the inside say 'trust us'. I'd like to, but I'm not going to be lulled to sleep by full-throated assurances.

Tell us what the policy is. Tell us how it will be implemented. Tell us what constitutes failure of the policy. Tell us what the consequences are. Tell us who fails these tests. No more, no less. Either they're serious about stamping out this problem or they aren't.

4. Does Cris Cyborg's decision to leave the UFC for Invicta sound like a wise career path?

Chiappetta: It's a gutsy move, one that sounds more reasonable after hearing Cyborg and her manager Tito Ortiz discuss it on Monday's MMA Hour.

But I get it. They are essentially taking a gamble that Cyborg will dominate her opponents in Invicta and that her performances will spark a firestorm of fan interest in a Cyborg vs. Ronda Rousey fight. Essentially, what they have been able to do is artificially set up a rivalry from afar, something like Fedor Emelianenko vs. Randy Couture when the two were the two top heavyweights while fighting half a world apart.

Dana White has called Cyborg "irrelevant," but this constant discussion of her is only raising her profile. And let's be honest, if you like MMA, it is hard to dislike the way Cyborg fights. She is a powerhouse, even if now there will always be questions about how legally she did it. Fans in this sport have shown over and over that we forgive and forget steroids users, and if that history holds true, the demand for Cyborg vs. Rousey will continue to grow, and as long as the two continue to win, their parallel paths will eventually have to cross, and Cyborg will earn the opportunity to cash in.

Thomas: I can't disagree with Mike. Is anyone all of a sudden not interested in seeing Cyborg fight Rousey? People may put their interest on the backburner a little bit, but they haven't stamped it out. It's still there and as Mike noted, if both keep winning (which they should), it will remain so for quite some time. Gravitational pull like that is hard to undo or break.

As for Cyborg's choice being the most optimal one, I'm on the fence. On the one hand, I was sure Ortiz was leading her astray, but the truth of Ortiz is that he doesn't have the ability to articulate the rationale behind his decisions even when they make sense. When he tries to explain himself or verbally go to bat for someone, he fumbles it even worse. I was sure before I heard his full explanation that he was making a grievous error.

Now I'm not so sure. There's at least some reason to think he's doing the right thing. As we stated, the interest in a Rousey fight isn't going away. More to the point, Cyborg will get back to competition after being out so long and if she continues to develop interest in her participation in UFC, she could feasibly grow her bargaining power. In many ways, it's better to do business with the UFC when you're on the outside and being acquired than it is when you're already within the system. UFC will bid high and make some concessions to acquire you from somewhere else. Cyborg's situation is hugely different from Eddie Alvarez's, but it doesn't hurt to be a free agent the UFC needs to complete a puzzle it wants to show to the public.

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