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MMA Roundtable: Alexander Gustafsson fallout, big fight week, best of '13, more

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The brief pause in mixed martial arts news was, well, sliced right open over the weekend, when word came down that Alexander Gustafsson suffered a cut in training. This led to a couple days' worth of speculation before Gustafsson had to pull out of his UFC on Fuel 9 main event against Gegard Mousasi.

And with that, a busy April is officially under way. From the handling of the Gustafsson situation, to a jam-packed week of fight cards, and so much more, there's plenty to talk about.

So let's get right back into it with the latest edition of the MMA Roundtable. My West Coast bureau tag team partner Shaun Al-Shatti joins me to talk everything going on in the sport.

1. What do you make of the handling of Alexander Gustafsson's cut and withdrawal from his fight with Gegard Mousasi?

Doyle: It's a smaller-scale twist on what happened with Jon Jones vs. Dan Henderson last summer: A main eventer in what amounts to a one-match show suffering a late training injury.

Tuesday night, Gustafsson's camp claimed the fighter slipped and cut himself on the cage. It could be that they're simply covering their backsides on whatever really happened. But even if we take at face value that it was simply a "slip and fall" accident, you'd think given everything that has gone down over the past couple years, a trainer would know not to tempt fate this close to the fight with a hard workout so close to the fight, especially knowing your fighter is carrying the entire fight card in his homeland.

Either way, Gusty's a fighter. He could have had a cut that started at his scalp and went all the way down to his face to to his jaw, and he would have told Dana White he was still OK to fight. As would any fighter with his drive and competitive spirit. Given this, in one sense I can appreciate the position White's in. The situation was happening eight time zones away, he has to proceed with the info he's been presented, and the Swedish Mixed Martial Arts Federation had yet to make an official ruling, so the best he could do was wait and see. On the other hand, White was the one who put himself into a position where Ross Pearson vs. Ryan Couture was the co-main event, if anything happened to the main. All in all, it tuned into another perfect storm. Until fighters start training smarter instead of harder and until fight companies stop building shows around one fight, this is likely to keep happening.

Al-Shatti: It's an utterly bizarre situation, that's for sure. And an unfortunate one for all parties involved: Gustafsson and the UFC, for obvious reasons; fight fans in Stockholm, for buying tickets on the promise of seeing their hometown boy earn a shot at the title; and most of all, Mousasi. The former Strikeforce champ waited 10 years for this moment, and now, mere days from the biggest fight of his life, Mousasi has been dragged through an emotional roller-coaster, first thinking Gustafsson was out, then being told he wasn't, then believing he was fighting Wanderlei Silva, to finally where he is now, left to fight a complete unknown. Kudos to Mousasi for keeping his cool in a no-win situation, because any complaints would've been more than justified.

As for Dave's points, I agree with all but one. UFC President Dana White's staunch insistence for days that Gustafsson was still on the card, despite reports from Swedish media as early as Sunday that labeled "The Mauler" as "99-percent out," while technically true, ultimately exacerbated the situation much more than anything else.

It's strange to see history repeat itself so soon after UFC 151 and a pair of Strikeforce shows fell apart. You'd think by now Zuffa would heed the pitfalls of marketing top-heavy fight cards. Pearson-Couture was a short-sighted co-main event, just like Ellenberger-Hieron was at UFC 151. Sure, no one cared because the allure of Jones-Hendo and Gustafsson-Mousasi was so great, but that road is a dangerous one to take in modern mixed martial arts. We've seen it multiple times now -- anything can, and usually will, happen in the time frame between a fight announcement and fight night. Spreading stars thinly across cards may be an easy way to pump out more events, but on the rare occasion something goes wrong, and you end up with Ilir Latifi in a position of importance, the mounting public backlash may not be worth it.

2. Three nights in a row, we have Bellator, Invicta, OneFC, and UFC events coming up. If for some reason you were only allowed to watch one fight on those cards, which would it be, and why?

Doyle: Well, my first choice was Gustafsson-Mousasi, but fortunately there's a ton of other fights to pick from. I've wavered on picking just one fight, here, because I have a gut feeling that Pat Curran and Shahbulat Shamhalaev are going to put on the sort of fight that sends the people who miss the live showing scurrying over to YouTube the next day.

But as the big stretch of fight events approaches, the more I read up on the Invicta main event between Jessica Penne and Michelle Waterson, the more interested I become. Both fighters are finishers, and both are comfortable standing and on the ground. Penne looked great in finishing Naho Sugiyama her first career loss to claim the Invicta atomweight title back in October. "The Karate Hottie" isn't quite as polished, but she put on a Fight of the Night performance last time out against Lacey Shuckman and the Jackson's MMA product appears ready to make the jump to the next level. All the ingredients seem to be there for a memorable fight.

Al-Shatti: Like Dave, my immediate choice a week ago would've been Gustafsson-Mousasi, but somehow Mousasi-Latifi doesn't have the same ring to it. And I'll admit, my brain convulses just thinking about the guaranteed fireworks of Curran-Shamhalaev.

Though if you only let me play with one toy over the weekend, I'm tuning in to Invicta FC 5 to see a steroid-free Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos return from a 15-month layoff to collide with Fiona Muxlow.

Call me a sucker for the hype, but after watching the former Strikeforce champ destroy a heavy bag for 75 seconds straight, I'm still fascinated by a Rousey-Cyborg superfight. 15 months is a long time to sit out, and people's memories fade quickly in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport. But it'd be a crime to forget about the trail of bodies Cyborg mercilessly laid waste to across the 145-pound division for nearly a decade. 11 straight wins (counting the Yamanaka no contest), nine finishes, multiple grappling championships, and she's still only 27 years old. Count me in.

3. Following in the footsteps of UFC 158, July's UFC 162 offering has become a glorified featherweight tournament. When it's all said and done, who emerges from the destruction smelling like roses?

Al-Shatti: Right off the bat, I have to say I'm a big fan of these mini-tournaments. The idea that one night can reshape an entire division is inherently dramatic, and the caveat of rewarding whoever emerges from the heap most impressively raises the stakes in a way that lends itself to exciting fights.

In the case of UFC 162, it seems like matchmaker Joe Silva has left his options wide open. Five of the six fighters involved -- Ricardo Lamas, Chan Sung Jung, Frankie Edgar, Dennis Siver and Cub Swanson -- could lay conceivable claim to a title shot with a standout win. Lamas vs. the Korean Zombie is obviously the lead dog here, a guaranteed firefight with the victor likely claiming the prize of No. 1 contender. However on the off-chance that the bout fails to deliver, it wouldn't be shocking to see the UFC go in a different direction.

Along those lines, I can appreciate the route the UFC is electing to go down with Edgar. I was surprised to hear so much criticism of the Charles Oliveira booking -- instead of Swanson, who Edgar requested -- but to me the decision makes sense. It all goes back to the real job of a matchmaker: to create contenders, not champions. For all we know, Edgar may be the second-most talented fighter in the featherweight division. Hell, I believe he is, and I believe he'd soundly squash Swanson's climb up the ladder. But is that really a good thing right now?

It's undeniable that some of the sheen has rubbed off the Edgar mystique. We can argue about judges and scoring criteria for days, but facts state that he owns just one victory since mid-2010. That sounds like a man who's in need of some building back up. And Oliveira, a young but promising mid-tier guy who's 2-2 over his last four, is a perfect start.

Ultimately, I think Lamas-Zombie turns into an instant classic and the winner advances to challenge whoever is the featherweight champion, as they should. But who really knows these days? If either Edgar or Swanson goes out there and pulls a Johny Hendricks, anything is possible.

Doyle: I agree with the bulk of what Shaun writes here. I likewise enjoy the stacked divisional mini-tournaments, partially because of the way they help put a division into instant focus. But also because you get situations like with the welterweights UFC 158, when Rory McDonald had to pull out with an injury, then Hendricks stepped in and delivered a Fight of the Year candidate performance with Carlos Condit. If one of the featherweights has to drop out, guess what? We could end up with something like Edgar vs. Swanson anyway.

The winner of Lamas vs. Zombie is in the driver's seat here. Lamas four straight impressive wins in a row. Jung would be the cherry on top of that streak. If Jung can return from his injury layoff and stop Lamas, then that's the final push of momentum that a fighter who has already been popular for his underdog status and crowd-pleasing style would need for a title shot.

Underneath Lamas-Zombie? Similar to how Jake Ellenberger scored an impressive knockout of Nate Marquardt, you have a situation where the other fighters involved know it's their time to shine.

Ultimately, like with UFC 158, the fans look to be the winners at UFC 162.

4. Last week the Roundtable went over 2013's first quarter ‘Fight of the Year'. Now let's up the ante. ‘Knockout' and ‘Submission of the Year' so far, and why.

Al-Shatti: I'll start us off by knocking Uriah Hall's ferocious KO of Adam Cella on TUF 17 out of the running because, A.) the fight technically took place in 2012, and B.) it was an exhibition. Otherwise, Hall's handiwork may very well take my title based on the frightening aftermath alone.

Now with that out of the way, I probably bounced back and forth between my top-two knockout candidates longer than I should've. Ultimately, despite how ridiculous Mark Hunt's jaw-shattering left hook was, and how it spawned perhaps the most violent MMA photo I've seen all year, it's hard to ignore Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva's masterpiece, fatality-style finish of Alistair Overeem at UFC 156.

Let's put it this way. Silva not only lost to Cain Velasquez eight months prior, he got utterly destroyed. He went from this to this in a mere three and half minutes. Yet one rage-fueled, 13-punch salvo was enough to convince the UFC he deserved a rematch. How can that not top 2013's KO list so far?

As for submission of the first quarter, I'm handing this one out less for technical merit, and more for sheer weight of the moment -- Ronda Rousey finishing Liz Carmouche at UFC 157. The first women's fight in UFC history, unprecedented expectations, a relentlessly grueling media tour, and to top it all off, the first significant in-fight danger of her career. None of it mattered in the end. Different day, same old story. Rousey via first-round armbar.

Doyle: I'm going to go ahead and pick co-knockouts. There are few more vicarious thrills in MMA than the frontier justice of watching fighters who had been openly disrespected finish their fights by knocking their opponent silly. We've had two of these so far this year: Bigfoot's finish of Overeem, and Emanuel Newton's spinning backfist finish of "King Mo" Lawal in the Bellator light heavyweight tournament semifinals.

In the case of the first fight I was cageside at Mandalay Bay and close enough to practically feel the sheer power of Silva's assault, which was as ferocious as anything I've ever experienced covering this sport. Overeem was openly scornful of Silva, and Silva reminded him of this with every punch he threw in that awesome finishing flurry.

In the case of Newton-Lawal, "King Mo" wasn't as openly dismissive of his opponent in the leadup to the fight as Overeem was of his. But he appeared to have no respect for his opponent's skills during the fight itself, and when he dropped his hands and kept his chin forward once too often, Newton nailed him with a picture-perfect backfist.

For best submission, I'm also going to go with UFC 157. However, the one I'm picking is Urijah Faber's finish of Ivan Menjivar. Faber's finish was like a vintage WEC performance circa 2007, when a Urijah Faber fight on television meant you never quite knew what you were going to see. In this case, Faber followed Menjivar to his feet, climbed his back, and finished him with a rear-naked choke from the standing position. Maybe I'm just a softie for WEC memories, but Faber's submission gets the nod from me.

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