Hopefully everyone out there enjoyed the recent mini-summer break, because from here on out, it's going to be a wild ride.
As the mixed martial arts schedule kicks back into high gear, I'm happy to be once again joined by my colleague, Luke Thomas, for this latest edition of the MMA Roundtable. We'll peruse the UFC cut list, analyze the latest in Eddie Alvarez's crusade against Bellator, and debate which UFC champion will be the next to lose their belt. But first, let's look ahead towards the weekend.
1. Luke Rockhold is about to fight the most important bout of his career against Vitor Belfort on Saturday. How far would a win put the last Strikeforce champion to crossover to the UFC in terms of title shot opportunities?
Thomas: I have a hard time seeing how he isn't very, very close.
Let's say one of two winning outcomes are possible: either Rockhold wins by stoppage or by decision. Obviously Belfort could win, but let's just assume he won't for our present purposes. If Rockhold wins by stoppage and manages to look impressive (enough) in the process, he has to be on the shortlist for the winner of Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva. He's marketable, ever improving and if he proves to be a viable contender, couldn't be far outside of the realm of top contender.
If he wins via decision, that could slow his momentum. The truth is even a stoppage win for Rockhold could still leave him in a position to face Michael Bisping if, say, Weidman beats Silva and the UFC wants to book an immediate rematch. But a decision win, even a decisive one, almost guarantees a collision course with Bisping (or perhaps some emergent contender). He'll need the extra exposure to be marketable in a title fight and one more win after Belfort could help substantiate Rockhold's bona fides as a top middleweight both to UFC brass and fans.
Either way, he's a max of two fights away with a win over Belfort. A loss substantially slows his roll, but there's no doubt the path to a UFC title for Rockhold is not long at this point.
Al-Shatti: Luke's right on the money with this one.
Rockhold has the good fortune of joining a UFC middleweight division that just cannibalized itself over the past six months. Boetsch knocked off Lombard. Philippou knocked off Boetsch. Sonnen is long gone. Okami and Bisping handled Belcher. Belfort flattened Bisping. At this point, if Rockhold can return the favor to Belfort, even in unimpressive fashion, there won't really be anybody left to stand in his way.
The UFC could certainly do worse. Rockhold is one of the few available contenders yet to fight Anderson Silva, and a champion vs. champion match is sellable, so it wouldn't be an egregious booking by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, if Chris Weidman actually defeats Silva, or Silva elects to gallivant across different divisions looking for a superfight, then the story changes entirely.
2. 10 fighters have been cut from the UFC roster so far in the month of May. Which of those 10, if any, are most likely to find their way back into the Octagon?
Al-Shatti: As much as I appreciate the potential of guys still in their twenties like Justin Lawrence or Pablo Garza going and ripping off a string of regional conquests, the honest answer here, as silly as it sounds, is Leonard Garcia.
Zuffa just loves the guy. If not for the inevitable public backlash that would've arisen, I believe very much that Garcia would still be employed by the UFC despite suffering five straight losses. He's a perfect company man; always candid, a willing participant for any media obligations, never says a peep about his bosses that isn't complimentary, and for the most part, he throws caution to the wind during his fights, just the way Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta like. Come fight night, if a card was dying on the vine due to a few slow decisions, UFC officials could always take a deep sigh of relief knowing that Garcia would turn things around.
In an era where top-10 fighters can get released from the roster after one loss, it's telling that Garcia was given every chance to stay before finally being cut loose. Even then, Garcia told me that UFC officials helped him narrow down his available offers before finally settling on Legacy FC. The lines of communication between the two sides remain surprisingly strong. Garcia never hid his desire to ultimately return to the UFC throughout the process, and even threw an extra jab at Bellator for good measure.
If the move to Team Alpha pays any dividends at all, it wouldn't surprise me to see Garcia back inside the Octagon by the end of the year.
Thomas: I don't see Garcia returning at all. He isn't just able to compete at this level. He's also shopworn. I don't say that to be insulting or hurtful or dismissive, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. The punishment he's taken in and out of the cage has taken a toll on his body. I don't believe he takes damage as well as he used to, his reflexes have slowed and it's made his offense more desperate. If he proves me wrong, that's good. Part of me hopes he does. But of anyone, I don't see him returning ever.
I'd say the most obvious candidate is probably Antonio Carvalho. He went 2-2 in the UFC and never looked super out of his depth in the UFC featherweight division. Yes, he was cut because he was .500 in a division that's being shrunk, but he could easily see his way back in as an injury replacement or by going on a dominant run on the regional scene. Structural limitations don't make his return obvious or imminent, but I'd favor his chances more than most.
For me, Cheick Kongo is probably too old, but I wouldn't discount the chances of him returning. Pablo Garza and Bart Palaszewski are also strong contenders for a UFC return relative to the crop we're measuring them against. Of them all, Carvalho isn't too old, too damaged and could be valuable if the UFC is a pinch.
3. It's been a rough week for Bellator on the public relations front. How do you evaluate their response to Eddie Alvarez's accusation and does it change your opinion of the case?
Thomas: My opinion of the case is unchanged, namely, I still have no idea what a court will or should do. It's not a layman's question. It's a legal question, one specific to New Jersey: is Bellator's match of Zuffa's offer actually a match? I'm not a lawyer and couldn't pretend to be one if I tried. On these grounds I remain agnostic and nothing that happened this week really shifts that debate one way or the other.
In terms of public relations impact, Alvarez won this round. That isn't to say Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney didn't make his fair share of points. I thought he put out the fires of Cosmo Alexandre and perhaps Zack Makovsky (I'm still looking into it). I also believe he more or less stated the case about why Bellator is pursuing this lawsuit with Alvarez despite the criticisms. Viacom isn't in this to be No. 2 and have the resources, at least, to eventually get there. The only reason we are even having this discussion is because, in part, Bellator promoted Alvarez enough to make fans care. That's a testament to Bellator's promotional skills. Alvarez is one of their top draws. Viacom is simply not willing to let him go given their objections, fans crowing on Twitter or message boards be damned.
That said, Alvarez's interests more closely align with those of fans. What Alvarez wants is what more closely services fan interest. As a result, they are much more sympathetic to their position. That's a problem for Bellator. Another problem is history with fighters. UFC has gone to litigation with many more fighters than the UFC, but they don't carry the perception among fans (as much) that they're bad faith contractual partners. Alvarez is portraying his situation as part of a Bellator pattern and whether that's true or not is irrelevant. Fans believe it and it's tainting their brand.
In the end, Bellator has tried their best to effectively reply to Alvarez, but it's an uphill climb as far as public relations go. Moreover, this is the key time in the organization's development to be currying fan favor. Even if they're justified in - nay, obligated - going to war with Alvarez, it deeply undercuts any effort to form a more robust bond with fans. If all we're measuring is P.R., I score this round Alvarez 10-9.
Al-Shatti: That 10-9 is a bit generous if you ask me. Just in terms of the comments section on this website and what I've heard from fans on Twitter, we're looking at a clear 10-8 Alvarez on the public relations front, if not worse.
Luke mentioned that Alvarez's interests more closely align with those of fans, and that's true. Though to me the overriding sentiment doesn't appear that cut and dry. It seems like the community is backing Alvarez, more so than anything else, from an ethical standpoint. The story of the little man taking on the big corporation is universally sympathetic, and this is a perfect example. I'm obviously no legal expert, but just using common sense, there are a few definitive facts in this case: 1.) Spike is not FOX, 2.) Bellator doesn't run pay-per-views, 3.) Alvarez's UFC contact was far more lucrative than Bellator's, and most importantly, 4.) Bellator is willing to grind a fighter's career to a screeching halt for one or more precious years of his prime just to argue semantics of the previous three. That, in my eyes, is why the public is backing Alvarez. To use his own metaphor, this has become a big dick-swinging contest, and he's stuck in the middle of it, languishing in the abyss and selling off investment property to pay his bills.
Now, obviously none of this will mean much come trial time. But it's still noteworthy that Alvarez conjured up a big enough storm that Rebney and Bellator finally felt it necessary to break their silence and try to publicly quash it.
4. Considering their timetables and match-ups, which of the current crop of UFC champions will be the next to lose their title?
Al-Shatti: This one is tricky, since the question isn't so much asking which of the 10 champions (counting Barao) appear the most vulnerable, but really, which of the 10 champions has the most dangerous upcoming challenger. To start, I'll rule out Rousey (likely not fighting until the end of the year), Jones (same), and Cruz (still no timetable for his return). Personally I believe Velasquez will have no problem with ‘Bigfoot,' and likewise with Barao-Wineland, so they're out.
That just leaves Silva (fighting Weidman in July), Johnson (fighting Moraga in July), Aldo (fighting Pettis in August), Henderson (fighting Maynard-Grant winner, likely in fall), and St-Pierre (fighting Hendricks or Silva, no timetable). Among those five, Silva and St-Pierre are my next two to go. Both men are eyeing tough challenges, maybe the toughest of their careers, but ultimately I think both get the job done -- unless St-Pierre somehow winds up fighting Silva next, in which case, a superfight of that magnitude wouldn't take place until the end of the year, so St-Pierre's out of the question anyway.
With the remaining three champions, I'd rank them in order of vulnerability: Johnson, Henderson, then Aldo. But that's not the question. In Moraga, Johnson also meets the least accomplished opponent among the trio. Don't get me wrong, Moraga poses a very credible threat to "Mighty Mouse," but it's hard to look past the fact that his biggest win is Chris Cariaso. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
So Johnson gets off the hook, leaving just Henderson and Aldo. Maynard -- or if he pulls the upset, Grant -- is no joke. Both possess the physical tools to present Henderson a far different challenge than he's faced in recent years. It's also fair to say Aldo has been the far more dominant champion of the two, just on the basis that a public furor doesn't ignite anytime a judge's scorecard is read in his favor. But unfortunately for Aldo, he's also fighting the man Henderson should really be fighting; the same man who defeated Henderson with this absurd move when he was just 23 years old. (Stephan Bonnar's call on that is still such a classic.)
Henderson vs. Maynard/Grant should be competitive, but Aldo vs. Pettis should be something on an entirely different level. It may seem blasphemous, and I'll preface this with the fact that I'm picking Aldo to beat Pettis at UFC 163, but for the sake of fun (and this exercise), in my eyes Jose Aldo may be the next UFC champion to relinquish their belt.
Thomas: I get this question all the time during my live chats. I admire Shaun's attempt to map this out, but I wonder if it's all just too hard to measure this far out. Let's just say the two biggest threats with scheduled bouts are Chris Weidman and Anthony Pettis (Eddie Wineland gets honorable mention).
The problem with MMA prognostication is that it almost exclusively relies on resume reviews. If you haven't already done something, few are going to say you can do something you haven't already done. That's partly Weidman's issue. Most would admit his skills match up reasonably well with Silva even if they think the Spider is going to keep his title. I tend to think they're going to match up well enough to take the title, but I recognize my argument can't really rely on Weidman's resume. Therefore, I'm going to struggle to convince anyone until Weidman redefines how people perceive him.
As for Anthony Pettis, he obviously has the ability to give Jose Aldo a very difficult time. I don't know yet which way I'm leaning, but as Duke Roufus as pointed out, Pettis will be able to match Aldo both in kicking proactively and checking Aldo's advances. Aldo probably has greater speed and is a better athlete, but he also fades. Pettis can be patient, creative and lethal in his steady, methodical attacks...that is, when he isn't being wildly creative. He's going to be a handful for Aldo if not in the early going, certainly in the later rounds.