As much as most MMA fans love a good debate, there’s one question that’s typically more haunting than stimulating: What could have been?
It’s a question that has to be asked in the wake of Zabit Magomedsharipov announcing his retirement last week as he laid down his gloves with a perfect 6-0 UFC record and all the makings of a can’t-miss featherweight contender. At 31, there were plenty of big fights ahead for Magomedsharipov. How close was he to a title fight? Could he have won it all? Been a dominant champion?
MMA is filled with hypotheticals and in this roundtable, our panel of Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, and Damon Martin discuss four what-ifs that vary in impact, complexity, and level of missed potential.
What are some of your most thought-provoking MMA what-ifs? Jump into the comments and join the discussion.
Lee: Zabit Magomedsharipov was following the elite prospect path to a tee.
Before signing with the UFC, he’d beaten quality competition and won a title in Russia. He debuted in the big show with two submission wins against strong competition, 31-fight veteran Mike Santiago and World Series of Fighting bantamweight contender Sheymon Moraes. He won a “Fight of the Night” against Kyle Bochniak (his third straight fight night bonus), picked up another submission, and then scored solid decision victories over Jeremy Stephens and Calvin Kattar.
He wasn’t a perfect contender. In his wins over Bochniak and Kattar, there were hints that his gas tank wasn’t up to snuff, but it also felt like an issue that could be fixed. Magomedsharipov’s profile was just so intriguing: Long and lanky for a 145er, creative striking, and an airtight ground game. If he wasn’t a surefire world champion, he was certainly an odds-on favorite to at least challenge for a UFC title.
But real life and the complications of the fight game nudged Magomedsharipov toward retirement, and if it’s true that he’s putting cagefighting aside to pursue a career in medicine, that’s about as graceful an exit as you can make from this crazy business. If his body had cooperated and he’d been able to book a fight sometime in the past two years, would it have changed his mind? We’ll never know.
I would have loved to have seen him in there with Yair Rodriguez. And Max Holloway. And Alexander Volkanovski. It’s entirely possible all three of these perennial contenders could have handled him with ease, which would have been disappointing, but it’s doubly disappointing that fans didn’t get the chance to find out.
Martin: Touted as one of the best prospects to sign with the UFC in recent years, Magomedsharipov appeared to have the perfect pedigree to one day become a champion.
A consummate martial artist with a background in wrestling, sanda and Wushu, Magomedsharipov came from the mountainous region of Dagestan — a part of the world famous for producing world champion wrestlers and fighters — and he looked nearly unstoppable after first arriving in the UFC. His long, lanky frame made him a tough out for shorter featherweights and Magomedsharipov was also incredibly creative inside the cage as he came after opponents with nasty strikes and a slick submission arsenal.
He capped off a 6-0 run with the UFC after picking up back-to-back wins over Kattar and Stephens and it appeared he was ready for title contention with perhaps just one more victory.
Sadly, that opportunity never came after a fight between Magomedsharipov and Yair Rodriguez failed to materialize despite several attempts to make it happen. Add to that, Magomedsharipov was dealing with health issues of his own that continuously pushed back his return to action.
In the end, the 31-year-old decided to call it a career without ever competing for UFC gold, much less getting the chance to treat fans to fights against the likes of Holloway, Volkanovski, Ortega, or the aforementioned Rodriguez.
Based solely on potential, Magomedsharipov had everything needed to become a champion and at the very least he looked good enough to hang with the best of the best at featherweight. Now, after six fights in the UFC and an 18-1 record overall, Magomedsharipov is retired and we may never really know how good he could have been.
The only people who might be happy about that are the featherweights who don’t have to face him now that he’s gone.
Al-Shatti: The wrestling chops of a two-time NCAA champion? Check. The all-around athleticism of a Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year? Check. The prodigious potential of a 6-foot-5 monster who regularly pushed Prime Brock Lesnar to his limits, captured the Bellator heavyweight title in his first year of active competition, and was branded by a training partner as “Cain Velasquez at 300 pounds?” Check, check, and check.
Yes, newer MMA fans may not be familiar with the name Cole Konrad, but there’s a reason “The Polar Bear” was seen as one of the sport’s original what-ifs.
Because the thing about Konrad? He never even really got started.
Konrad had a Hall of Fame run as a four-time All-American wrestler at the University of Minnesota, then made the leap to MMA in 2010 only at the behest of his superstar friend, serving as Lesnar’s primary training partner at a time when Lesnar was legitimately one of the best heavyweights in the world. And right away, he had the goods. Konrad went 7-0 in his first year as an unarmed combatant and had the inaugural Bellator heavyweight strap sitting on his mantelpiece before the year was over. And yet… that was pretty much the end.
Konrad only fought twice more before forever disappearing into the ether to become, of all things, a full-time commodities broker for the dairy industry. Anyone who doubts the merits of the fighter pay debate, look no further than the world-class heavyweight with limitless potential who opted instead to go peddle milk and whey proteins just as he was hitting his stride. Konrad has effectively been a ghost ever since (though I miiiight just have a catch-up story with him coming soon). But between his vast athletic pedigree and the obvious potential he showed in his three-year MMA run, The Polar Bear will always be remembered for what could’ve been.
Marrocco: Yeah, the milk thing is really what gets me about Konrad. Get knocked out, suffer a severe injury, or maybe just have an accurate attack of conscience and/or good sense, but…milk? Milk, as a commodity? That’s just something you never see in MMA, as evidenced by the fact that it hasn’t happened since. (I may have Googled it at the time to see if, in fact, it was a thing.) That’s not some statement about Konrad’s character, the way I see it. He was a great wrestler and a dominant presence in the cage. He also wasn’t the most exciting fighter to watch. He just showed up and did his job. Unassuming, unpretentious, and altogether effective — one of the many wrestlers who’ve cycled through this sport with the philosophy that it’s the world’s job to stop them from doing what they’re going to do rather than doing something more “entertaining.”
I have no reason to think Konrad would have been anything other than he was at his peak, the first Bellator champion in the promotion’s formative days. If anything, it would have been interesting to see how far he could take his skill set. Bellator’s heavyweight division certainly hasn’t evolved leaps and bounds from where it was when he left. Maybe he’d still be champ. Truth be told, he always was a little bit in Lesnar’s shadow, like Chris Tuchscherer and the rest of the guys at Team Death Clutch/Minnesota Martial Arts. No wonder, the big fella had a tendency to do that.
Could he have reached Lesnar’s competitive heights? Probably not. But he might have made a good run. I’m just happy that, in the end, he had the wisdom to do the math on his chance to make out of the sport better than he left and take a job opportunity that was better for his long-term health.
Marrocco: T.J. Grant didn’t start out as anything special in the UFC. After a 13-2 run on the Canadian circuit, he earned a contract and stalled against solid talent in the welterweight division: Dong Hyun Kim, future champ Johny Hendricks and Ricardo Almeida. But then the Halifax native decided to move to lightweight from welterweight, and with his loss of pounds came a flurry of wins in the octagon, with five straight going on his resume. More promising, he seemed to improve every time he fought, diversifying his skills into a well-rounded threat. By the time he defeated two-time title challenger Gray Maynard in a signature performance, he was the contender-apparent and was booked to fight champ Benson Henderson at UFC 164.
In preparing for his title fight, Grant suffered a concussion during jiu-jitsu training. He was pulled out of the bout and replaced by Anthony Pettis, who still had Henderson’s number. And then? Grant’s career seemed to fall into a void. Symptoms from his concussion continued to flare up, ruling him out of a fight with new champ “Showtime.” Years passed. Grant fell further off the radar. In 2015, he revealed that mounting debt and a new family had realigned his priorities, and he indicated another run wasn’t in the cards.
Grant’s struggle with concussion issues brought to the fore the risks UFC fighters take in training camp, as did his subsequent financial difficulties. Grant had been poised to become a champion and seemed to be steps away from the top. He did so at a time when the sport was well into its boom years and entry into the mainstream. But his story made it clear that even apparently successful fighters are always skating on thin ice, and at any moment, a fighter with the whole world in front of them can suddenly disappear.
Lee: This one hurts.
Grant’s sudden ascension up the lightweight ranks coincided with my own peaking interest not just in following MMA, but in considering that it could be a field I could work in even if it was just blogging part time. It was a good time to be a Canadian fan. Georges St-Pierre was still dominating, Rory MacDonald was on the come-up, and now we had a guy to root for in the deepest division in the UFC.
It wasn’t clear what Grant’s ceiling was, but when he ran through Maynard in May 2013 in a little over two minutes it was raised considerably. Maynard had recently fought twice for the lightweight title and Grant did that?
Even though his own title shot was still to come, he returned to The North a conquering hero, showing up at a fan fest ahead of UFC 161 in Winnipeg for an open Q&A. I was at the front of the line asking whether he thought capturing UFC gold could lead to him stealing some shine from his fellow Haligonian Sidney Crosby. It was the first time I’d ever posed a question to a professional fighter. (This is also where I had the chance to ask Sarah Kaufman about the absurd and unforgettable Strikeforce promo for her fight with Ronda Rousey, a shoot that just so happened to involve the legendary Esther Lin).
Less than a month later, Grant was out of his championship opportunity.
Even back in the UFC’s less hectic days, this kind of change was normal and you just assumed he’d get his chance after Henderson and Pettis had their rematch. He never did. He never fought again. His win over Maynard wasn’t the beginning. It was the end.
Over the years, as reports came out that Grant was suffering from concussion issues that would suspend his return indefinitely, I was forced to face the mortality of these fighters for the first time. I knew MMA was dangerous, but these guys and gals were superheroes. Everything was supposed to be just a flesh wound. An injury in practice? Rub some dirt on it and get back out there. You’re a world title contender!
The Canadian MMA scene hasn’t been the same since. It would be an exaggeration to say that Grant’s absence was a primary reason for its decline, but it certainly didn’t help. Even if he’d just lost to Henderson and fallen back to the middle of the pack, it would have been a less tragic outcome. Seeing Grant’s career cut short is as painful as any premature ending we’ve seen because we actually have a firm idea of how far he could have gone. The finish line was just cruelly relocated at the last second.
Fedor Emelianenko and the UFC
Martin: There’s no bigger name in the category of “the one who got away” than former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko and the UFC’s failed pursuit to sign him.
During an unprecedented 28-fight unbeaten streak, Emelianenko was the best heavyweight in the sport by a wide margin as he decimated his competition again and again, usually in spectacular fashion whenever he set foot in the ring. While the UFC constantly struggled to build a viable heavyweight division around more than two or three fighters at most, Emelianenko was dominating the best fighters from two different generations with multiple wins over the likes of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Coleman and Mirko Cro Cop in what was arguably the most highly anticipated heavyweight fight of the early 2000s.
Unfortunately, Emelianenko never had much interest in signing with the UFC even after the then-Zuffa-owned company bought out PRIDE, which resulted in many of the top fighters changing promotions. Emelianenko ended up signing with the short-lived Affliction promotion instead — where he beat two former UFC champions in Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski — and then did a stint in Strikeforce where his long unbeaten streak came to an end.
Even with a couple of losses on his record, Emelianenko was still the prize that UFC President Dana White desperately wanted to capture when he made one final attempt to sign the Russian for a megafight with Brock Lesnar that would have taken place at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. White has often told the story of how he flew to a private island just trying to get a deal done, but Emelianenko and his team balked at the offer before the two sides split again.
There’s no telling how Emelianenko would have done had he gone to the UFC in the prime of his career but it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have held the heavyweight title. He was leaps and bounds ahead of most of the UFC roster when he was steamrolling better competition in PRIDE.
Of course, Emelianenko also stands as one of the only fighters in history to tell the UFC to kick rocks and yet still have his legacy cemented as arguably the greatest heavyweight to ever lace up a pair of MMA gloves. That’s quite possibly his biggest achievement of all.
Al-Shatti: Here’s the list of UFC heavyweight champions from 2003-09: Tim Sylvia (x2), Andrei Arlovski, Frank Mir, Randy Couture, and Brock Lesnar.
Now ask anyone around back then to pick out the predominant heavyweight of the era.
(I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t any of those names.)
For many of us old folks, there will never be a more special time in MMA history than when an unassuming man from the small town of Stary Oskol was the most dangerous unarmed combatant alive. That the UFC and Fedor Emelianenko failed over and over again to reconcile their differences remains one of the sport’s great shames, because while Affliction and Strikeforce tried their hardest to do a legend justice, the arrival of the stone-cold Russian in the biggest promotion in the world would’ve forever been the seminal moment MMA deserved.
What is MMA’s greatest what-if?
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Fedor and the UFC
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