As we all digest the news of what happened to Muhammed Lawal and keep waiting for UFC 145 to get here already, MMA Fighting felt it appropriate to have my colleague Mike Chiappetta and I debate the weighty topics of today in another installment of the MMA Roundtable.
This week: Mike and I discuss whether Zuffa made the right call in cutting Lawal for his comments about the NSAC on Twitter, if there's a case to be made to change Bellator's tournament format, what chances Chael Sonnen has in his rematch with Anderson Silva and how the UFC heavyweights of today compare with PRIDE's best heavyweight era.
1. King Mo's cut: is that the right call by Zuffa?
Chiappetta: No. I would have preferred he was simply fined. It would have been one thing if they released Lawal due to his nine-month suspension ruling by the Nevada state athletic commission stemming from a positive steroids test. At least then they could say they were punishing him for an illegal act related to the sport. Instead, it seems he has been let go due to his reaction to the suspension. More specifically, a tweet he sent out aimed at NSAC commission member Pat Lundvall, which referred to her as a "racist b----" for asking him if he could read and write English.
Now, two wrongs don't make a right here, so Lawal wasn't exactly justified in his words. You can't have your athletes going around firing off venom, because that sets a terrible precedent. Policing the fighters has to be done. But stripping him of his livelihood for it seems a little bit harsh. I can understand his anger for being asked such a degrading question. He's not exactly a nobody, and any cursory knowledge of his background -- something by the way, that should exist in a ruling body judging him -- would clearly indicate his level of schooling. By the way, commissioner Lundvall had been speaking to him for a while by the time she asked the question that offended him, and clearly she knew he spoke English. Again, this doesn't excuse Lawal's tweet, but at least it gives some context into the emotion that led up to it.
Sadly, the whole situation turned out like a fiasco on every side.
Thomas: Mike's absolutely right here. Certainly Lawal's words were incendiary. They were also unprofessional. But in the absence of a defined social media policy all fighters sign and agree to (like a terms of service agreement), any kind of punishment is capricious and unfair.
The UFC is trying to encourage use and novel application of social media among it's fighters (who, by the way, are not really employees but 'independent contractors'; would you fire your plumber for insulting others on Twitter?). That's a truly excellent idea and the vast majority of the times yields positive results. But fighters need to have a clear sense about what is and isn't expected of him. Relying on some notion of 'common sense' is plainly negligent on the part of the UFC.
Let's also make note of how utterly rude and patronizing commissioner Lundvall was in asking Lawal if he understood English. The notion that line of questioning is somehow common is total myth. Alistair Overeem failed to properly take a drug test in the specified amount of time and English is his second language. Was there any questioning about whether his proficiency in reading or writing English inhibited him from following through on his responsibilities? Please. The commissioner may or may not be racist, but they are most certainly condescending.
2. Bellator's heavyweight tourney ended terribly. Can their model be tweaked?
Chiappetta: Of course it can be tweaked, but should it be? I think the answer is no. The way the heavyweight tournament ended was unfortunate, but it's no different than when a title challenger or No. 1 contender drops out of a UFC bout and has to be replaced. In a way, Bellator has to face the same problem the UFC does: an unrelenting schedule. The shows must continue even when the fighters can't, and so there is only so much wiggle room when an injury takes place.
In the past, Bellator has delayed title fights with one injured participant, but the tournament bouts must continue on and generate a winner, otherwise they become pointless. The heavyweight tourney had gone on so long, I can understand why CEO Bjorn Rebney basically threw his hands up and surrendered. Of course we want to see things decided in the cage, but you can only try to set up a fight so many times before it becomes obvious it's not going to happen.
The tournament format is one of the few things that differentiates Bellator from other promotions, and they shouldn't give up that uniqueness to be just another fight promotion. Unforeseen issues are going to be pop up from time to time, but you just have to do your best to plug in the hole and move forward.
Thomas: There are obviously tweeks that can be made to Bellator's format. You know who knows that? Bellator. The question is how much? Therein lies the more challenge part of this problem.
This past week on The MMA Hour, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said as much. They'll be having more tournaments per season, moving to three hour shows and more. I can even see a case for abandoning heavyweights and focusing more on women.
But all of those alterations still keep the tournament model in tact. That, above all else, should not be abandoned. It's the key differentiator and a boon to the company. Moreover, there is time to get things right before moving to a bigger and much more important platform. While on MTV2, Bellator has the opportunity to make the adjustments necessary to properly leverage and execute on their business model. Those who argue about lackluster ratings fail to realize Viacom doesn't really care about them. In this window of opportunity, Bellator has the chance to get things right. As long as they don't abandon the tournament format, they'll likely move in the right direction.
3. Sonnen-Silva II was recently announced. What is Sonnen's realistic chance of winning?
Thomas: I'd say his chances are slightly diminished from the last time, but still very real. It's well-known (though not exactly proven) Silva suffered from a rib injury during their first bout. He managed to win late, but took a beating along the way and looked dreadful at defending the takedown. He looked better at UFC 134 when he easily bested another strong wrestler in Yushin Okami, but Okami's a significantly different type of fighter. Among other notable differences, he isn't nearly as aggressive and doesn't run through his takedowns.
The question on my mind is Silva. If he's healthy, is he still up to to peak performance? His game is so heavily predicated on speed and reflexes. At 37, are they still there? Liddell was cruising up through the second Tito Ortiz bout before his career fell off a cliff. I have no idea if he's there or not, but it wouldn't totally surprise me to see him not move, bounce and counter with the same nimbleness we are accustomed to seeing.
I don't know if Sonnen will get rattled when a soccer stadium full of prideful Brazilians are wishing him to lose the fight or his life. There's arguments to be made Sonnen is both properly game for challenges and a bit of a choke artist. Either way, I expect a tough fight that will close inside the distance.
Chiappetta: Sonnen has a very real chance to win. Luke makes some valid points, particularly the question we must ask every time Silva walks out to the octagon: Have we already seen his last great performance? This rematch will only intensify that question, only because the 10-month layoff will be his longest inactive stretch since a multi-year rest from 1997-2000 when he was still a young buck.
He's been extremely active since then, and that's allowed him to be consistently sharp over the years. Will that time away from the cage adversely impact him against Sonnen? It's certainly possible. On the other hand, Sonnen didn't look particularly terrifying against Michael Bisping last time, though he got the job done.
The one thing Sonnen has going for him is he knows he can repeatedly take down Silva, and that's a huge boost for his confidence as he walks into hostile territory. As long as he can stay out of traps, he has a very legitimate chance to win. The odds have Silva as a 3-to-1 favorite. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think it's closer to a coin flip, with Silva a slight favorite. It's not like Sonnen didn't come within two minutes of beating him last time around.
4. Are today's UFC heavyweights better or worse than PRIDE's best era of heavyweights?
Thomas: I'd say they are at least as good if not better.
Make no mistake: PRIDE's heavyweights were an elite group. And the major triumverate of rivals - Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko CroCop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - mirrored the close contests among the sport's top light heavyweights at that time (Tito Ortiz. Vitor Belfort, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell) that helped push MMA forward. A lot of credit goes to them for helping to create a spectacle while competing in sport. Beyond the big three, there were MMA and heavyweight pioneers who grew the game with their outsized personalities as well as the technical evolutions they introduced (Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman and Gary Goodridge). And there were x-factors like Aleksander Emelianenko, who before catching a blood-borne disease, showcased the type of excellent boxing-for-mma skills rarely seen at that time in the sport's growth.
But let's be serious: outside of the big three in their prime, none of the other heavyweights would stand a chance not only with the UFC's top three today, but possibly even their top 10 or top 15. Do I really believe a prime Kevin Randleman or Mark Coleman have anything for Frank Mir or Antonio Silva?
In defense of the PRIDE heavyweights, some are still floating around among the UFC's top ranks. Nogueira may have had his arm broken against Frank Mir at UFC 140, but he was winning that bout and is still a top ten talent. Mark Hunt, for all his faults, is in the top 15 as well. At the top, it's arguably competitive. Across the division, though, the UFC ranks are significantly deeper.
Chiappetta: It's always difficult to compare eras due to improvements in training and technique, but it's a fun debate.
Let's imagine an eight-man tournament of the UFC's best four current heavyweights against PRIDE's four best all-time. If I'm doing the picking, I have Dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem and Frank Mir for the UFC, and Fedor Emelianeko, Mirko Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Josh Barnett for PRIDE.
I think a prime Fedor beats Dos Santos, Velasquez mauls Cro Cop, Nogueira submits Overeem and Mir tops Barnett. So we have Fedor vs. Velasquez and Nogueira vs. Mir in the semis. Well, we already know that Mir beats Nog, and Fedor squeaks past Cain to set up Fedor vs. Mir. I've got Fedor in that final, but of course, if you re-seed them and set up the matchups differently, you might get a different result. Still, I think that's a very competitive scenario, and if that's the point, we can't say they're any worse than the old PRIDE set.
That said, it's just another reason why rolling the Strikeforce heavies into the UFC is a great move. We won't have to have this debate again five years from now.