Another week, another fight and event with major implications.
Rising welterweight contender Jake Ellenberger is on the cusp of a title shot if he beats Martin Kampmann tomorrow night, but it's not clear if he should or will get it. Interestingly, that fight takes place on the finale of TUF: Live, a show many fans and media members are wondering how to keep alive (or if it even should be kept alive). All the while, a tragedy occurred in an unregulated MMA bout in South Dakota.
To help sort out what these and other issues mean, Dave Doyle and I get our hands dirty in another edition of The MMA Roundtable.
1. If Jake Ellenberger wins on Friday, should he face Georges St. Pierre, Carlos Condit or Johny Hendricks next?
Luke: Ellenberger should face Hendricks. The winner of that bout should face the winner of GSP vs. Condit.
First, the timing would work out with relative ease. Hendricks has already planned to wait for GSP, but that's a pipe dream. If Hendricks is serious, he's on a path to be out longer than a year. That's a year in a sport whose undulating path changes fighter realities and opportunities. It's much better for him to stay active against Ellenberger. Assuming the two fought in three months, that'd put them approximately one month off from the expected November return of GSP.
Second, it's a more defensible fight than a title shot. It's true Ellenberger is on quite the streak, but the first top ranked opponent he defeated is Jake Shields. Beating Diego Sanchez is nice and doing it against Martin Kampmann is damn impressive, but Hendricks is the final piece of the puzzle. Jon Fitch, it should be noted, had to win eight in a row to get a shot against St. Pierre. Moreover, Hendricks is the only fighter since GSP to defeat both Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. It's hard to make a claim to be the undisputed contender to GSP's crown when there is another welterweight floating in close proximity with credentials of that caliber.
If Hendricks wins, he'll have had an arguably easier road than Ellenberger, but not all title shot paths are equally arduous. All we can ask for is approximately difficult ordeals and that no other obvious challenge go unanswered. A fight against Hendricks to settle unclear hierarchy is a challenge worth answering.
Dave: If Ellenberger wins, he should face Condit. If he doesn't, what's the point of even having an interim championship?
I'm not denying the logic in the scenario Luke lays out, but this assumes St. Pierre will actually be able to return in time for what the champ himself has called an optimistic projection. Torn ACLs on guys in their 30s don't always cooperate in that sort of time frame.
If Ellenberger scores an impressive win over Kampmann, that would give him a slight edge over Hendricks in terms of who should get an interim title shot. Ellenberger is already ranked No. 3 in the USA TODAY/SB Nation Consensus welterweight rankings. A win over Kampmann, on the heels of defeating Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez, would only bolster his case. Hendricks has an impressive resume, too, but he eked out a split decision over Josh Koscheck in his last fight and that's enough to give Ellenberger the nod.
So I say, given we don't know if GSP is going to make it back in time for November, if an interim title is meant to be anything more than a prop, make Condit defend it, and if Ellenberger wins Friday, give him the shot.
2. What does the death of Dustin Jenson in South Dakota say about the safety of the sport in 2012?
Luke: Most of us would like to point to the fact that Jenson was fighting in unregulated territory. Fighting there is outrageously dangerous, but the other two MMA fighters who died on U.S. soil did so with at least a modicum of regulation. Regulation is preferable to the absence of regulation, but it's hardly the cure all.
Consider that amateur MMA is dangerous even in states where MMA is properly regulated among the professional ranks. States often don't have the budget, manpower or resources necessary to properly ensure fighter safety in contests where the only thing that can be relied upon is that none of the fighters get paid. The skill set differential between fighters is often astronomical; there are rarely blood tests that measure anything approximating performance enhancing drugs or diseases like HIV and Hepatitis; and the officiating crew is either run by the inept, corrupt or some admixture of the two. The horror stories I've heard and personally witnessed in amateur MMA would be enough to fill lengthy tomes.
When Dana White says MMA is a safe sport, he's only right when talking about the UFC. The battery of tests and evaluations fighters must go through at that level has clearly proven to be a very successful screen. But the truth is it's basically only a handful of territories that do enough preventative care to save lives. Places like New Jersey - that caught Thiago Alves' problematic artery-vein brain connection before his fight at UFC 111 - can be relied upon to catch serious issues ahead of time. The problem is that instances like this, while laudable, are incredibly few and far between.
I don't know what would've saved Jenson. Having a paramedic and doctor in the venue? Having a commission not allow him to fight for a fifth time in less than a year? Maybe. Yes. I don't know. What I do know is that calling for regulation is well-intentioned. It's also a necessary component to fighter safety, but the problem is it's hardly sufficient. Across state and international lines, 'regulation' means a huge variety of different things.
Dave: I've watched both YouTube videos of the fight, which were shot at different angles. Nothing happened during the fight which you can pinpoint as something that clearly went wrong. Jenson didn't take an undue amount of punishment. Hensrud was sportsmanlike, releasing the hold as soon as Jenson tapped, and helped his opponent to his feet. The referee was in position the entire time and ended the fight in a timely manner.
Would proper regulation have prevented this? Maybe, maybe not. There are several responsible states out there in this regard, and Luke correctly singles out New Jersey for praise. But for every New Jersey, there seems to be three commissions which are simply content to take their share of the gate receipts and go home. So even coming up with stricter regulation of the amateur scene is no guarantee that another death in the cage won't happen.
So with malice or incompetence from anyone in the cage that night ruled out; and whether or not regulation would have prevented this tragedy a factor you're unable to prove or disprove, we're left with one harsh reality: No matter how many precautions you take, no matter how hard you work to ensure fighter safety, sometimes the worst-case scenario can still happen. It's the brutal trade-off we make in return for watching people inflict punishment on one another for our entertainment. It's far from unique to MMA. It also happens in boxing and every other contact sport. But that doesn't make it any easier to take when it does occur.
3. Dana White has stated changes need to be made to "The Ultimate Fighter" on FX. What changes would you recommend?
Dave: Luke, I'm going to let both you and the readers in on a little secret: In the press room Saturday at UFC 146, I confided to a fellow member of the MMA media that I haven't watched a minute of "The Ultimate Fighter" this season, aside from fast forwarding to the fights on my DVR. Said reporter, whose name might rhyme with Sven Towlkes, laughed and told me that not only has he not watched it, but he had asked around and several other reporters haven't either. If the people who are supposed to follow everything MMA for a living are burnt out on "TUF," what does that say about the casual viewer?
When you ask White about "TUF," he will simply say fans love to see fights and leave it at that. But the simple fact of the matter is, you can only watch the wacky hijinks that ensue when you lock a bunch of dudes into a house with no outside world contact so many times before the format gets stale. Maybe you can squeeze another interesting season out of "The Comeback," a la Season 4 with Matt Serra. I'd probably watch that if the right personalities were involved. Short of that, I think it's time to forget "TUF" and innovate the next way to promote up-and-coming fighters, which is admittedly easier said than done.
Luke: I'll concede Dave's got a point about scrapping the entire franchise. Some of you may recall I've challenged the very premise of the UFC's strategy, namely, that you can iterate a show into sustainability. If they got rid of TUF, I'd be happy to call it a success just as much as I'd be happy to see it go.
UFC, though, seems committed to the idea they're going to keep it around. And if that's the case, what are the best options for change? Getting off Friday night is first and foremost. It hurts TUF and ends up making the show a poor lead-in for UFC content that follows it.
The question is do we blow up the entire format or not? I think yes. Making cosmetic changes here or there might help at the margins, but won't really change the show's trajectory. To me, they should host live fights Bellator style. Look at the UFC's calendar for the month of June. They've got three FX cards. They're spread way too thin. Rather than trying to do this, why not have one major FX card and leave the sort of fights that'd fill the rest of the roster for weekly TUF fights? I understand the engineering of this might prove difficult, especially in a three-month season. Perhaps they'd have to wait until the quarterfinals to start doing this. There's lots of downsides to what I'm proposing. What I do know, though, is UFC cards are too watered down despite the UFC roster being talent rich. TUF needs a boost in visibility and the stakes of the program need to matter. Right now it feels too distant and removed from the UFC universe. Better to find a way to bring the two worlds together if the UFC is committed to keeping the show going.
4. Who deserves the next shot at Junior dos Santos' heavyweight title?
Dave: Having sat cageside for both the Strikeforce Grand Prix finals and UFC 146, I've got to give Cain Velasquez the nod over Daniel Cormier. Granted, this argument could be moot if Cain is, in fact, sidelined for six months, and given that Cormier is also medically suspended and will be contractually obligated to fight once more in Strikeforce before he's free to compete in the UFC.
But if we're going to simply go on who deserves the shot on principle, I don't see how you can deny Velasquez. With the exception of one fight, Velasquez has been unstoppable in the Octagon. That one loss, of course, was to dos Santos. That fight rather famously in ended 64 seconds, when dos Santos tagged Velasquez with the first significant strike of the night. That's a circumstance that can happen to anyone in an MMA fight. Maybe it will happen again if they meet again. Or maybe Velasquez will solve the riddle of getting dos Santos of his feet, and force dos Santos to contend with the same buzzsaw Antonio Silva encountered last week.
Cormier will no doubt have his day, but to me, dos Santos and Velasquez are the clear-cut No. 1 and 2 in the division, with Cormier an equally clear-cut No. 3. So give the ex-champ his rematch.
Luke: I'm going to have to agree with my colleague here. I do believe when Overeem returns he should fight for the title if for business considerations only. But we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
As for Velasquez, he is more deserving than Cormier. Don't get me wrong: Cormier has turned in one of the most impressive two years in terms of MMA growth that I've ever seen. But looking at precedent, Strikeforce champions who crossover into the UFC have had to fight one time before getting any title shots. That's true for Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson and even Nick Diaz. Yes, Diaz initially was offered the shot against GSP and his own poor professionalism cost him said opportunity. But he fought B.J. Penn and then Condit for the interim title. Cormier should have to follow a similar path.
Velazquez's only loss is to Junior dos Santos. Both fighters went into that bout with injuries and I have a hard time believing it will end the same way as their first meeting. The fight also makes sense for business realities. UFC needs all the star power they can get and Velasquez is almost there as a major attraction. He needs one or two more star-making performances in big fights and continued outreach to Latino audiences, but here's on the cusp. If he wins, that's a big gain for UFC. With the departure of the old guard of UFC stars already in motion, creating new ones has never been more important.