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MMA Roundtable: UFC 148's Historic Stakes, UFC's Future in China and More

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Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images
Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images
Getty Images

The closer we get to Saturday and the more we all talk about it, the more we begin to realize just how much is at stake for Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen. That's particularly true for Sonnen, who can achieve something incredibly special and rare if he emerges victorious at UFC 148. But what if he fails? How will history look back on the career of American Gangster from West Linn, Oregon?

My colleague Shaun Al-Shatti, the driver of the train that is the Morning Report, joins me in this week's edition of the MMA Roundtable to help sort out that answer. We also address whether Forrest Griffin should retire soon, the UFC's future in China and so much more.

1) What happens to Chael Sonnen in the short term, and ultimately, what becomes his legacy if he loses on Saturday night?

Shaun: Nothing good. This is the stark corner Chael Sonnen has talked himself into. By now, so much of the intrigue he manufactured revolves solely around his rivalry with Anderson Silva. If Sonnen goes out and loses to Silva for a second time, especially if he loses decisively, an overwhelming amount of that intrigue evaporates into thin air. He'll be looked at as, for lack of a better word, a choker. A guy who talked a big game, but crumbled when it really mattered.

If he does stumble, in the short term Sonnen will most likely remain a top draw well into his late 30's -- if by virtue of his mouth alone -- perhaps relegated to the Rich Franklin career path of high-level gatekeeper and catchweight fights. And in the long term, the history books will still celebrate Sonnen for being Silva's greatest antagonist.

But athletes' legacies are inevitably judged by hardware -- the rings, the belts, the championships. It's the thing that separates the legends from the never-made-its. Without any major hardware to call his own, Sonnen will be remembered only as the Karl Malone to Silva's Michael Jordan, doomed to a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears marginalized by the wretched preface of, ‘Well, he never won it all.'

Luke: I think Shaun is right that ultimately what's required to be remembered as a true great and someone of serious accomplishment in sport is the 'hardware'. Without it, you stand a much better chance to become a footnote, although it's possible to be a Kenny Florian where you manage to stay in the public eye and be celebrated for previous athletic accomplishments.

However, I'm more bearish on a future where Sonnen fights into his late 30s if he loses on Saturday. Not to suggest he won't, but that the impact his act produces against Silva will be greatly, greatly diminished. Sure, Sonnen's legions of followers will trail along with him wherever he goes, but the real effect of Sonnen's efforts has to be the galvanizing of divergent audiences in the pursuit of something fantastic. Moreover, it's been that way in the pursuit of what he claims (admittedly, with a healthy dose of shtick) is the tearing down of a facade. Sonnen loses that entire dynamic against anyone else.

Maybe Sonnen is the second-best middleweight in the world, but I'd also suggest part of what's great about Saturday is how well we know Sonnen matches up with Silva. He doesn't match as well with others and arguably lost the Michael Bisping fight. I'm not suggesting Sonnen's career is over if he loses on Saturday, but Sonnen the phenomenon? Either he lives forever with a win on Saturday or dies with a loss.

2) What would be the more compelling storyline, Anderson Silva once again retaining his title or Chael Sonnen finally winning it?

Shaun: It has to be Chael Sonnen finally winning it. We're on year seven of Anderson Silva's championship reign, and while witnessing greatness is always a privilege unto itself, the list of remaining contenders is fast dwindling. Aside from Hector Lombard and the winner of Mark Munoz vs. Chris Weidman, there's not too many compelling match-ups left out there for Silva.

On the flip side, if Sonnen somehow finishes what he started, the doors to the UFC middleweight division would be blown open. Suddenly every one of Silva's conquests are viable contenders again. Guys like Vitor Belfort or Rich Franklin who were miles away from another title shot, would be thrust back into the mix. The Bisping's and Boetsch's of the world would have a more realistic path to the belt. It could be a decisive moment for the UFC, a chance to inject new storylines into a division that stagnated for years until this blockbuster rivalry came along.

Plus, if anything, a Sonnen victory would inevitably lead to the most legendary run of trash talk ever witnessed, which only gift-wraps the biggest rubber match in the history of mixed martial arts. And I have a hard time saying 'no' to a circus like that.

Luke: Shaun is absolutely right. It has to be Sonnen winning the title.

As I argued on The MMA Hour on Tuesday, if Sonnen defeats Silva and completes this improbable journey he's on, he'll have done something unheard of in modern combat sports. I've been trying to think of similar situations to Sonnen's and they are few and far between. Ricardo Mayorga earned a bout with Oscar De La Hoya in no small part due to his mouth, but ultimately lost the bout. Not only that, he didn't have to defeat the murderer's row of contenders Sonnen has had to wade through to get there. Interestingly, though, Mayorga tested positive for a PED after the De La Hoya bout (in this case, a diuretic), so perhaps he and Sonnen are not to dissimilar.

The point is this. Sonnen has transformed his career not by hook or by crook. It only seems that way. The guy transformed himself from a journeyman to a contender both with his novel approach to promoting, but also by beating one contender after the next. And he did it in his early to mid-thirties. If he wins on Saturday - after coming so close the first time only to lose in heartbreaking defeat - he'll have pulled off one of the greatest combat sports career turnarounds ever.

3. We know Tito Ortiz is going to retire no matter the outcome on Saturday. If Griffin loses, should he retire as well?

Luke: I don't think so. Losing to Ortiz would be both unexpected and probably incredibly deflating. And Griffin certainly isn't getting any younger, but I think it'd be a mistake to end a career off of a single bad performance. Griffin himself has noted he's probably already peaked in his career; it's all downhill from here. I wouldn't dispute that characterization. I would say, however, Griffin is still in his early 30s and still a good competitor in a very tough division. He'll never contend for the title again, but has incredibly valuable veteran experience and a reasonably well-rounded skill set to test (and ultimately promote) the next wave of light heavyweight top talents.

Griffin also still has value as a name attraction to the UFC. Like his fighting ability, it's no longer at its peak and we should be careful to not overstate it. But in age where many of the faces and names that carried UFC to its boom cycle after 2005 are retiring, holding on to them while they're still good for business is a paramount concern. Creating a new generation of stars is not and has not been easy for the UFC. Older, more familiar names are required to hold fan attention. There's also no better way than to build the stars of tomorrow than to feed them the aging stars of yesterday. It's a rough business, but that's what is best for everyone.

Shaun: Not yet, though the end is certainly near. Like Luke noted, Griffin himself has pretty much admitted he's on the downslope of his career. A loss to Ortiz would be about as discouraging as they come, so it wouldn't be shocking to see him call it quits. At times it may seem like his heart isn't really in it anymore, although much could just be a side effect of his dry sense of humor.

Regardless, for now, Griffin still has a place in the UFC. He remains a top-15 competitor in a division desperate for new draws. Realistically, at 33 years old, Griffin will remain a star in name only, making him the perfect mid-to-high-level gatekeeper for prospects to cut their teeth on. The list of viable contenders for Jon Jones is running dangerously low, and after Dan Henderson, the new guard will be inevitably be fast-tracked to a title shot. For any Phil Davis or Alexander Gustafsson, snatching a win against a familiar name like Griffin at least lends an air of credibility to that title shot. Moreover, it's hard to see anyone turning down the kind of money Griffin could make for sticking around for a few more years.

4. The UFC is headed to China for the first time for a UFC on FUEL show. In the next two years, how big can MMA get in China?

Luke: In two years, probably very little. You'll notice this first event is airing on FUEL for North American audiences and "by numerous UFC television partners around Asia and globally". UFC has reported deals with various satellite partners that reaches into 450 million homes. But what does that mean in terms of actual viewership? The only deal I'm aware of that they reported signing with a television partner was with Inner Mongolian TV, which is not at all a major player in the Chinese television market. I'm not suggesting UFC doesn't have reach, but simply citing how many homes you're in through the constellation of television distributors you have is not evidence the material is being viewed.

And that's the other part. Macau is most assuredly not mainland China. The UFC is holding their first event there at a casino. Now, they do that all the time stateside, most notably in Las Vegas. But what I'm wondering is whether UFC can go to Shanghai or Beijing and sell out a normal sporting venue. Going to a casino allows UFC to do what Bellator does: push the onus on ticket sales and local promotion to the casino itself. With only one fighter of Chinese origin on the UFC roster, it's no wonder they had to go to the functional equivalent of neutral territory.

All of this isn't to suggest even this show in Macau isn't an incredible feat. It is and it's also a testament to the power of the UFC machine. All I'm saying is UFC still has a long, long way to go. Let's be patient as this effort moves along.

Shaun: I'm going to have to agree with Luke in saying that this likely does very little to popularize MMA in China for the short term. The UFC is a marketing giant, to be sure, but it would be reckless to overstate the influence it carries. One-to-two shows a year won't be enough to win over an audience of over 1.3 billion people, mainland China or not.

Rather, if MMA is going to grow in China, it will likely have to be done from within. In the long run national organizations like RUFF, who have the full strength of the Chinese government behind them, will have far more of an impact nurturing a burgeoning mixed martial arts movement than the folks at Zuffa, who have hundreds of other countries simultaneously vying for their affection.

At best, the UFC can be the distant uncle who comes once a year for Christmas, but brings a cavalcade of goodies with him. It's fun while it lasts, but once he leaves, you're left to make due with the resources you had before.