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MMA Roundtable: Light Heavyweights, Fight of the Year, and Much More

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

It's a rare week here at the Roundtable. This time around, we're not talking about TRT, commission suspensions, arrests, or anything of the sort.

Instead, coming off a magnificent night of fights in Los Angeles, we're simply talking about what went in on the Octagon and the ramifications of those results. And we'll discuss Ben Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar 2, to boot.

So follow along as my colleague Mike Chiapetta and I discuss the light heavyweight title picture, Fight of the Year, Mike Swick's return and Saturday's lightweight title fight.

1. Lyoto Machida was given a title fight after his KO of Ryan Bader on Saturday. Is this the right call, and if not, what should have been done?

Mike Chiapetta: First of all, Machida's performance was excellent. He was controlled and poised throughout, and he certainly lured Bader into his trap. When the time came, he took advantage quickly and decisively. In all, it was a masterful showing of his style.

Yet I still don't think it's enough to warrant another title opportunity so quickly after his last one. I had a hard enough time dealing with his first crack at Jon Jones coming off a 1-2 stretch of action. So now, he gets choked unconscious by Jones, wins one time, and he's right back in for more against the winner of Jones vs. Dan Henderson? How about letting the division play out a bit? I understand the desire to keep the titles in circulation, but why not wait to see A) what happens in the Jones-Henderson match, and B) if Glover Teixeira can beat Rampage Jackson if October?

Teixeira hasn't lost since 2005. If he beats Jackson impressively, why not elevate him into the title shot? A 17-fight win streak is strong selling point for a challenger, particularly if the champion is still the increasingly bankable Jones. As a backup plan, why not schedule Machida to fight Alexander Gustafsson as a title eliminator? If he beats Bader and Gustafsson, at least he will have pieced together a modest two-fight win streak, including one over the division's new hope. And if Gustafsson wins, well then, it sounds like he would be ready.

Machida and Shogun weren't the only options. It's just that FOX wanted some stakes involved with their show. That's not a bad thing, except when it negatively affects the title picture.

Dave Doyle: I agree with Mike's sentiment that the UFC should have let things play out. But as things are, assuming Jones beats Henderson, we're merely accelerating a conversation about the state of the light heavyweight division which would have come about on Sept. 2 anyway.

In the big picture, I think it's actually more important that White keep his word on giving Machida a title shot than anything else. UFC fans have been asked to deal with a lot this year, from the increased schedule to the endless stream of fighter injuries, suspensions, and fight fallouts. Even diehard fans are starting to pick their spots on buying pay-per-views. At this juncture, if White made such a high-profile promise for a fight viewed by millions and then backed out, he'd do damage to the UFC's fan goodwill at a time the company can't afford it.

Giving Machida a title shot so soon after losing the first time out isn't ideal. But what are the other options? Gustafsson needs at minimum one A-list win, maybe two, before he's ready. Teixeira might be the guy, but Hector Lombard just taught us the dangers of putting too much stock into gaudy, outside-the-UFC win streaks. As of now, Teixeira is simply a guy who smoked Kyle Kingsbury. Let's see what he can do with a fading "Rampage" and get him another high-profile fight after that before we put him in with Jones. If Jones isn't moving up to heavyweight and isn't fighting Anderson Silva, then recycling a challenger before the next wave of contenders is ready seems inevitable, and Machida's the best of those options.

2. Was Joe Lauzon vs. Jamie Varner the best of 2012 so far?

Chiapetta: In my opinion, yes, just edging out Dustin Poirier vs. Chan Sung Jung. While Lauzon vs. Varner didn't have major implications for the division, the bout came on a major stage and featured more momentum swings than the other FOTY entry.

Saturday night's lightweight bout was very closely contested everywhere. Varner did some damage on the feet, scoring a knockdown and out-striking Lauzon 84-55. Lauzon did work on the ground, with five guard passes and two reverses. The grappling was technical and fast-paced. The boxing was crisp. The two kept their conditioning up nearly the entire time. And Lauzon's fight-ending triangle was an absolute thing of beauty, using a double-overhook, butterfly guard to sweep, and then transitioning into the submission while Varner was trying to get to his feet.

The Jung-Poirier fight went longer, but by contrast, it was a bit more one-sided. Jung clearly out-landed Poirier, 149-70. He scored four takedowns to Poirier's zero. And he did most of the best work on the ground, with three sub attempts and three guard passes. The fight left many with a great feeling because it was very competitive, but also because Jung was a big underdog, is quite beloved by fans, and managed to win. But minute-for-minute, move-for-move, my money is on Lauzon vs. Varner as 2012's best fight so far.

Doyle: MMA statkeeping is still in its infancy and is still a long way from being a rock-solid measure. That goes doubly for using total fight stats as a barometer when MMA fights are meant to be judged on a round-by-round basis.

Picking a Fight of the Year is as much about that intangible feeling you're watching something special as it is anything you can quantify. Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia was the Wrestling Observer's 2007 FOTY, for example. The bout completely one-sided, but it was the circumstances around the fight which made it an all-time classic.

I say Jung-Poirier gets the nod for several reasons. For one, round two of that fight is one we'll talk about at the end of the decade when discussing the best rounds of the past 10 years. Jung's chain of four submission attempts in a row was unlike anything we've ever seen in the Octagon. Not only did Poirier survive, but he managed to get top position and dish out punishment before the round ended, then Jung managed to get yet another submission attempt right before the horn. While Lauzon-Varner was excellent, it didn't have a truly transcendent, all-time classic round.

What's gotten lost in the shuffle in remembering Jung-Poirier is that Poirier then came out and won round three. Jung looked like he emptied his gas tank in round two. Viewers were starting to wonder if they were seeing Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua play out again, whether Poirier would come into round four and turn it up. Instead, it was Jung who found the next level, with his ridiculous finishing sequence of an uppercut, a flying knee, and a swift transition into a D'Arce choke.

I'm not taking anything away from Lauzon-Varner. But if Lauzon-Varner was a 10, Jung-Poirier was an 11.

3. After notching his first win following a 30-month absence, what can Mike Swick offer the welterweight division?

Doyle: I think the best answer I can give right now is "wait and see." One fight back is a bit too soon to glean where Swick stands.

Before he was beset by the health issues which kept him out of action, Swick went on a tear at 170 pounds and was one win away from a shot a Georges St-Pierre's title. Obviously a lot has changed in the welterweight division since. There is a pack of quality guys on the rise, from Martin Kampmann to Jake Ellenberger to Johny Hendricks, not to mention veterans like Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch are still hanging around.

Can Swick regain the form which brought him to the brink of a title shot? It's hard to use his bout with DaMarques Johnson as a barometer. Swick showed signs of Octagon rust in the first round. Swick showed sound instincts and quick reflexes in the sequence that led to the knockout, which is encouraging. But, with all due respect, Johnson isn't at the same level as the fighters who are currently knocking on GSP's door.

The upshot of his return fight is that we didn't see anything from Swick that suggests he shouldn't be fighting a Top 10 welterweight. But until he gets that fight, we won't know if he'll truly be a force in the division again.

Chiappetta: The most encouraging part of Swick's win last weekend is that his power and aggression are still there. His knockout of Johnson was downright nasty, and reminiscent of some of his early work in the UFC.

At 33, Swick is not old, and he might have actually extended his career by taking so much time off from the sport, but the biggest question about him going forward is his health. Swick's illness is managed by a strict diet, and he says he has things under control, but the body is a funny thing, and there are no guarantees it won't continue to negatively effect him.

The win over Johnson was a good first step back, but as Dave notes, Johnson is not an elite welterweight, having come into the fight losing three of his last five. It was still a fair return matchup, and Swick flashed some of his old skills. At the same time, it was a fight he had to win to show he still belonged.

As comeback stories go, it's the best one going in MMA right now, but the biggest potential problem I see for him down the road is the long list of wrestlers ahead of him in the division, from Ellenberger to Hendricks to Pierce to Simpson, etc. Swick doesn't have bad takedown defense, but he's going to have to do better than he did against Johnson against better wrestlers. I wouldn't expect to see Swick back in the top 10 anytime soon, but given favorable matchups, he certainly has the ability to make himself a divisional factor within the next year.

4. Frankie Edgar gets his chance to take the UFC lightweight title back from Benson Henderson on Saturday. What sort of adjustments will he have to make this time?

Doyle: What you see with Frankie Edgar is what you get. He's a fearless competitor, has a gas tank to match anyone in the sport, and his game is based on striking, footwork, and head movement. The problem, of course, is that Ben Henderson is a fearless competitor with an endless gas tank and tremendous movement. Henderson is both bigger and younger than Edgar. And though Henderson has one more career fight than Edgar, Henderson hasn't routinely engaged in dogfights with bigger foes the way Edgar has, so he's taken significantly less damage. I don't think that we're necessarily going to see anything drastically different from Edgar at this point in his career. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Edgar was in command of their first fight right up until he took that fight-changing upkick. When push comes to shove, I think Henderson will win on Saturday. But if Edgar can pull out one more vintage Frankie Edgar performance, if he can utilize his speed and avoid absorbing major blows like he took in the first fight, there's no reason he can't regain the belt.

Chiappetta: Over the years, we've talked very highly of Edgar's footwork, and for good reason. It's one of his biggest advantages in fights, offering him opportunities to get inside, hit his opponent, and escape mostly unscathed. While he has taken some big single strikes in his career, he doesn't take a lot of volume. In fact, according to FightMetric, Edgar only gets hit by 27 percent of significant strikes, which ranks him third in UFC history for defense. That's been one of the keys of his success, but I believe that in the first fight, Henderson outworked Edgar when it came to footwork. Aided by his excellent stamina, Henderson took the center of the cage and spent most of the fight cutting off Edgar's angles. That made Edgar a more accessible target, leading Henderson to become only the second man to out-land Edgar in a fight (B.J. Penn was the other, in Edgar-Penn I). So, perhaps the biggest adjustment Edgar needs to make is winning the positional battle through footwork, allowing him to out-score Henderson. One other adjustment could lie on the ground. In their first fight, Edgar was able to take Henderson down five times, but couldn't hold him down. If he can spend any time in the top position, he'll give himself his best chance to win rounds. The first fight was relatively close, and in the rematch, little things could make all the difference.

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