Things are finally slowing down in the MMA world for a couple weeks. Fortunately, recent events left us all with plenty to discuss in the meantime.
So I'm glad to have my West Coast tag team partner, Shaun Al-Shatti, join me for the latest edition of The MMA Roundtable. From armchair psychoanalysis of Nick Diaz, to the news of the co-ed season of The Ultimate Fighter, to whether Johny Hendricks is really Georges St-Pierre's toughest challenge to the fights we're most anticipating in a loaded April, we cover all the bases.
1. Let's cut right to the chase: Does Nick Diaz need help?
Doyle: I suppose I should start with the standard "we're not qualified to make a mental evaluation of someone based on how they're presented in the media," but, you know what? Most writers who use that sort of qualifier then go right ahead and make a mental evaluation anyway, so never mind.
I usually don't read too much into rambling diatribes of Diaz's sort. That's simply because, well, everyone knows a stoner who wages his or her lonely struggle against The Man and rambles about conspiracies. I don't know about you, but I tend to let those sort of things go in one ear and out the other.
So in and of itself, that's not necessarily a problem, but in Diaz's case, you have to tie it into the bigger picture. What seems clear to me is that if Diaz wants to continue with his career on an elite level, he needs a shakeup. He's progressed as far as he can as a fighter with Cesar Gracie. His last win was over a fading B.J. Penn. He looked lost against both Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre when neither would stand in front of him and bang. And even later in the fight, when GSP did stand with him, we never saw the "punches in bunches" Diaz emerge.
Add in Diaz's talks of never paying taxes in his life -- God, I hope for his sake that's not true -- and he sounds like someone who needs a manager who can take of his finances, can channel his rebellious streak into a less self-defeating direction, and can force him to take a fresh approach to his fight preparation and game planning.
The chances of that happening? Slim to none, given Diaz's legendary loyalty to those around him. It's hard to shake the feeling we're watching the beginnings of a slow-motion train wreck.
Al-Shatti: This is a tough question. Like Dave, my knee-jerk response falls somewhere along the lines of not wanting to rush to judgment about the personal lives of others, particularly based on their media persona. Though if you're pressing me to string together words on this topic, it seems like Diaz himself would agree that he needs help. The guy basically threw his team under the bus throughout UFC 158's post-fight presser, grousing about everything from his non-existent training partners, to the overall lack of people willing to help him out, which eventually led to the infamous tax rant.
Now, I'm not privilege to Cesar Gracie's daily practices, so I won't comment on whether Diaz should split from his coach. But Gracie's hesitation when asked on The MMA Hour if he'd like to continue managing Diaz is telling enough. And honestly, it's hard not to blame him. Overseeing both Nick and Nate can't be an easy task, especially when you pile on Gracie's duties running an entire fight team. There's something to be said for having too much on your plate.
From the outside, the Diaz/Gracie managerial relationship seems to have run its course. It's worth asking, but if Diaz wants to continue fighting, what's the downside to investing some of that tax-free income on a personal assistant whose sole focus is getting the Stockton native what he needs, where and when he needs it? Then again, as Dave mentioned, Diaz's loyalty is legendary, so it may take something drastic for that conversation to even start taking place.
2. The announcement of TUF 18 featuring both men and women bantamweights was met with a flood of snark. Even Miesha Tate tweeted that the UFC may want to look into Trojan as a sponsor. Is there any way this doesn't turn into Real World: TUF Edition?
Al-Shatti: It'll definitely be fresh, that's for sure. It's telling that more than a few fighters who've cycled through the TUF meat grinder, what with it's rampant cabin fever and bottomless streams of alcohol, have already giggled about the co-ed possibilities, albeit some more tactfully than others.
In many ways the ball is in the UFC's court here. Dana White and Co. have the means to make TUF 18 an MMA version of Jersey Shore if they chose to. Simply cast the ‘Let me bang, bros' of the world, unleash them in the house and allow the most bizarre TUF season ever to unfold. The thing is, and maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part, but with TUF 17's reversion to a more serious tone and the high praise it has received, it seems unlikely the UFC would elect to go lowbrow with its newest grand experiment.
Still, even if the show is tailored to its purest sporting form, it's impossible to predict what will happen. Fighters are ultimately only human, and rooming with members of the opposite sex who share the same primary interests as you for however-many weeks straight while simultaneously being denied contact with the outside world is just asking for trouble.
Doyle: There's a certain segment of the audience who is going to snark at everything related to women's MMA, though admittedly, this particular announcement makes it kind of easy.
Anyway, there are a couple ways to look at the co-ed house: 1. Are there really 16 women's bantamweights out there who aren't one of the 10 or so already signed to the UFC who are good enough for a potential contract? Bantamweight is the deepest division in the women's side of the sport, but I'm not sure it's THAT deep. And since we're talking about divisional depth, remember that 2. UFC's men's bantamweight and potentially flyweight divisions could use more bodies. So I think having eight fighters of each gender bolsters both sides of the bantamweight division.
As for what this might lead to on the show, I mean, look, I'm not sure why people are treating this as though The Ultimate Fighter franchise up to this point has followed some lofty, high-minded ideal which co-ed housing will destroy. It's not like the previous 17 seasons of TUF were PBS documentaries about building model ships. This is a reality show on a FOX property, a company which isn't exactly known for elevating America's journalistic or cultural standards. The first 17 seasons have been filled with wacky hijinks, so why should we expect anything different?
3. Is Johny Hendricks the most legit threat GSP has faced in his title reign? Why or why not?
Doyle: I'll buy it. None of St-Pierre's opponents over the course of his reign have put together a string of wins over the caliber of competition Hendricks has in his past four fights, with his knockouts of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann and decisions over Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit. GSP's other challengers? Condit's four fights leading up to his title shot included Dan Hardy and Dong Hyun Kim. Jake Shields had a nice win over Dan Henderson, a questionable decision over Kampmann many felt he should have lost, and a long Showtime-style win streak of favorable matchups.
Diaz was coming off a loss and a suspension. Hardy was, well, Hardy. Thiago Alves was on a nice roll with wins over Koscheck, Matt Hughes, Karo Parisyan and Chris Lytle, but still doesn't quite match Hendricks' resume. Penn was coming up from lightweight and it showed. Koscheck's wins were over Paul Daley, Anthony Johnson, and Frank Trigg, and he had already lost to GSP their first time. Fitch earned his title shot with a win over Chris Wilson.
Hendricks' quality of opposition is one factor. His skill set is another. I'm not convinced St-Pierre can take Hendricks down at will the way he has the rest of his opposition. Hendricks also has the nasty southpaw knocking power and does an excellent job closing range. The fact he could put it all together against a fighter the caliber of Condit while suffering an injury to his KO hand during the first doesn't necessarily mean he can do the same against GSP, but does mean he can find another path to victory in a high-stakes situation, which bodes well for his poise under pressure.
Don't get me wrong, St-Pierre's still the favorite here. But with Hendricks, this is the first time in a long time I don't just automatically assume he's going to take his opponent down and smother him for 25 minutes.
Al-Shatti: Hard to argue on this one. Not only does Hendricks' run to the title look impressive on paper, the numbers back it up. In succession, the furry All-American toppled welterweights who were at-the-time ranked: No. 3 (Fitch), No. 5 (Koscheck), No. 4 (Kampmann), and No. 3 (Condit). At the risk of laying hyperbole on too thick, that may be the single greatest non-championship run in the history of the division. The fact that two of those fights ended in a combined 58 seconds, while another will inevitably land on every ‘Fight of the Year' list come December, probably doesn't hurt either.
In an age of cautiousness, it's hard not admire Hendricks' old-school "anyone, anytime" mindset. Not many top contenders in Hendricks' position would've accepted a short-notice fight against Condit, a situation where the only guaranteed upside is keeping a rightful spot at the top of the heap. That decision took cajones. But what sticks out is that Hendricks' electric victory did more than anyone could've expected. It kept his spot intact, sure, but it also bestowed traction to his name where it may have lacked before.
An old buddy of mine from high school who watches maybe, at most, two or three fights a year, tuned in last Saturday night to see the Diaz/St-Pierre drama play out. When I caught up with him the following day, the first thing he blurted out to me: "Dude, that fight with the guy with the beard?!? He's a tank! That was the best fight I've ever seen." That's it. That was his takeaway from UFC 158. No mention of Georges St-Pierre -- you know, the only fighter he knew about prior -- other than a tepid, ‘Eh, that fight was okay.' And boy, when I told him the tank with the beard was going to challenge St-Pierre next, his eyes lit up so bright, I might have well have told him Christmas was coming early this year.
Obviously one fair-weather fan's perspective doesn't the represent the sentiment of the rest, but I'm willing to bet that my buddy's experience was far from an isolated incident. The Hendricks hype train is in full effect now, and even fans who rarely follow the sport are beginning to climb on-board.
The UFC is on hiatus for the rest of the month, but picks up with a vengeance in April. Four events in four weeks. What are the top three fights you're looking forward to over that stretch?
Al-Shatti: I guess you can call me a sucker for all these Strikeforce vs. UFC match-ups, because that's what I rolled with.
First up, UFC on FOX 7's under-the-radar lightweight bout, Nate Diaz vs. Josh Thomson. Even at the spry age of 34, "The Punk" may be the most undervalued lightweight in the game today. I mean, it get it. Fighting twice over the span of 27 months tends to diminish an fighter's name. But it seems like all this time off made people forget just how good Thomson really is. Other than Gilbert Melendez -- a perennial top-three 155'er -- Thomson's lone loss over the past eight years came against Tatsuya Kawajiri in Japan, which is a tough out for anyone. Even in defeat, Thomson's rubber match with Melendez was an instant classic, and if he was on the UFC roster for this long instead of Strikeforce, there's no question he'd be the proud owner of a closet full of post-fight bonuses. Add in a long-standing history with Team Cesar Gracie, plus Diaz's ruthless style, and we have the makings of a old-fashioned brawl.
The second pairing on my list needs no explanation: UFC on FUEL 9's No. 1 contender collision, Alexander Gustafsson vs. Gegard Mousasi. For all we know, Mousasi may be a middleweight masquerading as a light heavyweight, but I still can't help but grin anytime the emotionless, diminutive Armenian-Dutchman unleashes utter hell in a cage with that vacant expression -- you know the one -- plastered across his face. Gustafsson may ultimately be the man to send "The Dreamcatcher" down to 185, but there's no doubting it'll be a fun ride.
Though above all else, the April fight I'm most looking forward to, and it's not even close, is the one we were deprived of last year: Daniel Cormier vs. Frank Mir. Count me as a card-carrying member of the Cormier bandwagon. I think the guy could be heavyweight champion right now if given the opportunity. I'm warier of Cormier's chances at light heavyweight against Jon Jones, but hey, if that's the route the former Olympian wants to take, then more power to him. There's no question Cormier would provide a more intriguing skillset than any of Jones' recent opponents. But before we can even reach that point, Cormier still has to get past Mir, a man who has halted more than a few hype trains in his day.
Doyle: First off, I feel compelled to say, even though we're limiting this to UFC, part of me is really looking forward to Pat Curran's Bellator title defense against Shahbulat Shahmalaev on April 4. The idea of those two dropping bombs on one another goes straight after my taste for raw carnage.
As for the UFC fights. Can't deny it, I'm really looking forward to Miesha Tate vs. Cat Zingano. You saw how Tate lost her Strikeforce title to Ronda Rousey. Then in her next fight, Julie Kedzie rocked her and gave her all she could handle before Tate rebounded to win. Will the Kedzie fight serve as a wake-up call, or are the two fights on the whole a sign that Miesha's past her peak? Zingano, for her part might not be as well known as Tate, but she's a scrappy little hellion who likes to finish her fights fast. She's taking her biggest step up by far. Add in the stakes with the title shot/TUF coaching slot and this is a fight I'm looking forward to.
I like Cormier-Mir for all the reasons Shaun lists, but the fight I'm most looking forward to at UFC on FOX 7 is Ben Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez. I'm looking at this fight as pretty much Cesar Gracie's last stand. His fighters are 0-3 in UFC main event title shots, as Jake Shields and both Diaz brothers came up short, the latter two badly so. Will Melendez be his camp's saving grace? Will the hungry Melendez of 2009-2010 show up and not the disgruntled one of 2012? A camp's legacy hinges on the answer.
Finally, I'm looking forward to the Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher fight. It's a consequential fight in the division, because, well, the winner stays consequential. You know Belcher's story by now. Sometimes he looks like a future champion, sometimes he looks terrible, and often he's out with injuries. He pretty much needs to win and look impressive in doing so to stay on the radar. Bisping's legacy ultimately be the way he managed to bring the TRT debate to the forefront, simply due to the fact his past three losses are to fighters who were on it. The head kick loss to Belfort managed to turn a guy everyone used to hate into a sympathetic figure. If the UFC is serious about cracking down on TRT, then Bisping might be able to make another run, but either way, it has to start with a win over Belcher.