January gave us fans a feast of MMA, but did anything really change? GSP and Fedor dominated as expected, so except for a few minor upsets, the sport continues to trudge onward toward a milestone-UFC 100. MMA is gaining ground on mainstream sports and emerging from the ranks of sub-culture to American culture, but there are speed bumps on the horizon. Who’s the true face of MMA and is a new star on the rise? My old buddy, Mark Chalifoux and I discuss a few of the issues. Or at least he ones we think are important.
Issue 1 – GSP has eclipsed Chuck Liddell as the face of MMA.
Kelly-True. Chuck Liddell helped get MMA where it is today, but Georges St. Pierre has taken the torch and run with it. His image is the face of a new MMA generation that graces the covers of a wide variety of MMA and mainstream magazines from Black Belt to Men’s Fitness. He’s a squeaky-clean, non-trash talking national hero in Canada with crossover appeal in the US. He’s a chick magnet who brings women into MMA and could probably get away with describing his crepe suzette recipe on Martha Stewart’s show without his shirt (as long as Martha keeps hers on). Above all else his fights are damn exciting (GSP-Fitch is fight of the year in my opinion). He’s the next stage in the evolution of the athlete (sorry to inform you NFL) who can strike, wrestle, grapple, and stay cool under pressure. After his fight with BJ Penn, the crowd booed Thiago Alves the second his mug graced the jumbotron not because they disliked Alves, but because they’ve completely embraced GSP as the sport’s Barrack Obama. He even (allegedly) dated Mandy Moore for a brief time, which drives his stock even higher than the ailing S&P 500. The bottom line is GSP is the rockstar of MMA who has eclipsed Chuck Liddell as the most recognizable and admired fighter we have. If the UFC is smart, they’ll use his popularity and keep his face on the covers of as many magazines as possible, even if that means a photo shoot for Teen Beat.
Mark-False. The face of MMA is still Chuck Liddell. Until Georges St. Pierre is on Entourage or gracing the honorable pages of entertainment blogs for his Grammy’s appearance, he won’t be the face of the sport. I agree that he’s the best example of the evolution of MMA. He’s way ahead of the game and he’s one of the most terrifying champs in the UFC (I still think Anderson Silva is the UFC’s best fighter). But face of the sport? Come on, not even close. GSP’s hurt by his thick French Canadian accent more than anything. Hell, I’ve got French Canadian roots and even I had trouble understanding him the last time we spoke over the phone. He can’t make that mainstream crossover without being able to dominate in a Sportscenter appearance just as well as in the Octagon. He may be change, but he’s not change I can believe in (my hand was forced to use some sort of lame campaign slogan connection ever since you invoke the Commander-in-Chief). If anyone is going to eclipse Chuck, it will probably be Rampage.
Issue 2 – Strikeforce’s new deal with Showtime will finally make them an enemy in Dana White’s eyes.
Kelly-True. Dana White has long stated his respect for Strikeforce’s CEO Scott Coker because he genuinely cares about MMA, he’s always known his place in relation to the UFC, and he’s always stayed true to his roots as a regional MMA promoter. But Strikeforce’s purchase of the defunct EliteXC franchise coupled with their announcement that they have struck a deal with Showtime has raised their profile above the acceptable levels for the UFC, which paints a big red target on their backs. White has a history of crushing his competition like a Whack-A-Mole champion when they get out of line and become a threat to his brand. Until now, Strikeforce has never raised its heads high enough to feel the business end of Dana White’s hammer and has even been praised by the UFC’s President for its business model. But Strikeforce’s recent purchases of several fighter’s contracts (Jake Shields, Nick Diaz, Scott Smith, Benji Radach, and Josh Thompson, among others) may have pushed them over the edge from friendly co-existence to MMA war. Strikeforce is clearly the second most powerful MMA organization now, especially with Affliction’s future in doubt. I think what is especially painful for White to swallow is Strikeforce’s Showtime contract (if that holds true). For years White negotiated with HBO for a broadcast deal only to come up empty handed in the end. Suddenly Strikeforce comes along with enough capital to buy a slew of contracts and negotiates a deal that the UFC couldn’t pull off. That’s threatening to a man who’s used to decimating his enemies and currently has few to slay.
Mark-False. An enemy? An organization that has more than one of a division’s top five fighters would be an enemy. That would be an organization that could feasibly compete with the UFC. Strikeforce is still good for the sport because it’s run by guys that know MMA and will help grow the sport, while the UFC will pick off any truly great stars Strikeforce develops. I really like Strikeforce, I’m jazzed about the deal, but they aren’t a true enemy until Affliction falls apart and Strikeforce can pick up those fighters as well (who can wait for Kimbo v. Fedor? Over/under on that fight’s length- three seconds). Strikeforce will be able to eclipse the WEC for the rights as the second best MMA promotion, but that’s not enough to put them in adversary mode for White. There’s no denying that Strikeforce will try to position itself as a competitor to the UFC, but enemy? The “t-shirt guys” are enemies. Strikeforce is merely a very good minor league system, and a potential threat down the road.
Issue 3 – What should the UFC do with Karo Parysian?
Kelly-Karo is no longer the top ten welterweight he was when the UFC offered him a shot at then-champion Matt Hughes in 2006. Since then he’s been injured, inconsistent, and allegedly faked an injury to pull out of his UFC 88 fight when he actually suffered from a panic attack. Now he’s come up positive for three, not just one, but three banned painkillers after his UFC 94 fight against Dong Hyung Kim, a fight he barely won. Did that give him an unfair advantage in the fight? Absolutely, so if the NSAC is ever going to overturn a fight, it should be that one. Are those reasons to cut him from the UFC rolls? I think so, but the UFC has a history of keeping guys around when they’re down on their luck. Chris Lytle has lost 17 fights, but he’s still around because he gives it all he has in the octagon. Patrick Cote lost four in a row, but the UFC kept him around because he’s also an exciting fighter. So losing fights is apparently not a criteria to get cut. But stepping outside Dana White’s code of conduct is, as Jesse Taylor and John Koppenhaver (I refuse to call him War Machine) found out when they were cut for mouthing off. Jon Fitch got cut from the UFC for a day for refusing to sign a release for his likeness for a video game. In the TUF house…well, forget trying to nail down what the “banned from the UFC” criteria is there. Karo’s situation is a little different. It’s not like he came up hot for one banned substance like Sean Sherk did (who was eventually reinstated after his suspension) or is an overly exciting fighter (all of his wins in the last two years were by decision). Parysian has been caught with a host of banned substances in him and barely wins his fights. If these aren’t grounds to cut a guy from the organization, then it’s clear that the only standards for being released from the UFC are the ones in White’s head.
Mark – I don’t necessarily disagree with many of White’s cuts. While cutting guys like Werdum may be unfair, I can see how it could make sense from a business perspective. Parysian is in a tough spot. If he was an exciting fighter, he’d have more of a leg to stand on. If it’s me, I lose him. The UFC can certainly afford to lose another welterweight, especially since Parysian isn’t exactly a factor in the title picture. There’s a healthy roster of young welterweights close to having break-out years, so I only see him going down in the welterweight picture. He’s a talented fighter and he’s an excellent gatekeeper at welterweight, that’s for sure. He has a role in the UFC, but is it one that can withstand using banned substances? Probably not. Guys like Parysian are the ones that are made examples of, while people at the top (like Alves) could get away with something like this.
Switch it up. Mark goes first.
Issue 4-The UFC will have more than two title fights at UFC 100.
Mark – False. I think they will put together a terrific show for UFC 100 but the rumors about all the titles being up for grabs are just hopeful wishes. That would cripple the shows before and after UFC 100 just for one blow-out show. UFC 100 would be record-setting but it wouldn’t do enough buys to justify the losses they would take on the shows in the months before and after UFC 100. Is anyone going to pay 50 bucks for a card headlined by Dan Henderson v. Michael Bisping? What about Mike Swick v. Jon Fitch? Lyoto Machida v. Forrest Griffin? That’s like making someone pay 50 bucks to watch Rampage fight Keith Jardine (whoops). Those are good fights, but not enough to drive PPV sales, so I think UFC 100 will be a little scaled back from what most people think. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar to UFC 92. Dana White has already said GSP will fight Alves, and I would guess Henderson v. Bisping would be a part of that card as well and that also might be a good time for Rashad v. Rampage. Put together a few interesting fights on the undercard and you can have a very, very good show. It doesn’t need to be lights out from the get-go, though. It’s just not worth it.
Kelly – It might not be worth it, but we’re talking about the brainchild of an egomaniac. Sacrificing a couple of shows to put on a historical event is right up Dana White’s alley. He’s already proven that he can keep a consistently-entertaining business running when others fall by the wayside, so a huge event that no one thinks he can pull off is just the challenge he drools over. Whether or not he can pull it off is the question. We know the welterweights are probably going to fight and lightweight champion BJ Penn and top contender Kenny Florian will have plenty of time to prepare if White wants them to. Middleweight champ Anderson Silva could be ready for a new victim if he blows through Thales Leitas like I expect him too, but he’ll only have three months to prepare. The light heavyweights (Evans and Rampage) could easily be ready, though Rampage will be at a disadvantage by fighting Keith Jardine first. The heavyweights simply won’t happen. There’s no way the new unified heavyweight belt holder (Mir or Lesnar) will be ready after their UFC 98 fight for another one in less than 60 days. Besides the scheduling, there’s another issue. Even if White demands five title fights, I can’t envision all ten fighters agreeing to it. How many of these guys are willing to be demoted to non-main event status or even be the first fight of the televised card? I think in the end five title fights just won’t be feasible, but they’ll stack the undercard to make it the best UFC ever.
Issue 5 – Fedor Emelianenko should sign with the UFC.
Mark – True. I understand his desire to still compete in Sambo was a potential problem for the UFC and that Fedor’s management has been difficult to deal with, but this is something Fedor really needs to start thinking about. Affliction is on its final legs and then Fedor will be forced to sign with Strikeforce. That’s not a terrible fate, but Strikeforce won’t be throwing money around like Affliction so he’ll have to take a serious pay cut to go that route. On the other hand, he could go to the UFC and dominate the heavyweight division. More importantly, he could have the full power of the UFC marketing machine behind him. As much as Dana White has hated on Fedor in the past, he’d be the first one to jock him once Fedor signed with the UFC (and rightfully so, White is a shrewd businessman). With the UFC starting to expand more globally and signing merchandising deals and putting together UFC Primetime specials, Fedor would be walking into a gold mine. More importantly, it would introduce him to thousands of new MMA fans, cementing his future financially and his place in the sport forever.
Kelly – I won’t argue with you here. The only reason a few guys in Nowhere, Idaho think Fedor’s not the best in the world is because he hasn’t fought in the UFC. But one look at his list of victims and you realize that it’s void of only a couple guys of consequence-Couture, Mir, and Lesnar. The other UFC heavyweights aren’t ready for him, but if he came over to the UFC they would spend millions convincing us that they were. The question is will Dana swallow his pride and deal with Vadim Finkelstein? White got over his grudge against Tito and brought him back to the organization and got through his differences with Couture, so it’s possible. But there’s definite bad blood here to get past first.
Issue 6 – What should Strikeforce do with Kimbo Slice?
Mark – Now that Strikeforce has acquired the contracts of EliteXC stars, like Kimbo Slice, the question everyone has had is: what do you do with them? Scott Coker suggested he needs to have 10-12 fights before he headlines a show but it’s not like Slice is a young guy, he’s not going to get that much better as he ages. He was a huge draw but was exposed as a huge fraud. What EliteXC did with Slice is a huge black eye for the sport. Strikeforce could make some quick cash promoting him even if it’s not in a main event, but the promotion is better off leaving him behind. Strikeforce has the star power and talent to put together great shows, they don’t need a freak show. Let Kimbo go back to Japan…or better yet, let him go back to Youtube.
Kelly – I for one, would be very interested to see what Mr. Slice has been up to since his flash KO at the hands of Seth Petruzzelli. Has Bas Rutten been developing him as a fighter or has he been getting fat while he gets more gold teeth molds made? Kinda like Brock Lesnar I’d like to see what he’s really made of. You’re right that he’s not getting any younger, but there are plenty of talented, young heavyweights that Strikeforce can throw at him to test him out in short span. If he’s got what it takes in MMA, then he’ll be headlining a show in no time. If Strikeforce doesn’t pick him up there are plenty of smaller organizations that will buy his contract to bring them some notoriety. He’s good for that at least.
Kelly Crigger is a freelance MMA writer and author of the book “Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank of Mixed Martial Arts” which you can purchase by clicking here. Contact him through his website at IntoTheSharkTank.com
Mark Chalifoux is the man behind the curtain at MMA Stomping Grounds and the Baltimore Sun. Check him out at http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/sports/mma/blog/