With the new year fast approaching, this week’s MMA Roundtable looks into the future at a host of relevant topics.
For instance, Roy Nelson is on a two-fight win streak, but at age 36, can “Big Country” still make a run for a title? Staying on the heavyweights, in the upcoming Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez matchup, what is the best result the UFC could hope for? Interestingly this week, Georges St-Pierre claimed that Benson Henderson gave him the “blueprint” on how to beat Nick Diaz. Was he serious or just publicly posturing, and speaking of GSP, what happens if his teammate and fellow welterweight Rory MacDonald keeps winning?
To discuss it all, my colleague Luke Thomas joins me at the roundtable.
1. At 36, what’s really left for Roy Nelson in the UFC? More specifically, who should he fight next?
Thomas: What’s interesting about Nelson’s ability is that it certainly hasn’t declined. He’s 36, yes, and likely long past his prime. It’s also true, though, that he’s still able to defeat the opponents he’s supposed to and he’s doing so with the same level of ruthlessness and skill he’s capable of drawing upon.
The problem is that he hasn’t progressed much. He’s trimmed up a bit and I’m sure all the training has augmented his skill set. But as it relates to the upper echelon of the division, I have a hard time pointing to anything that gives me a renewed sense of confidence he can compete. I don’t think he’ll get blown out necessarily, but win? Win enough to go on a title run? I just don’t see it.
If Nelson can compete and desires to do so, he should. And as long as he wins, he deserves incrementally more difficult opposition. He may not like the idea, but he’d be well served as an opponent for the next rising contender. He’s a tough test for anyone, but a win over him is something of a stage one coronation. Either way, give the man what he wants. Let him keep what he deserves as long as he can compete against reasonably relevant opposition.
Chiappetta: “What’s left?” is a strange question in the sense that it intrinsically implies that he’s nearing the last chapter of his book. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a 36-year-old athlete, but then again, Nelson just finished starching two relatively young and promising talents. Shouldn’t we be asking “what’s left” for them?
Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to support Luke’s belief that Nelson can’t put together a long enough streak to go on a title run. He’s been blown out by the three best fighters — Fabricio Werdum, Frank Mir and Junior dos Santos — he’s fought in the UFC. Part of the problem with him is that while he does boast great knockout power, he is undersized with a short reach. Those are problems he can’t correct, though as he better realizes his striking potential, he will learn how to better control distance. After all, keep in mind, Nelson was mostly a submission fighter for the first half of his career. He is still something of a work in progress, even at an advanced age.
But therein lies the rub. Nelson doesn’t have much time, and he won’t get many more chances at the top-tier talent. I advocated in Tuesday’s “Forward Roll” that he gets a match with Cheick Kongo, a long and tall striker. If Nelson can handle him, maybe he still has a hope of getting past the speed bumps that have dogged him in the past. If not, maybe then it’s fair to ask “What’s left?”
2. The UFC often says it doesn’t matter who wins fights and they’ll find a way to make it work. But realistically speaking, which outcome is better for them: Cain Velasquez winning his belt back or Junior dos Santos repeating his performance?
Thomas: Cain Velasquez. Here’s why.
No one really knows which nationalities or groups of people will eventually morph into MMA fanatics. Some calls are easier than others, but the UFC famously thought the U.S., U.K. and Mexico would be their easiest entries. After all, boxing has thrived in all three. Yet, those three have turned out to be some of the toughest.
Latin America, generally, has been extraordinarily difficult (Brazil notwithstanding). The Spanish-speaking world of the Western hemisphere, despite having an affinity for some combative sports, hordes of good athletes and surging economies, has not turned for MMA. Yet.
That’s where Velasquez comes in. He’s promotable in the U.S. for a host of reasons, not least of which is the Latino audiences in the country attracted to him, his story and their shared identity. But Velasquez is the best hope of getting into Mexico, too. He’s been doing press tours in Latin media and Mexico specifically. Mexico’s economy is on the rise and while there’s tons of work to do beyond promoting any one fighter, having a Spanish-speaking Mexican-American heavyweight champion makes busting down the doors a lot easier.
Velasquez won’t make UFC popular in Mexico itself. It’ll have to be a comprehensive effort. I also don’t think that if Mexico moves to MMA, that it’s automatic the rest of South America will fall in line. These are vastly different countries with completely dissimilar cultures. But just as the U.K. expansion was a learning experience for the UFC, so, too, can Mexico be for the rest of Central and South America.
Chiappetta: I think there are two ways to look at this question. First, what outcome would be best for the business of the sport? In that, I would say Luke is correct. Velasquez was beginning to make inroads in Mexico and the Mexican community when he was beaten by dos Santos in 2011, and while he’s still a viable heavyweight, the extra cachet that comes with being the world champion can only help expedite the process.
The other way to look at the question is, what outcome would be best for the competitive part of the sport? Again, the answer is Velasquez. If he loses twice to dos Santos, he is almost certainly done as a title contender unless or until dos Santos loses to someone else. It’s very difficult to sell a fight series when one of the parties hasn’t won a single fight, although boxing just pulled it off with Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and somehow got the best fight out of the bunch in the last one. If Velasquez wins, you have a potential rubber match between the two as a quick turnaround bout if its wanted.
That said, I think the UFC goes into each title fight with a general idea of what to do whether the champion retains or the challenger unseats him. From there, all they can do is wait for things to play out and then attempt to capitalize on whatever situation emerges.
3. UFC 158 boasts a welterweight tripleheader featuring some of the division’s top talents. Among them is Rory MacDonald, who’s facing recent No. 1 contender Carlos Condit. He’s said he won’t fight his teammate Georges St-Pierre, but if he beats Condit, then what?
Chiappetta: This is becoming quite the little conundrum. Truth be told, there’s not a lot of space separating MacDonald from St-Pierre, and if he beats the most recent top contender (and GSP beats Diaz), the room between them shrinks even more. At some point, a decision must be made about who’s going where.
In the past, St-Pierre has spoken about the possibility of facing Anderson Silva and moving up to 185, but more recently he seems less interested in the idea, saying there’s plenty of challengers at welterweight. If MacDonald is serious about not fighting St-Pierre, then what is he building towards? He has repeatedly said he wants to be the best fighter in the world. If that is the case, he has to start with fighting St-Pierre, even if it means cutting ties with him. He often says that he wants to be a champion, and if so, his path has to run through GSP. I believe that deep down, MacDonald would be willing to fight him. St-Pierre has already gone through a similar situation with Condit, and he shouldn’t take MacDonald’s dream away from him by dictating a move up to 185.
MacDonald certainly gives off the vibe that he’d fight anyone, so I’m sure he’d move up to middleweight if he had to, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Welterweight is his optimal class, and if that means a collision course with his friend, so be it.
Thomas: I agree with Mike that MacDonald seems like the sort of fellow who ultimately would have far less of an issue facing St-Pierre than the champ would in returning the favor, although both are probably up for it. But willingness to do so is different than real world considerations, namely, how to divide coaching and sparring partners.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say GSP has more authority, loyalty and perhaps seniority than any other fighter in that gym. What he wants, I suspect he basically gets. And that’s the way it should be. We can all recall it is MacDonald who uprooted his life to move to Montreal to train at the gym when he perceived things not going right at home. I’m sure he’s a part of the Tri-Star family, but he’s not the head of the household.
Which brings us to the issue of logistics: how would coaching staff, gym time and sparring partners be divided? Yes, that gym is enormous and maybe there’s an arrangement. But even if you could separate it out, would the parties involved want to? Would they be willing to live with the consequences?
Many Dutch-born or raised fighters have told me they don’t have this problem, particularly as it applies to kickboxing. Artur Kyshenko just fought Murthel Groenhart, for example. But this ain’t Holland and it isn’t MMA. I have my doubts Firas Zahabi would allow for literal infighting in his gym. I don’t know which way they’ll break, but I don’t see this fight as imminent.
4. Speaking of GSP, though he’s always been secretive with his game plans, he recently thanked Benson Henderson for offering a “blueprint” on how to handle a Diaz brother. Is he being sincere or just throwing a smoke screen?
Chiappetta: I thought this was an interesting bit of mind play from the champ, especially because it means he’s firing the first salvo since the fight has been agreed to.
St-Pierre, under the tutelage of his top coaches Firas Zahabi and John Danaher, is one of the most strategic minds in mixed martial arts, and he’s shown a willingness to adjust his game plans according to his opponent’s weaknesses. The Diaz brothers fight with similar styles, although both have their own wrinkles. Therefore, in theory, the game plan that beat Nate is likely to beat Nick. And St-Pierre has all of the tools that Henderson used to get the job done, so he would have minimal problems attempting the same feat.
Most of St-Pierre’s opponents know he’s likely to dictate the fight’s terms, and Diaz does not have the wrestling chops to resist him. So the reality is that St-Pierre could actually offer a basic outline of his game plan — his “blueprint” — and still win. He’s that good. I’m sure he’s half-kidding when he thanked Henderson, because he already knew exactly what it was going to take to beat Diaz. When the fight happens, his strategy probably will look somewhat similar. The bigger story here is that St-Pierre is willing to play the mind game and engage Diaz through the media. That shows his motivation to fight Diaz is genuine, and that should further excite fight fans for the bout.
Thomas: I take a bit of a different attitude to this than Mike. I agree it’s interesting to see GSP willing to play the mind games through the media. But what’s more curious to me is that one could make the case that the basic blueprint for Henderson fighting Nate Diaz came from…Rory MacDonald.
Their fights are by no means identical. In fact, there are clear differences. Diaz vs. MacDonald took place at welterweight, MacDonald is very different from Henderson and this was a bout in 2011 between two fighters who hadn’t sharpened all of their skills. But the similarities are there, too, particularly as it applies to wrestling.
The high amplitude slams, the wrestling from behind around the waist, the takedowns, the particular nature of submission defense from MacDonald. All of it was something Henderson had to learn from if he watches tape on his opposition. The loss to MacDonald was Diaz’s last prior to facing Henderson. Are we really to believe he had no knowledge of how that fight went?
Maybe GSP’s comments were an oversight. Maybe he’s playing mind games as Mike suggested. Maybe he was just reacting to a question from the media and decided to keep his response relevant to the actors named in the question. I don’t know. But it wasn’t Henderson who wrote the blueprint and it’s a misappropriation of history to say as much. The question is: was it intentional?
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