In this installment of the MMA Roundtable, Shaun Al-Shatti and yours truly look ahead to UFC 156 to see if a judging disaster awaits us, what other fights we are looking forward to the most on that card, if Rashad Evans can make a case for fighting Anderson Silva and what to make of the loser’s and winner’s fortune for the UFC 159 bout between Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher.
1. Judge Adalaide Byrd, most notable for her recent 30-27 score in favor of Melvin Guillard over Jamie Varner, was among the three officials selected by the NSAC to judge Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar. Is there any way this won’t end badly?
Al-Shatti: I really hope it won’t. In all seriousness, the fact that Byrd has been commissioned to judge this fight continues to astound me. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you represent a state athletic commission, and let’s say your state was selected to host the first true UFC “superfight” since 2009. One side of the match-up features a man known for competing in close, often controversial decisions, of which scorecards are often analyzed and dissected in the ensuing weeks. Just based on common sense alone, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to ensure that your commission selects its three most competent, well-respected judges, if only so the likelihood of having to defend a provocative result is drastically reduced. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, right?
Or, of course, you could do the complete opposite, and instead select your most notoriously questionable judge to oversee what could likely be a close decision. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
It’s been repeated ad nauseam by now, but the lack of accountability within state commissions is both bizarre and ridiculous. Let’s look at the case of Byrd. Just a few notable examples: she scored Leonard Garcia 29-28 over Nam Phan, Carlos Eduardo Rocha 30-27 over Jake Ellnberger, the first round of Rampage-Griffin (in which Rampage dropped Griffin with an uppercut and also staggered him with power shots) for Griffin 10-9, and most recently, scored Melvin Guillard 30-27 over Jamie Varner in a decision that prompted UFC President Dana White to unload another “You could never watch a fight in your f—ing life and not score that” rant. And that’s not even mentioning that countless awful scorecards the boxing world has suffered by her. (Go ahead and watch Bernard Hopkins vs. Joe Calzaghe.)
Judging in mixed martial arts has reached the point where we actually feel the need to publicly praise judges if they don’t screw everything up, when really that should be the expectation. Few other realms in life allow individuals to perform so poorly, so consistently without any fear of culpability. All I can say is this, if the scorecards on Saturday are met with those all-to-familiar incredulous gasps, and Frankie Edgar somehow finds himself booked in yet another rematch, I pity the poor soul who has to comb through the NSAC’s inboxes on Monday morning.
Thomas: I second everything Shaun is saying here. You won’t find me disagreeing with the idea Byrd has serious judgement issues. How she managed to be selected for the UFC’s first semi-superfight in 2013 is beyond me or anyone else with the capacity to reason or take accountability seriously.
One note, though, about Byrd that troubles me. If you look at the number of bouts she judges, she isn’t universally wrong. In aggregate, most of her decisions fall in line with what educated observers are fair conclusions. The issue is that when she’s wrong, she’s really wrong. When she botches a score, she really botches a score. And it tends to happen in fights where it’s bizarrely unexpected. We aren’t talking about cases like Clay Guida vs. Hatsu Hioki where one is asking a judge to score offense from the bottom. We’re often talking about examples where a bout is a striking contest and there’s an obvious winner.
The issue there is that if past is prologue, she’s liable to have an outrageously indefensible score. And if that’s the case, either someone’s going to get robbed or we’ll have to have another unnecessary rematch.
2. Other than the main event, which fight are you most interested in ahead of Saturday night?
Al-Shatti: I never thought I’d say it, but even with the allure of comic book sized heavyweights calling my name, I can’t help but eye UFC 156’s main card welterweight pairing — Jon Fitch vs. Demian Maia — with great anticipation. Maia thus far has looked like a wholly revitalized fighter at 170 pounds, and his brutal victory at UFC 153 cannot be overstated. Say whatever you will about Rick Story, but the man had faced a murder’s row of welterweight finishers and never been stopped, until Maia literally juiced crimson liquid out of his head with what my friend over here dubbed a Rear Naked Torque.
Likewise Fitch seems to have undergone a career reshaping since calling his shot for ‘Fight of the Night’ at UFC 153, then turning in the most electrifying performance of his life with a harrowing victory over Erick Silva. Prior to the bout Fitch had essentially been thrown to the curb, even closing as the underdog on Las Vegas sportsbooks, but the 34-year-old came out like a man on fire, hunting for finishes while reminding everyone that he once went 13-1 over a 14-fight stretch inside the UFC.
The ground work when these two men meet should be fascinating theater. Plus, if nothing else, the winner will rocket into an already crowded upper echelon of the welterweight division, one that is buzzing with potentially salacious match-ups.
Thomas: I’d say the return of Alistair Overeem and his heavyweight bout with Antonio Silva. On the one hand, I’m excited to see contenders develop and line up to face current champion Cain Velasquez. No one who hasn’t already faced Velasquez is more intriguing and could do bigger business than Overeem.
On the other hand, one wonders if a train wreck is coming. Daniel Cormier says he won’t fight Velasquez and the champion says the same thing. Even with a win over Overeem, Silva is not an obvious contender since he was positively smashed to pieces by Velasquez in May. That means an Overeem loss would force Cormier to reconsider (unlikely), force a rematch with Junior dos Santos (too early) or force Velasquez to take a fight against an undeserving contender. I’m not praying for chaos and I don’t see Silva winning as the most likely possibility, but I can’t rule it out either. And what a show that would be.
3. Let’s say Rashad Evans wins on Saturday. Will fans demand he face Anderson Silva next or work towards a rematch with Jon Jones?
Thomas: Evans has a unique opportunity. He can beat someone who is a legitimate challenge (but is very beatable) at light heavyweight and then move to middleweight. The door is open right now at 185 pounds. Chris Weidman is floating around out there, but I’ve had the same surgery he had (torn labrum). The recovery is slower than one realizes it’s going to be. That means there’s time. The champion himself is slow to take on a challenge in Weidman that no one knows, so he’s reduced to calling at the Cung Le’s of the world.
With his fight being Saturday, a turnaround spot to give Silva the fight in the Spring he’s looking for is entirely possible. Yes, Evans needs to look good on Saturday, but that isn’t the central issue. The crux of the matter is Evans needs to open his mouth. He should state without pause or hemming and hawing that he wants to move to middleweight and wants Silva. He should state he’s the only one with a real chance to beat Silva and that he’s tired of Silva picking his opponents. Finally someone is picking him. In short, he has to be the engineer of his own future.
I reject the idea this wouldn’t cause a stir and get things moving in that direction. Evans has a style to at least make a bout against Silva intriguing and the star power to make it attractive. Strike while the iron is hot, I say.
Al-Shatti: I could be off base here, but the sense I get is that there is very little interest in seeing a Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans rematch. The first bout was relatively one-sided, and a second meeting between the former training partners would likely be more so.
On the flip side, I don’t see the Anderson Silva vs. Rashad Evans rumblings going anywhere anytime soon unless, A.) Silva finally signs a contract to defend his title against somebody, or B.) Evans publicly says he won’t accept the fight. Until either of those options occur, and as long as Evans continues to mull over the idea in every pre- and post-fight interview over the next few weeks, a potential Silva-Evans meeting remains the most lucrative option out there for a reigning middleweight champion holding out for big-money fights.
4. Michael Bisping is set to face Alan Belcher. Both are still contenders, but coming off of losses. Where will the winner of that bout rank after it’s over?
Thomas: Not too far from where they are now, but that’s not that bad. I suspect the winner would get a nice reputational rebound, but still have to win two or three more fights because the words ‘title shot’ ever came up again the same sentence as their name. Still, it’s a credible victory no matter who wins and nothing to dismiss.
In fact, I worry more about how far the loser could fall than the winner could climb. Both Bisping and Belcher have been those guys who were good and seen as possibly great, but have fallen short in expectations or achievements. In fact, both recently dropped the ball in convincing losses and not for the first time in their UFC runs. They both stand a lot to gain by beating the other, but they risk losing even more. They’d lose two highly-important bouts in a row and both to credible fighters. Worse, a match between these two sort of defines for good who is the bigger disappointment. The winner can have claimed to stumbled here or there, but on balance availed themselves nicely in their career. The loser risks looking like the guy who only briefly flirted with being anything special and is reduced to prelim card fights or bouts of relatively minimal consequence. That is some tough sledding.
Al-Shatti: Luke is absolutely correct with this one. As the old saying goes, a win in April would put either man right back “in the mix.” The middleweight division is shallow enough for any top-10 fighter that hasn’t already lost to Anderson Silva to quickly climb back up the ladder on the strength of a few impressive wins.
And if we’re being honest, that fact likely helps to Bisping a bit more than Belcher. Fairly or unfairly, Bisping remains one of the only marketable, big name fighters the UFC has in the upper echelon of the middleweight division without a thrashing from Silva marring his record. As we’ve seen recently, it’s growing easier for discussions of merit to be thrown out the window in favor of marketability when it comes to title shots. If Bisping can get past Belcher, then string together perhaps one or two more high-profile wins, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility to see the Brit right back where he was prior to Vitor Belfort bringing down the hammer.
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