With a blockbuster UFC 87 lineup as our fodder, it’s time again for Cage Potato’s editors to argue like an old married couple that only got hitched because of an unexpected pregnancy. We don’t love each other and yet we don’t know enough to expect better from our lives, so here we are. In this edition we debate topics such as what’s to become of Brock Lesnar on Saturday night and beyond, who will be the number one lightweight contender when the dust finally settles, will Rampage Jackson be back in the UFC any time soon, and more. Let’s grimly get it on.
Will Brock Lesnar revive his MMA career with this fight, or will he officially be a bust once UFC 87 is in the books?
Fowlkes: Clearly the UFC isn’t interested in giving Brock Lesnar a lay-up to help jumpstart his MMA career, and you have to respect that. Heath Herring is tough and experienced and, had a couple things gone differently for him, he could easily be the top heavyweight contender right now instead of Frank Mir, who won all of two straight fights to achieve that distinction.
Lesnar is a physical specimen who is athletically gifted, this we know. But what else do we know about him? He hates airplanes and gays, prizes staying home, and is vulnerable to submissions. Basically, we don’t know what he’s really capable of as an MMA fighter. Strength won’t be enough against Herring (who will have spent the last couple months drilling his wrestling if he has any sense at all) and strength is about all we can count on from Lesnar at this point.
Herring is too crafty a veteran to get overwhelmed by pure power. He’s going to pick Lesnar apart on the feet and submit him late in the second or early in the third, and when he does you should turn up your TV so you can actually hear the air going out of Lesnar’s hype balloon. The UFC will give him a young up-and-comer next, just to see what he has left, but this is the point where he goes from a top prospect to another guy fighting for contract survival.
Goldstein: Yeah, Herring’s probably been drilling his wrestling. You know who else has been drilling his wrestling? Brock Lesnar. I wouldn’t be surprised if either fighter pulled a win out of this match, but there’s one thing that’s guaranteed: At some point, Herring will be taken down and put on his back. Seriously.
The question is, how will Herring deal with it? Mir dealt with it by shaking off the cobwebs during a questionable pause in the action by Steve Mazzagatti, then exploiting the tremendous gulf between his submission skills and Lesnar’s submission defense. Unfortunately, Herring isn’t a world-class jiu-jitsu player like Mir. The Texas Crazy Horse says he’s fought big, strong wrestlers before, so Lesnar won’t present any new challenges. Well, the last time Herring fought a strong wrestler it was Jake O’Brien, and he got dominated. You can think of Lesnar as a more desperate, less gentle version of Jake O’Brien. BG’s official pick: Lesnar by 2nd-round ground-and-pound TKO.
Of course I could be wrong. And if Brock Lesner loses, we might see him taking an extended break to decide if this UFC thing is really for him. The man is a headliner — fighting some can in the leadoff match of a pay-per-view is not what he signed up for. If he can’t beat Herring, it probably won’t be worth the effort anymore.
What’s the UFC’s most exciting division right now?
Goldstein: For me, it’s still the light-heavyweights, mainly because it’s the only division where the champion looks extremely vulnerable. While it’s difficult to establish contenders who are on the level of BJ Penn, GSP, Anderson Silva, and Minotauro Nogueira — and it’s not easy to generate heat for championship squash matches — over at 205 there’s a murderer’s row of guys like Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Lyoto Machida, and Thiago Silva, who could all give Forrest Griffin a very bad night.
Add in Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, and even Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, throw the names in a hat and draw two at random — whatever the matchup is, it’ll probably be epic. There’s a shark-tank vibe at light-heavyweight that you don’t see as much in the other divisions. The only gripe I’d have with the UFC’s 205-pound class is the relative lack of up-and-comers being developed, but there’s so much chaos in the top ten (the good kind) that I’ll be happy to watch it unfold for a while.
Even though I hear a lot of people name it as their favorite, the UFC’s lightweight division doesn’t do much for me. Besides BJ, Kenny, and Roger, the top tier of the 155-pound class consists of guys who can’t finish fights (Tyson Griffin, Frankie Edgar), fighters who BJ Penn has already beaten (Sean Sherk, Joe Stevenson), inconsistent performers (Clay Guida), and a few exciting fighters whose title shots are years away (Nate Diaz, Mac Danzig, Gray Maynard). Other than watching those last three guys ascend the ranks, there aren’t too many lightweight matchups in the UFC that would get me fired up.
Fowlkes: What I hear you saying is that you favor the light heavyweights as the most exciting division because the belt gets passed around so much and no dominant force exists. That does make things interesting, and the UFC did get a major talent infusion from Pride in that department, but I don’t think that makes it the most exciting division.
The lightweight class is clearly the most diverse and talent-rich division in the UFC, if not all of MMA. Sure, B.J. Penn looks to be a little too far ahead of everyone else right now to make the title picture as unpredictable as you might like, but tell me this: which division has the best odds of producing a truly thrilling bout on any given night? Kenny Florian and Roger Huerta ought to provide a good example of that on Saturday.
There are so many interesting up-and-comers, so many guys who can do everything well and do it non-stop for three rounds, I’d rather watch the lightweights than any other division. Maybe if the UFC clears out some of their TUF rejects and lands a few more 155-ers from now-defunct organizations, things could really get interesting.
Who will emerge as the number one lightweight contender, and will they get a shot at BJ Penn any time this year?
Fowlkes: If you were to try and create a guaranteed fight of the night in some super secret lab at the South Pole, you couldn’t do better than Florian-Huerta. This is a great match between two guys who never quit and I couldn’t be more excited for it. Because it’s so competitive, it’s difficult to call, but I have to give the edge to Florian. He’s been in more tough battles in his career and his submissions game is always a threat. Huerta is a great athlete and an absolute warrior, but he doesn’t do any one thing so exceptionally well that Florian won’t have an answer for it.
Once Florian wins, however, then the real challenge starts. B.J. Penn isn’t all that interested in defending the lightweight title right now. Odds are he’s going to look at Florian as more of an annoyance than a threat, while Penn’s real focus will be on the main event this Saturday night. He wants GSP, and that’s a bout the UFC would love to have for a big New Year’s Eve show. So where would Florian fit in there?
The UFC could twist Penn’s arm and make him fight Florian, but October’s pretty well booked and if they did it in November they’d have to be willing to sacrifice the New Year’s Eve extravaganza. What’s more, they probably aren’t passionate enough about Penn-Florian to force the issue. Penn has been a good soldier for Dana White lately, and those are hard to come by right now. As long as GSP defends his title successfully, KenFlo will be taking the rest of the year off.
Goldstein: I agree that Florian has the edge, and I’ll predict he scores a unanimous decision win over Huerta in a frantic Fight of the Night. Assuming GSP wins as well on Saturday, BJ Penn will be booked through the end of the year, so to answer the second part of this question: no, absolutely not.
Would that mean we’d see Penn/Florian for the lightweight title in Spring ’09? I wouldn’t bet on it. Not only does BJ seem uninterested in defending his 155-pound belt, he doesn’t seem to be interested in being a lightweight at all. Penn is at the stage in his career where he only wants to be involved in superfights — star vs. star, weight class vs. weight class. Relatively speaking, Florian is small potatoes. Penn knows that GSP is the legacy-building matchup, and he’s also expressed interest in moving up to middleweight before he retires.
BJ Penn may be a good soldier for the UFC, but he’s never been a company man — he’ll do what suits him best, first and foremost. If Penn manages to beat GSP later this year, I don’t think he’ll ever come back to lightweight. And that might create another interim/vacant belt situation where Kenny Florian would have to fight another top contender for his division’s belt. Either way, he’s got a long layoff ahead of him.
Will Rampage ever fight again? If so, when?
Goldstein: Even in a worst-case scenario, Quinton Jackson won’t be doing a long prison term. So assuming he still has love for the fight game — and maybe that’s a big assumption — it’s more a question of when, and on what terms. Early rumors suggested that the UFC wanted Jackson to fight in November, which seems completely unfeasible to me, particularly because he’s currently without a trainer. Prior to the undisclosed personal beef that caused Juanito and Rampage to become estranged, it was clear that Ibarra was a strong, guiding presence in Jackson’s life. Rampage may need another central figure like that before he can start building himself back up again. (May we suggest John Hackleman or Anthony Robbins?
The (sort-of) good news is, the UFC doesn’t need him right now. They’ll certainly hang on to him because his comeback fight will draw an enormous amount of interest, but with so many great match-ups available in the light heavyweight division, they can afford to have him on ice for a while. My prediction: He’ll have to deal with his legal problems for a few months, then spend a few more months getting back in shape (physically and mentally), and he’ll be ready to fight again next summer. And that will be the fight that really decides his career, because it’ll determine if the old Rampage — the one who beat the hell out of Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson last year — still exists. I’d guess that Quinton Jackson has too much pride to continue fighting as a fading cautionary tale.
Fowlkes: Rampage will absolutely fight again. Even if he were so badly messed up mentally that he shouldn’t, he still would. Of course, Dana White says it isn’t psychological (fasting and living on energy drinks for a week is a totally sane thing for a grown man to do), so maybe we’re blowing that aspect out of proportion. He won’t do any serious jail time unless he screws up again, you’re right about that, so I’d say the UFC will put him back into action some time after the new year.
Is that the best idea for Rampage? Probably not. Since this situation seems to have stemmed at least in part from the stress of a title fight and the aftermath of losing, he probably shouldn’t rush right back into the spotlight and put himself under that kind of pressure so soon. He certainly shouldn’t do it against Wanderlei Silva, who must occupy a very dark and scary room in the sprawling ranch house that is Rampage’s mind, and most likely it’s a room he doesn’t like to go into very often.
But the UFC has to be wondering how much mileage they can get out of Rampage now that he’s been labeled a head case, so they’ll want to make that fight sooner rather than later. Waiting until next summer might be the best idea, but there’s no way either Rampage or Dana White can force themselves to wait that long. Something tells me they’re both the open-presents-on-Christmas-Eve type. Even if the present is a ticking bomb.