(Slightly bored versus uncomfortably intense. Who ya got? Photo courtesy of Combat Lifestyle’s UFC 107 press conference set.)
With UFC 107 (which we’ll be liveblogging) set to rock Memphis, Tennessee’s precious little world on Saturday night, we take a moment to argue over who’s going to be wearing gold when the night is over, who’s got a championship in their future, and what the UFC should do about future events that get crappier with every news cycle.
BF: I definitely think Sanchez is the toughest lightweight challenger Penn has faced, but that’s not saying all that much. Much of his career has been spent fighting bigger guys like Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes. The two times he has defended his title since beating Joe Stevenson for it, he fought Sean Sherk and Kenny Florian. Sherk basically took himself out of the fight by trying to outbox Penn, despite his T-Rex arms, and Florian just didn’t have anything with which to threaten him. Sanchez is better on the feet than both those guys, and he’s also more aggressive and harder to hurt.
So yeah, Sanchez is the toughest title challenger yet. Big deal. I still think Penn beats him without much trouble. Penn’s stand-up is better, he has superior finishing power, and Sanchez won’t be able to take him down easily. The only major advantage Sanchez might have is cardio, but that hasn’t typically been an issue for Penn at 155 pounds. I’m picking Penn via TKO in the fourth.
BG: Sanchez isn’t just better on the feet, more aggressive, and harder to hurt than BJ Penn’s two previous opponents at lightweight. He also has certain psychological advantages — as strange as that is to say about someone who’s so obviously insane. Penn’s fight strategy usually involves getting in his opponent’s head before the match, and breaking his opponent down mentally during the match. That won’t work with Sanchez. There’s no hot-button trash-talk that will set him off (a la Sean Sherk and the steroid accusations). Sanchez doesn’t speak reverently of BJ as a "master" like Florian did. He’s too positive to doubt himself, and too crazy to quit. The Nightmare comes off as completely fearless, which is big help when you’re fighting a seemingly unbeatable champion.
Penn still has all the martial advantages, so I wouldn’t bet against him. But to say that Penn beats Sanchez without much trouble? No way. BJ will have a beast on his hands tomorrow night. I say the champ retains his belt via close (but unanimous) decision, in a fight that makes us momentarily forget how awful the UFC’s main events have been lately. Afterwards, Sanchez will say that he could go on for another five rounds. Penn will be so exhausted that he’ll barely be able to lick the blood off his gloves.
Between all the recent fighter-pullouts and general lack of title fights (aside from Penn vs. Sanchez), would it be a good idea for the UFC to cancel an event once in a while? Can an overload of mediocre product hurt the brand in the long run?
BG: It seems to me that the UFC is becoming a victim of its own momentum. Building the brand by continuously holding events in new cities has increased the overall frequency of their shows, yet the amount of quality product they have to offer hasn’t increased at all. Maybe if the UFC absorbed the WEC’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions, or launched a women’s division, it would be a different story. But as things stand now — with all the injured champions and staph-addled contenders — they’re simply trying to do more with less, and it isn’t working.
Here’s what bothers me: I get the feeling that Dana White wouldn’t cancel a show under any circumstances, no matter how weak things get. There has to be a threshold of quality below which a UFC event is called off, and in my opinion, UFC 108 has sunk below that threshold. Rashad vs. Thiago isn’t main-event quality, and yet there’s nothing else on the card to really get excited about. I feel bad for anybody who paid full price for a ticket to see Silva vs. Belfort, or Big Nog vs. Velasquez, or Gonzaga vs. Dos Santos, or Daley vs. Condit, and who will now be sitting through one of the thinnest pay-per-view lineups in UFC history. The card is wrecked. At this point, UFC 108 should be canceled and the fights should be re-distributed to the events directly before and after it. It’s not a solution that I would recommend more than once every few years, under extreme circumstances, but if there was ever a time for it, it’s now.
The odds of this actually happening are very low, because Dana White is a proud man. But maybe dismal PPV buys and overwhelmingly negative fan reaction to the event will convince him to slow down the UFC’s frequency until the champions are defending their belts again and we’re at the point where we’re not complaining about every single lineup. The UFC can’t really be blamed for the Injury Plague of 2009, but they’re turning off a lot of fans by plowing forward as if nothing’s wrong.
BF: Well, look who’s ready to cut and run at the first sign of trouble. I should have expected this from a New York City elitist like you. Okay, so the UFC got hit with some bad breaks and as a result the people who bought tickets to see what they thought was going to be a main event to tell their grandkids about, well, they end up paying $500 a pop to see a fight they won’t even remember by Monday morning. That’s not the ideal situation, but your solution is for the UFC to just throw their hands up and say ‘screw this, we’re staying home’?
Let’s consider the long-term consequences of that. Since the fight’s in Vegas around New Year’s, plenty of the attendees will be coming from out of town, and they probably already have their flights and/or hotels booked. Probably they’re thinking of this as the one vacation they take every year to keep them from going crazy and murdering their families. These fights might not be what they were hoping for, but it’s still an excuse to get plastered in Vegas and they can still buy their wife a TapouT thong at the arena to show her that she was never completely forgotten during this little Mancation.
Only now you’ve canceled it. Now they’ve got nothing to do on their Vegas vacation except guzzle mixed drinks out of an Eiffel Tower-shaped receptacle and get thrown out of strip clubs for trying to convince the dancers to wrestle one another on stage. Meanwhile, you’ve burned a bridge with the arena where you booked the event many months ago, your marketing materials are now Christmas wrapping paper, and your fighters are grumbling to the media about being jerked around. Now tell me, how is that better than putting on the best event you can, even under difficult circumstances?
UFC 107 features a lot of guys who have either had their championship dreams smashed already, or else never ever got that close. Take a look at the undercard and tell me which fighter has the greatest chance to be a champion some day. Then tell me how far away that day is.
BF: Damn, mysterious Ben vs. Ben question-generating oracle. That’s a tough one. If you hadn’t specified the undercard as the place to look, I would have said Diego Sanchez. I don’t think he’ll win this time around, but he’s still young (almost 28), lives clean, trains hard, and he should be around long enough to get himself a belt one day.
But if I absolutely have to limit my choices to the undercard, I’ll take Jon Fitch. In order for it to happen he’ll need someone to retire – preferably someone whose initials rhyme with PSP – and soon, but he’s the most talented fighter outside of the main event. It doesn’t help that he’s actually older than the current welterweight champ, or that he got mauled by him the first time around, but hey, maybe St. Pierre will get bored and leave MMA altogether in order to test himself in the world of competitive ballroom dancing. Stranger things have happened.
BG: Here’s the problem with Fitch: He hasn’t finished a fight in two-and-a-half years, Dana White hates his management, he won’t fight the other highly-ranked members of his camp, and he already challenged for the belt once. Put all that together, and you can assume that Jon Fitch will only be given another title shot as an absolute last resort. And if he keeps drawing opponents like Mike Pierce, the Shocking Upset Fairy will visit him sooner or later and toss him down the ladder.
Doesn’t it make more sense to say that Frank Mir has the greatest chance to be a champion again? I mean, he beat Brock Lesnar in their first match, so theoretically he might be able to do it again, right? And what if Lesnar is never the same because of his health issues? What if he never returns at all? That would open up the division nicely for the cocky grappling wiz from Las Vegas. Of course, he’d still have to deal with massive wrestlers like Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez at some point, but we’ve all seen Mir produce miracles off his back. If he can beat Cheick Kongo, he’s still very much a player in the heavyweight title picture, and we could be watching him take another shot at the belt this time next year.