Mailbag: How will UFC cutbacks affect MMA? Are rule changes ahead?
Josh Burkman showed remarkable timing in his first-round knockout of Aaron Simpson during the undercard of Saturday night's World Series of Fighting event in Atlantic City. So how is it possible that Burkman lost all sense of timing as soon as his hand was raised?
The 32-year-old had just put on an impressive performance in a bout pitting a couple of former UFC fighters. Burkman is an alum of Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter who went on to compete 10 times for the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts. He was let go in 2008, though, after losing his third straight fight, and went back to toiling on minor-league fight cards near his home in Utah. After he'd won five of six bouts, Burkman got a call from WSOF and added to his positive run with a win at the promotion's inaugural event back in November, setting up last Saturday's high-stakes showdown.
High stakes? In the World Series of Fighting?
Well, yes, relatively speaking. WSOF had recently signed Jon Fitch, the highest-profile athlete let go so far in the UFC's ongoing roster purge. And the new MMA organization run by kickboxing champion Ray Sefo had decided that the Burkman-Simpson winner would make a good opponent for Fitch's June 14 debut.
However, Burkman had other ideas. "I think I deserve a title shot," he said in an interview in the cage, with Fitch standing just a few feet away, probably tweeting "WTF?" as he watched and listened. "I earned my title shot. I think Jon Fitch needs to earn his spot, and then we can fight for the title."
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, a couple of thoughts raced through my mind, both in the form of questions. First: There's a champion in the WSOF? And second: What the heck are you doing, Josh?
When you're fighting in the WSOF, a company that as you're speaking is in the middle of just its second show, the opportunity to step in with Fitch is your title shot. Where other than in the UFC could you hope for a matchup with a Top 10 welterweight? Well, here's your opportunity. Better seize it.
The concept of the WSOF and opportunity came up in an exchange I recently had with an SI.com reader. "What do you make of the UFC trimming its roster?" wrote Alan from Bethlehem, Pa. "I mean both for fighters and for the sport as a whole."
A two-fold question, of course, requires a two-fold answer. Some fighters no doubt will suffer, I responded, because if the UFC makes good on its claim that 100 names on its roster must go, that's going to put a lot of athletes out of work. And even most of those who do find new cages in which to set up shop will be working for less. However, a purge of that magnitude is sure to set loose some more top-level fighters who, like Fitch, can bring a little name recognition to promotions like the WSOF. That's where opportunity comes in.
Now, new fight organizations invariably are criticized for trotting out what some fans like to dismiss as "UFC retreads." And it's true that a guy like Burkman could fall into that category, although less so than the main eventers on Saturday night's card, ex-UFC heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski and chronic weigh-in failure Anthony Johnson. But if a few more Top 10 guys are cut loose from the UFC, the WSOF can instantly raise its public profile. An organization like Bellator can ramp up the level of competition in its tournaments.
Perhaps it's foolhardy to look for expanding promotional opportunity in a sport that's become synonymous with the UFC in much the way that professional football means the NFL and pro basketball the NBA. But it just seems that these newer fight organizations have the media exposure and financial backing to take advantage of the UFC's cutbacks. They just have to kick the tires of what's available on the used car lot and wisely choose only vehicles that still have some rubber for the road.
OK, on to some other items from the MMA mailbag, which has been especially stuffed with reader reaction to the acrimonious Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz duel. Let's sample some:
You are way out of line with your description of the fight. St-Pierre was never -- and I can't say this emphatically enough -- never even close to finishing Diaz. He never had him hurt! Watch the fight again, and you'll see that in between Rounds 2 and 3, Diaz tells his corner, "He hits like a b----." Look at both of their faces after the fight, and if you didn't know what happened, you would think that Diaz won the fight.
It was obvious from your columns during fight week that you were not hiding your disdain for Diaz. Just look at your prediction. While we all thought GSP would win, we knew he would just hold him down and do what he had to do to get the win. I'm pretty sure GSP-Hendricks is gonna be Georges controlling [Johny] just like he did Diaz. It will be a boring fight. -- Barry, Vancouver, British Columbia
Oh, Barry, where do I begin? I guess I'll start with your suggestion that I have disdain for Diaz. I do not. I like the guy, and the contrarian in me especially appreciates how he marches to the beat of any damn drummer he feels like ... except when he doesn't feel like marching, in which case he just walks around drinking toxic water and scalping wolf tickets. C'mon, it would be foolish for anyone in the media to hate on a guy who always is a story. The gentlemanly, buttoned-down St-Pierre has nothing but his fighting to offer us. Diaz, on the other hand, is a roller-coaster ride through the House of Mirrors. Unless you're Dana White or part of a UFC team that has to babysit the guy, you can't help but just sit back and scream "Wheeeee!"
As for my prediction, I'd say it was uncharacteristically spot-on. (Have you seen some of my dimwitted prognostication from past fight cards?) In forecasting a GSP win by decision, I wrote, "Forget the uncharacteristic fury we've seen from Georges of late. Diaz trash-talks a good game and has dragged lesser men into his torture chamber, but once the cage door closes, GSP is done with that nonsense. He'll methodically slow Nick's forward-moving stalking with jabs and kicks, and when he's ready he'll put the challenger on his back and spend the rest of the 25 minutes beating his head into the canvas." That's pretty much what happened, isn't it?
Lastly, I have to disagree with your assessment of St-Pierre vs. Hendricks. Johny is a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion. He has the chops to nullify the champ's takedown dominance, which gives him an opportunity to capitalize on the lone Achilles heel we've seen in Georges' game: occasionally getting clipped. It happened against Carlos Condit (though GSP recovered) and against Matt Serra (he didn't recover). Hendricks has thunder in his fists, and that alone makes the fight fascinating. And let me add this: If St-Pierre can take Hendricks to the mat and beat him up, over and over for five rounds, that would be quite an accomplishment.
Diaz has a point about the more athletic/wrestler types dominating MMA, and his thoughts about disallowing elbows to increase action and force technique are good points as well. But are we ready for this sea change in the very young sport of MMA? I think the paying public (I am one of them) likes the athletic power/speed part (but not the boring grinding/wrestling style), so maybe this is what is selling tickets and this is what MMA is today. Your thoughts? -- J., Edmonton, Alberta
I'm with you, J., in being a fan of athleticism as much as martial arts technique. That's always going to sell, just as slam dunks draw more fans to basketball than bounce passes do. The problem isn't in the way fighters fight, as I see it, but in the way judges judge. Strong wrestlers like St-Pierre need an incentive to open up their games. If they can win by simply holding down an opponent, or by holding him down and feeding him a steady diet of fists and elbows, why take a risk and go after a finish? Maybe there should be strong financial incentives built into the pay structure of the sport, making a decision victory seem like a lost opportunity to cash in.
As for Diaz' opposition to elbows, if I had a brow like his I'd want them outlawed, too. Actually, I'm on board with Nick. I'd favor rules that require all strikes to come from padded body parts. So no more bare elbows, knees and shins crashing into craniums. It'd be a radical change, I know, and likely would be received by many fans the same way that old-school football followers have loathed the dialing down of defensive hits in that game. In fact, I'll even acknowledge that even I might not enjoy watching as much, since the thrill of the KO would be even more uncommon. But safety trumps all. MMA fighters are athletes, after all, not gladiators.
Watching some old Pride fights recently, I was reminded of the brutality of soccer kicks to the face. I found myself muttering under my breath a word I've heard from many friends -- sports fans but not MMA fans -- whenever the sport I write about comes up in our conversation. Barbaric. I don't agree that the label fits this sport in general, obviously, but I do think the evolution of MMA as it moves into the mainstream will leave the tough-man contest far, far behind.
Regarding Diaz's assertion that Carlos Condit had won his fight with Johny Hendricks, I have to agree. Carlos may have been on his back a lot, but he was connecting with some pretty good elbows to Johny's head. Should being able to decide where the fight takes place really matter if you end up getting beat up in that place you chose? -- Ro'ee, Israel
The first thing I'll say to that, Ro'ee, is I wouldn't put much weight in Nick Diaz's judging. I mean that in general terms -- he had a pretty distorted view of his own fight with Condit -- but especially with regard to a fight that he was watching minutes before he was about to step into the cage himself. He had other things on his mind.
As to your more general question, I agree that dictating the place where a fight takes place should not be an overwhelming factor if you're not winning the battle on your chosen battlefield. But I do think Hendricks won the Condit fight. Watching live from cageside at the Bell Centre, I was thinking those elbows and Carlos's submission tries were making the fight a tossup. But then I got home I watched on the DVR, and Hendricks' control shone through. Twelve takedowns on 15 tries? Even Condit acknowledged, in his post-fight interview in the cage, that he was expecting to hear Johny's name when the verdict was announced.
You have Ronda Rousey as No. 8 on your pound-for-pound list but do not have rankings for her division. Why is that? It would be cool to see how the women fighters sort out now that the UFC has a women's division. -- Eric, Portland, Maine
Thanks for adding to my work load, Eric. Want me to deliver a pizza to your house the next time there's a UFC event on TV, too? OK, despite my grumbling, you're right. We should be ranking women just like we do men. We've been holding out for a couple of reasons: first, because I'm lazy; and second, because we haven't been seeing enough of the women's game. That's changing now, with the addition of a UFC division and the launching of the Invicta Fighting Championships. So yes, it's time. I'll get right on a women's Top 10 (for next week's April rankings) as soon as I finish grating the mozzarella for Eric's pizza.
I enjoy reading your MMA postings; been at it for several years now. I miss how you used to publish ignorant e-mails in your mailbag columns, and reply with a brilliantly sarcastic insult. Bring it back! Just don't start with me. -- Tom, Edmonton, Alberta
What, are you some kind of troublemaker? Why, I oughta ...
No, I'm not going to go all Moe Howard on you, Tom. I could tell from the very first line of your e-mail that you're a highly intelligent fellow. And I'd love to accommodate you with some clever put-downs of less intellectually gifted fans, but here's the problem: There's an increasing number of folks just like you reading SI.com, apparently, because my e-mail inbox is filled with equal amounts of incisive MMA queries and incomprehensible spam, with little stupid stuff to work with. That's good for the smart discourse, bad for the silly comedy.
If only someone would gift us with something foolishly offensive so that we could -- oh, wait, Tom, we're in luck ...
"Neanderthals"? You really shouldn't use big words you don't understand. Female body parts is about the only redeeming value this "sport" has. If I wanted to watch two dogs [mating], I'd just look out my back door and see what my Labs were up to. MMA, home of the young & dumb, fans and sportswriters alike. -- K.C., Shreveport, La.
I can't turn your insult around on you, K.C., because I don't know how young you are. And it's hard to know how to respond to someone who gets in a huff about an affront not even directed at him or her. The Neanderthals I was referring to, in my story about the buildup to last month's historic Ronda Rousey-Liz Carmouche bout, were those MMA fans who spewed hate on the women's game simply because they apparently think women belong in a kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, rather than in a sports venue. You're clearly not a fan of MMA, so you don't belong in that group. But take heart: There's plenty of room in the homo neanderthalensis species for folks like you who see "female body parts" as the only redeeming value of athletic competition.
Hey, great article on Wanderlei Silva. I miss him in his prime. I also want to express my appreciation for the well-placed Tom Waits reference. You're officially the third person I have ever heard of who is even familiar with him! -- Peter, Asbury, N.J.
Thanks, Peter, for recognizing the inherent connection between a uniquely quirky musician and a Brazilian fighting legend who is indeed "big in Japan." The reference you mentioned was in the story previewing Silva's fight with Brian Stann last month in Tokyo, and I suspect you enjoyed the post-fight story even more. After all, Wanderlei's KO victory was a surprise to all but his most diehard fans. It was nice to see the 36-year-old give his public another glorious finish.
But enough about the fight. A more important matter, Peter: If I'm only the third person you know who's familiar with Tom Waits, you need some new friends.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the next SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.