Five questions loom over the aftermath of UFC 164
Anthony Pettis, answer man.
In the buildup to Saturday night's lightweight championship fight at UFC 164, he heard questions about whether he could once again handle the champ, Benson Henderson, who'd been unstoppable since their 2010 meeting for the instantly obsolete WEC belt. He was asked if he could, or even would attempt to, top the flashy "Showtime Kick" that had been a decisive factor in that win over Henderson. Also questioned was the health of his knee -- you know, the joint he had injured over the summer, forcing him to pull out of a scheduled challenge of featherweight champ José Aldo, but was healthy enough for him to accept a lightweight title shot a few weeks later. Was his wrestling good enough? Would fighting in his hometown be a boost or a distraction?
So many questions for Pettis. He answered every one. Authoritatively. Emphatically.
But here's the thing about the fight game: As much as the sight of one man's hand being raised at bout's end answers the evening's big question, new ones always arise. On Pettis, the new champ. On Henderson, the dethroned. On both co-main event fighters, Josh Barnett and Frank Mir. On others as well.
Here are five questions that loom over the top promotion in mixed martial arts in the days after UFC 164:
1. Will Anthony Pettis take on a superfight with Aldo before defending his lightweight belt even once?
That's the million dollar question. It involves more money than that, really, much more. And that might lead us to our answer.
UFC president Dana White likes to say he gives fans the fights they want to see. It would be folly to argue that he's done anything but that. And why would he? It's a smart business practice for a company that largely relies on selling pay-per-view telecasts to fight fans.
What's lost in this scenario, however, is that the UFC plays a role in MMA that supersedes moneymaking. The promotion is as authoritative in its sport as the NFL is in football, the NBA in basketball. And with that comes responsibility. If you're going to award championship belts, it's important to protect their integrity. The UFC has not always done that. Putting Chael Sonnen into a light heavyweight championship fight at a time when he had not fought in the weight class in seven years was an abdication of a higher responsibility in pursuit of a short-sighted money grab. It was akin to the NFL tossing aside the two teams that had successfully navigated the conference playoffs to earn berths in the Super Bowl, and instead going with a matchup deemed more marketable.
Pettis vs. Aldo would not fall in this dishonorable category, though. It would be deemed a superfight not simply because of the anticipation that it would be a big seller and, well, a super fight, but rather because it would pit champion vs. champion. When the UFC has the opportunity to put two belt holders into the octagon together, that's a rare matchup that is above the rules of hierarchy and procedure.
But is this the time for a superfight? Isn't the built-in premise for this elusive bit of matchmaking supposed to be that the fight matches two fighters who've been dominant within their weight classes? Anderson Silva vs. Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre would have qualified as such. Chris Weidman vs. either of those men would not, right? Or am I adding a layer of import to a fight that doesn't need it? Is it enough to have two belt holders in the cage, even if one is newly minted?
An added factor in favor of Pettis vs. Aldo is that it's a match that's already been made. Anthony and José were scheduled to step into the octagon on Aug. 3 for the featherweight belt until the challenger injured his knee. And in the wake of that cancellation, and the lightweight title fight that followed, there have been words exchanged between the camps. Aldo's coach, André Pederneiras, accused Pettis of being afraid of his man. "Showtime" shot back with a challenge to meet Aldo at whatever weight the Brazilian chooses. Aldo's response was to pooh-pooh the whole discussion of weight, telling Brazilian website Combate.com, "Schedule me to face Cain, and you'll see that there will be a brawl, regardless of the weight." (That would be Cain Velasquez, the heavyweight champ. Yikes.)
The heat is on.
Dana White and the UFC are headquartered in Las Vegas because they love heat. Dana already is on record in favor of this superfight. Asked in the aftermath of UFC 164 whether the best option for Aldo's next opponent is Pettis or another man who won impressively on Saturday night, top featherweight contender Chad Mendes, the decision-maker said, "It is 100 percent Anthony Pettis."
So there you have it. Pettis must heal from a knee injury for which he was to undergo an MRI on Tuesday. But Aldo is in no rush, as he suffered a fractured foot in last month's successful defense against Chan Sung Jung. Depending on Pettis's medical prognosis, the timing might work out perfectly. The UFC will bend over backward to make the timing work.
2. If a Pettis vs. Aldo superfight happens, will it be fought at 155 pounds or 145?
Lightweight makes more sense. Why make the fighters cut weight -- something we're told the 26-year-old Aldo has had increasing difficulty doing as his reign at 145 nears four years -- when they're both comfortable at the higher poundage?
However, what's best for the fighters isn't the only consideration. The UFC has a stake in the agreed-upon weight as well. One of its divisions is going to see a champion being beaten by a man who's never fought in that weight class. Is it better for the promotion to have its featherweight champ vanquished by a slimmed-down lightweight, or its 155-pound king dethroned by a bulked-up 145-pounder?
That's a tough call, but I'm inclined to say lightweight wins out here, too. Aldo has been expected to soon move up to that division, anyway, and if he takes the belt and is told to vacate the throne at featherweight, the ingredients for a crowning free-for-all are in place. Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar, Ricardo Lamas and Cub Swanson could go mano a mano a mano a mano, and Dana White could promote it as the toughest tournament in sports.
3. Wouldn't the UFC be better off delaying a superfight for a while and instead having Pettis defend his new belt against T.J. Grant and having Aldo defend at featherweight against Mendes, the No. 1 challenger?
Yes and no.
Grant was Henderson's originally scheduled challenger for Saturday night's fight, but a concussion in training knocked him out of the title shot. Clearly, he earned his chance at the belt. He remains the rightful No. 1 challenger. Pettis, of all people, should understand that. He had title shots snatched away by circumstances, too.
As for Mendes, he's been electrifying in his last four fights, all knockout victories. Three of them came in the first round, and even though he didn't dispose of Clay Guida until the third on Saturday, that TKO was no less impressive because it was the first such loss on Guida's 44-fight resume. However, prior to these four finishes came another KO -- when he was knocked out by Aldo last year. So Chad has had his shot at the belt. Lamas hasn't, and he's won four fights in a row. (Swanson has won five in a row, four by KO, but before that he lost to Mendes, Lamas and, back in the WEC days, Aldo as well. Edgar also has had a shot at Aldo already.)
Who's most deserving at featherweight? Lamas would seem to be the man, although his resume continues to be altered even as he sits waiting. His last two victories, over Erik Koch and Hatsu Hioki, lost some luster over the weekend as both of those fighters were dominated. But his win over Swanson looks better every time Cub smashes someone. This type of assessment is unfair, of course, but title fight matchmaking can be a process of splitting hairs.
This whole exercise in sorting out challengers is aimed at determining what title fights are most warranted in a meritocracy. But the vital next step is to ascertain whether the appropriate title fights would appeal to MMA fans. Pettis vs. Grant and Aldo vs. Lamas (or Mendes) is nowhere near as sexy as Pettis vs. Aldo, obviously. But we're not talking about killing the superfight, just delaying it while each man sorts out his own business.
The UFC appears primed to strike while the superfight iron is hot. But why not wait? Why not make "super" really mean something? Why not allow Pettis to build a legacy as lightweight champion first? For both him and Aldo, there are stiff challenges awaiting.
4. What now for Benson Henderson?
That's not nice. But it pretty much sums up the plight of the former lightweight champion. His second loss to Anthony Pettis -- particularly with it being a first-round finish -- puts him in no-man's land. Dana White has said as much, telling reporters after the fight that Henderson's situation is far different from those of Frankie Edgar or B.J. Penn, both of whom received immediate rematches after losing the lightweight belt in close fights. "There's no [expletive] denying who won this fight," said the UFC poobah. "It was a first-round annihilation. Kind of like the Vitor-Anderson thing."
Even worse. Belfort's first-round KO loss to Silva in 2011 was in their first and only meeting. Still, despite the fact that Vitor has wrecked everyone he's met since then (other than Jon Jones), he's received no consideration for another shot at Anderson.
Henderson's situation is even worse than Edgar's was after Frankie lost their rematch. The dethroned champ suddenly became a forgotten man at lightweight, but fortunately for him, he had the body type that allowed for an easy drop to featherweight. It was a change he had been urged to make for years, anyway. Edgar didn't fare so well in his first fight at 145, losing to Aldo, but it was a close contest and he has plenty of fight left in him.
Where does Henderson go from here? He's big for a lightweight, so it's hard to envision him as a featherweight. Does he bulk up to welterweight, then? That would rob him of one of the key assets -- the strength that comes with a size advantage -- that made him so formidable as a lightweight. How would Benson fare against bigger, stronger men?
There's been no indication, however, that Henderson is planning on moving anywhere. His manager, Malki Kawa, appeared on the MMAfighting.com show The MMA Hour on Monday and suggested that his fighter plans to build his way back to a shot at the belt that used to be his. "I kind of feel sorry for whoever he's going to fight next," said Kawa, "because I know this guy is going to take it all out on whoever is next. He's going to prove a point, and he's going to make a run for it again."
If Henderson fights like a man with a point to prove, he might very well reappear on the landscape. It's going to take a while -- his reign was not dominant and his dethroning was definitive. But Benson is a good fighter and a likeable man. Fans can get behind a guy like that. And we all know the UFC matchmakers do listen to the fans. So stay tuned.
5. Will Josh Barnett ever challenge for the heavyweight title? And have we seen the last of Frank Mir as a contender?
That's two questions, but with heavyweights it's OK to expand a little.
Let's tackle Barnett first. He's 35 and has been through nearly 40 professional fights since making his debut as "The Baby-Faced Assassin" way back in 1997. His window of opportunity is open just a crack. But why not? If "Bigfoot" Silva can get a whiff of championship leather, why not the no-longer-baby-faced man now known as "The Warmaster"?
Barnett was dominant in taking out Mir via first-round TKO on Saturday night. Never mind the complaints of an early stoppage. Josh was all over him from the start, manhandling him against the cage, landing punches and knees, finally felling him with one of the latter. Mir might not have been unconscious when he went to the canvas, but he was defenseless, lingering there on hands and knees, and Barnett was poised to pounce and damage him some more.
Now, Mir isn't what he used to be. I might as well get Part 2 of the question out of the way. The quick stoppage might give Frank the false hope that he still has what he truly no longer does. He's lost three in a row now, and even though those losses were to top guys -- then-champ Junior dos Santos, Strikeforce Grand Prix titlist Daniel Cormier and Barnett -- Mir was not the least bit competitive in any of those fights. At 34, he's no longer a Top 10 heavyweight. If he wants to continue, he can find fights. Young guys on the rise will always be willing to take on a former champion on the downside of his career. It looks impressive on the resume. But what's in it for Mir?
No such question plagues Barnett. He did take it on the chin in his only fight against a current top UFC contender. But Josh broke his hand early in that loss to Cormier, so it's not as definitive a result as the record shows. Barnett needs another Top 10 challenge. Maybe his next hurdle should be Travis Browne, who solidified his spot in the queue with a knockout of Alistair Overeem a couple of weeks ago.
My sense is that Barnett will be derailed before he reaches the top. Maybe Browne will do it. Or Fabricio Werdum. Or the loser of next month's title bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. I don't foresee Barnett standing in the octagon across from the man who owns the belt he briefly wore, 11 years ago, before a failed drug test led to his departure from the UFC. Josh is back now, and seems welcome. Opportunity is there, right in front of him. But there are some formidable roadblocks between Josh Barnett and a return to the championship.