"Belfort or Bisping?" a regular reader of mine tweeted at me, referring to the main event of Saturday night's UFC on FX fight card in São Paolo, Brazil. I get these questions all the time from fans who clearly don't follow my MMA fight predictions for SI.com too closely. Or maybe they do keep tabs on my prognosticative batting average and want my pick so they can race to a sports book and lay down their money on the opposite bet. Whatever.
It wasn't the request for my Michael Bisping vs. Vitor Belfort prediction that got me thinking, though. It was what followed. "I want Belfort to win," tweeted @_keyser_soze, "but part of me wants Bisping to win, so Anderson can pick the Brit apart."
"Anderson" is, of course, Anderson Silva. Bisping has been promised a shot at the UFC middleweight champ if he can get by Belfort. And it would be no surprise if "The Spider" did indeed "pick the Brit apart" if they were to meet. But it was the delight that oozed from the tweet that jumped out at me.
This would not have been out of the ordinary even as recently as a couple of years ago. Ever since he emerged on the scene back in 2006 as a member of the Season 3 cast of The Ultimate Fighter, a tournament he ended up winning, Bisping has been a guy fans love to hate. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more wickedly fervent fan reaction than when the brash Brit got laid out by the howitzer right fist of Dan Henderson in 2009.
Why all the hate? Bisping brought it on himself with his cocky swagger. And he seemed to embrace it, really bask in it. But as time has passed, smugness has morphed into straightforward genuineness. The shift was imperceptible -- at least by me.
As recently as last September, in a preview of Bisping's last fight, I predicted that his opponent, Brian Stann, "will get a war hero's welcome, while Bisping likely will be treated like an insurgent." Then I showed up in Toronto, and everywhere Bisping went -- a press conference, the weigh-ins, the fight -- the fans greeted him with a lot of love. So much for another of my predictions.
Now, Bisping will be no fan favorite on Saturday night, but that's only because the fight is in Belfort's homeland. If "The Count" perseveres and earns his title shot, he might well walk into a cage opposite Anderson Silva and be more popular than ever.
Now, on to other matters in the mailbag ...
I think the Junior dos Santos-Cain Velasquez fight may have been rigged. A sham. A fake. Someone got paid off.
Why? Well, I think it's pretty simple. JDS and Cain are definitely Nos. 1 and 2 in the heavyweight division, and a third fight between these guys is going to be a huge payday for the UFC. But imagine if Dos Santos had beaten Velasquez again. That would have been bad news for the UFC, because who else is there to challenge Junior? Alistair Overeem? Sure, I guess. Maybe Daniel Cormier if doesn't drop down to light heavyweight. But no fight would be as big as Cain-JDS III. So why would the UFC rig this fight? Money.
Of course, it's impossible to prove the fight was fixed, but consider this: Have you ever seen Dos Santos look like he did while that fight was standing? Did you see Cain's big right hand in the first round? Junior's arms were down, no defense at all. Also, JDS was not only staggered by the punch, but all of a sudden he looked gassed. I've watched a lot of UFC fights, and people who get hit with a big shot can lose their wits for a bit. But they don't magically lose all their stamina. And it wasn't just that Dos Santos was getting hit; he also looked timid. He wasn't throwing punches like he usually does. Has he ever been so inactive in a fight
Look, I know this may sound outlandish, but that fight was just weird. I could be wrong about the fix being in, but even the idea that I could be right is frightening to me. I'm crazy, right? -- Brian, Marysville, Calif.
I'm not going to call you crazy, Brian. (You want crazy? You should see the e-mails that don't make it into the mailbag.) But I do think you're reading too much into some of what unfolded two and a half weeks ago in Las Vegas, when Velasquez regained the heavyweight belt with a dominant decision victory.
Before Cain landed that big right hand, you'll remember, he'd taken Dos Santos to the mat a couple of times. That had to be in the head of the champ, who came into the fight with an astounding 88 percent efficiency at defending takedown attempts. Even after Junior stuffed a few shots, Velasquez kept going for them. That, and an overall aggressiveness that Dos Santos had seen from no previous opponent, contributed to him dropping his hands and opening himself to that thunderous Velasquez right hand.
Dos Santos was badly hurt by the big punch and the assault that followed, and for most of the rest of the fight he did little more than play defense. You're right, Brian, that was not the Junior dos Santos we've become accustomed to seeing. But we'd never seen him in the cage with a ravenous beast like the Cain Velasquez who showed up that night.
Lastly, I don't follow your reasoning for why the UFC would go all WWE on us and try to script a result. There have been big bouts hanging in the balance before, and the behemoth fight promotion has always just let the cards fall where they may. If Dos Santos had won, an Overeem fight would have had plenty of appeal, especially with the buildup focusing on the fighters' mutual disdain. And Cormier would have been waiting for the winner. Those are some pretty hefty fights.
Thank you for observing that Cain is likely to cede his title relatively quickly. This is the nature of the heavyweight division. With guys this big and gloves that small, one punch determines the outcome of almost every fight, whether it finishes the fight or not. -- Ga'ash Soffer, New York
You're referring to my predictions for 2013, Ga'ash, where I did acknowledge that the heavyweight champion is in a more precarious position than any other belt holder. But I didn't necessarily doom Velasquez' title reign. In fact, I wrote, "So while history tells us that Cain is in the wrong weight class if he has his heart set on a long reign, the makeup of this fighter tempts us to believe otherwise. The 30-year-old Velasquez might very well be the man who remains The Man."
I believe Velasquez is the kind of fighter -- aggressive, fast, strong and versatile -- who could remain on top for a while. It's going to take a steady focus, though, for him to avoid the one big shot that changes everything.
I agree with you that a champion should not be disciplined if he's injured and cannot defend his belt. But if he's going to be out for more than a year, he should be categorized as "champion in absentia" and the UFC should schedule a title bout between the next two top guys. I don't like the concept of an interim belt, though; those two guys should fight for the actual championship. Then the UFC gets to schedule more championship fights, which normally equals more entertainment and more cash.
Imagine if Dominick Cruz' knee rehab goes poorly and he ends up retiring. Then the bantamweight belt would have been on the shelf for two years. Why not have an active champion all the time? And if Cruz comes back, he's first in line for a title bout and is granted all of the benefits reserved for a champion: fights on his home turf, enters the octagon second, etc. -- Cameron, Ottawa, Ontario
That's an interesting proposal, Cameron. Maybe it would be a boost to the UFC's marketing effort. I have to admit, though, that I'm not too interested in any of that stuff. The amount of money the fight promotion generates is obviously important, and some fans derive as much fulfillment from breaking down the marketing wins and losses as they do the fights. But that's not me. I'm just interested in the fights and what they mean for the pecking order among competitors.
So from my perspective, an interim belt by any other name is still an interim belt. Among the bantams, Renan Barão owns the faux belt, but he won't be top dog in the division until he beats Cruz. I understand the appeal of calling a fight a championship bout, but if there's no true supremacy behind that billing, it feels like an empty promise.
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.