"A little premature with Fighter of the Year, don't you think?"
The New Year's Eve e-mail was short and sharp, and it appeared in my inbox from "Chris" in "Baldwin, NY." Now, I'm no rube. I knew right away I had not been contacted by the middleweight champion of the world.
Sure, there may have been a brief moment of emotional vertigo, the kind you experience when one of your friends pulls a well-timed fast one on you. But it wasn't too hard to figure out that my correspondent wasn't really Chris Weidman. I mean, the UFC champion had better things to do with his holiday week than type out a sarcastic reprimand for a sportswriter -- even a sportswriter who had stiffed him of a year-end honor that was rightfully his.
Obviously, an impish SI.com reader was playing with me a little. And I'd brought it on myself, with a story published a few days earlier in which I had chronicled my methodical journey of reason from a public declaration that TRT poster child Vitor Belfort was Fighter of the Year to a more sensible -- and all-natural, organic -- conclusion that Demetrious Johnson was The Man of 2013.
Of course, after singing the praises of the mighty, miniscule flyweight champ, I had added this qualifier, "Then again, if Chris Weidman successfully defends his middleweight belt by beating Anderson Silva for a second time on Saturday night -- whether by another knockout, a submission, or even the slimmest of split decisions -- he's Fighter of the Year, no question."
So, yeah, I had acknowledged that Weidman was in position to be top dog in the hierarchy. But had I given him his due? Not really. Burying the guy's potential accolade at the bottom of a story about two other fighters was no way to treat the champion who was about to do, for a second time in 2013, what no one before him had ever been able to do in the UFC. Anderson Silva, widely considered the greatest ever in the sport, had entered the year at 16-0 in the fight promotion. He ended it at 16-2, thanks to Weidman.
There you go, mysterious reader ... or was it really you, champ?
OK, let's move on to 2014 and the year's first mailbag, starting with more Weidman.
I just can't help but feel that I still haven't seen Silva vs. Weidman. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe it's the emotional reaction of seeing Anderson Silva's career quite possible end this way. But still I can't shake that feeling. If the first Silva vs. Sonnen fight had ended with a freak injury like this, would that have meant that Chael was the better fighter? Apples and oranges, I know, but a first round dominated by one fighter doesn't seem like a full picture to me. Good for the champ for working on checking leg kicks, a sound strategy when facing a Muay Thai fighter like Silva. But practicing to check a kick in such a way that it snaps the opponent's leg is like practicing to throw dice in a manner to hit seven every time.
I agree with you, Eric, that counting out Silva would be foolhardy, given his otherworldly skill set. But I saw enough two weekends ago to conclude that, at this time in each man's career, Weidman is the superior fighter. Would I bet my house on that? Not a chance.
Still, the Weidman dominance that you dismiss meant something to me. In Round 1 of their first fight, Silva clowned but couldn't get Weidman off his game, no matter how much he ramped up the Emmett Kelly act. In the rematch, Silva transformed into dead serious, and it seemed to work against him. He was out of rhythm. And without his usual foe-flustering antics, Anderson didn't get to utilize his deadly counterstriking. The only Silva strikes that saw even mild success were his kicks. So the one thing Weidman knew he had to do was check kicks, and he had worked on that between fights.
The champ has acknowledged that he hadn't expected his strategy to bring about a broken leg, but he did believe his checks would cause Silva enough leg discomfort that he'd abandon or at least tone down the kicking game. That's not exactly a roll of the dice.
As for the Sonnen comparison, while Chael was a threat to be submitted right up until the final horn, Weidman is a jiu-jitsu black belt who's undefeated. Anyone can be made to tap, but it's safe to say Silva was in deeper water while on the mat with Weidman.
How pissed is Renan Barão now? He could have been the champ for years! Injured Champ = champ in absentia. No interim titles!
--@Chapperton via Twitter
I'm no fan of interim belts, either, because what do they mean, really? You're the champion until the real champ comes back? Why bother with seat warmers?
The UFC bothers, I've been told by an authority no less definitive than Dana White, because title fights are important to a promotion's bottom line. Well, then, why not make every fight on every card a title fight? That'd really sell the pay-per-views ... I say sarcastically.
The Dominick Cruz situation might actually drive the UFC to clean up this matter. A few months ago, I asked White if Cruz's ridiculously long spell away from the octagon might prompt the fight promotion to set a hard limit on the length of time an injured champ could be idle before being stripped. The company president said they were working on a policy. Going forward, expect champions on the mend to be given a formal limit: Defend your belt by [insert date] or surrender it.
It is quite well known that the UFC looks at people who lose fights as not worth being employed by them. However, Dana White also is known to be very high on fighters who are willing to take fights on short notice to fill a hole. Do you think the UFC would overlook a loss or two by a fighter if he or she loses fights taken on short notice?
--Marcel, Gatineau, Quebec
Considering that you sent this e-mail shortly after Urijah Faber agreed to replace Cruz and take on Barão at UFC 169 on three weeks' notice, Marcel, I assume you're referring to "The California Kid." He surely won some points from the fight promotion bosses for stepping up, but what keeps him employed, really, is the way he fights. He's exciting, a fan favorite. Winning four fights in 2013 is what put him in position to challenge for the bantamweight belt, but even when he's lost fights he's done little to jeopardize his job security.
Fighters need to understand that being a company man has its limits. These guys are independent contractors, and they're smart to do whatever is best for their bottom lines, not the UFC's. If that means taking a short-noticed bout that might make you a champion, go for it if you're ready. But if it's in your best interest to hold off -- because of injury or another circumstance -- don't get swayed by delusions of nobility. That won't buy you groceries after you've been cut following a tepid performance.
Just wanted to point out the clearly inadvertent typo in the fighter rankings: You have Robbie Lawler below Rory MacDonald, even after the latter looked quite overmatched in their recent battle. You might want to fix that, and/or yell at your editor or something (Yeah, that's irony, but I'm a big fan all the same).
--Christian, San Antonio
Oh, boy, another wise guy. Thanks for the proofreading, Christian, or should I say 80-proof reading? (Sarcasm is my highest form of flattery, my friend)
Believe it or not, I ranked MacDonald over Lawler on purpose. Before their November fight, Rory was No. 4 in the SI.com welterweight rankings, and Robbie was unranked. Then, after Lawler won by split decision, he moved into the Top 10, at No. 9, and MacDonald dropped one spot. I don't feel an upset obligates us to flip-flop fighters who've been far apart on the ladder.
Lawler did creep closer in the January rankings, though. When it came time to compile them, a lot of reshuffling was necessary, as both Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz were dropping out. And there was some rethinking as well. The result: MacDonald is No. 4, Lawler No. 5. That seems fitting for two guys who fought to a split decision.
Why is the loser still on top? Like everything else in these and all other rankings, it's a judgment call. And in my judgment, if these two guys fought 10 times, MacDonald would win seven.
That's not to discredit Lawler's upcoming title shot. Someone on Twitter asked me if, since I rank Rory above Robbie, I would have given MacDonald the March 15 fight against Johny Hendricks for the 170-pound belt. No, I wouldn't. Lawler had his hand raised. He earned his shot. These rankings shouldn't alter that.
Speaking of rankings ...
No GSP, but you have Silva and Cruz. That doesn't make sense.
I understand why you question that, Clay, but here's my rationale: St-Pierre vacated the welterweight championship and declared that he's on hiatus, which isn't exactly retirement but is about as close as one can get. He's an inactive fighter, so he was removed from the rankings.
Silva is inactive, too, in a sense. His broken leg will keep him out of the octagon for an extended period, perhaps forever. But because his stated intention is to return, he remains in the rankings until and unless a suitable period passes without him fighting, at which point he'd be removed as well.
What's a suitable period, you ask? A year seems fair. We haven't enforced such a standard to this point, but going forward a fighter will be removed from the SI.com rankings if inactive for 12 months. That means you won't see Cruz in next month's tally.
Does Rousey vs. Cyborg happen in 2014?
Ronda Rousey fought two weeks ago, and six weeks from now she'll be back in the octagon. She likes to be busy, and the UFC likes her being busy. And she can't perform alone.
So the question is: Can the UFC provide "Rowdy Ronda" with enough competition to keep us interested in her? Next month, Rousey faces fellow U.S. Olympian Sara McMann -- 2008 bronze in judo for Ronda, 2004 silver in wrestling for Sara -- and if the champ wins that one, Cat Zingano will be waiting for her. Zingano was supposed to face Rousey after coaching opposite her on The Ultimate Fighter, but Cat tore up a knee and was replaced by Miesha Tate. Zingano has said she'll be ready to return by May. If Rousey successfully defends against McMann and Zingano, she might be good for one more fight in 2014.
It almost assuredly won't be against Cris "Cyborg" Justino. The UFC might bring in "Cyborg" and do that fight someday -- and I look forward to that day -- but the bout won't happen without lots of buildup in the form of other big fights for both women. The buildup would serve a purpose beyond drumming up interest: It also would give Justino a few runs through the drug-testing wringer. In December 2011, "Cyborg" tested positive for an anabolic steroid, which confirmed for many fans what they long suspected about the brutish Brazilian. The UFC doesn't want to mess with that stigma at a championship level. So if Justino is going to ever get a shot at Rousey, she's going to have to show off a lot of clean living.
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.