Opening up the MMA mailbag
It's a good week in fighting, with a pair of terrific Strikeforce title fights coming this weekend and more on the dock. Per my inbox, though, fight fans are a bit less concerned about given Strikeforce fights than about the future of the organization itself. That and more here, as you ask and I answer.
A trainer once told me that one of the first things he asks would-be fighters who come into his gym is whether their parents hit them when they were young. The question concentrates the mind and gets them thinking about what it really takes to fight. It isn't easy to learn how to get hit in the face.
The relevance here is that Brock Lesnar deals with getting hit about as well as most people who have been fighting for four years, the difference being that most of them don't have to deal with fighting Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez. Anyone seriously questioning his chin should rewatch that Carwin fight. Coming into it, Carwin had finished every man he'd ever fought; just one, Frank Mir, lasted past 2:11. Lesnar took everything he had, and won. Junior dos Santos has every chance to knock him out, but that's because he's a terrific fighter, not because Lesnar isn't tough.
I like dos Santos in the fight, just because Lesnar's stand-up game is still so basic, but let's be fair. By the time the two fight, it will have been nearly a year since Dos Santos' last time in the cage. Lesnar is going to put Dos Santos on his back, and we haven't yet seen what he can do from there. Dos Santos hit Roy Nelson with 130 significant strikes in their bout and didn't really come close to finishing him, and in fact gassed out pretty badly. And every one of Lesnar's UFC fights has put enormous pressure on him, while Dos Santos has yet to take on this kind of challenge. There are lots of reasons to favor Lesnar.
If I bet on fights, I'd put every penny I have on Nick Diaz. The only way Paul Daley can win is by knockout. Diaz is impossible to knock out. If the fight goes to the ground, Daley is going to get tapped; if the fight goes long, Diaz is going to be doing laps around Daley while he stands there heaving. It will be fun, but Diaz is winning.
That said, if you can find some action on the odds of Daley fighting in UFC again, that would be an even better bet than Diaz. After Daley hit Josh Koscheck after the bell in their fight last year, Dana White said the man would never fight for his promotion again. That's admirable, but White says a lot of things. There is a long list of people who were never going to fight for UFC again, and most of them did. More to the point, there is a long list of people who have done really dubious things and fought for UFC again. Fighters have failed drug tests, overindulged in "energy drinks" and then plowed through traffic in monster trucks, struck referees, quit while holding a promotional title, and so on, and ended up in the Octagon.
Daley, Diaz, Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko will fight in UFC if and when White and his partners think it will make money for them. No reason to overthink this.
This is fair enough, but brings up a couple of serious long-term weaknesses for UFC.
One is just how reliant the promotion's fortunes are on the work of a few people like White and matchmaker Joe Silva, who are just as prone to burnout, megalomania, falling airplane parts and so on as anyone else. No one other than these guys has any idea how to successfully promote MMA in the United States. If Steve Jobs decides to run off to Tierra del Fuego with his loot and leave Apple in someone else's charge, the stock will take a hit, but the company won't collapse. It's not clear that UFC would survive in recognizable form if White decided to retreat to a monastery.
This structural dependence on the work of a few men matters because those men tend to be gamblers, and are wholly capable of being wrong. White's insistence that he believes fighting can be bigger than soccer isn't just hype and spiel. Actually believing something that ridiculously wrong can be dangerous if it informs the decisions you make. And I would argue that it has, in ways that have been dangerous for UFC. Remember the time they paid tens of millions of dollars for, essentially, a tape library, a website and Wanderlei Silva?
Think about this: Word in inside circles is that a lot of questions about Strikeforce's future have yet to be answered because no one actually knows what the answers are. Buying first and doing due diligence later might be the kind of thing you do if you believe it's your destiny to run the biggest sports concern in the world. It's still not a very good idea.
Omar Vizquel, 44-year-old infielder for the Chicago White Sox, is one of the miracles of modern sport. He debuted in 1989. He was a four-year veteran when Pancrase and UFC started up, a six-year veteran when fighters started figuring out that training in full-length boots might not be such a good idea, a 10-year veteran when fighters from other disciplines really began to accept that training in wrestling might be a good idea, a 16-year veteran when the sport reached the point where it was anything other than an underground freak show in the United States, a 23-year veteran when Jon Jones destroyed Shogun Rua and pretty emphatically announced a new era in fighting.
The point is that while combat sports have been evolving for a long time, MMA, a unique discipline, has not. If we've seen that kind of evolution just during Vizquel's career, I tend to think we'll see at least as much during that of his teammate Gordon Beckham. Consider that we're still years away from truly elite athletes routinely entering the sport. Jones, who is on a different level from nearly everyone in MMA in a lot of ways, is probably the third-best athlete in his own family, and while his older brother is a Baltimore Raven, it's not like he gets in on a lot of plays.
As great as Fedor Emelianenko was in his day, to believe that he represents the pinnacle of achievement in his sport strikes me as about like believing in 1892 that there would never again be a base balling talent like that of Old Hoss Radbourn. MMA is in its infancy, and we have no idea what high level fights are going to look like when people with the physical talent of Derrick Rose or Jason Heyward are getting involved in them. That's one of the coolest things about the sport, and believing that it happened to peak 10 years ago in Japan requires you to ignore the staggering improvement we're seeing in the caliber of competition right now. And if you're ignoring that, why watch?