April 15, 2011

Did you happen to hear Gilbert Melendez in the aftermath of last Saturday night's explosive defense of his Strikeforce lightweight championship? Asked what's next for him, he didn't hesitate.

"I think it's time we unify some titles," Melendez said, drawing an ovation from the crowd. "Who wants to see me fight for that UFC title?" Louder roars.

Apparently "El Niño" didn't get the "business as usual" memo sent out by UFC president Dana White in the days following his parent company's purchase of Strikeforce.

Of course, White was right there in that crowd in San Diego, wearing his spiffy new Strikeforce T-shirt, so he heard the cheers. He's read the stories and tweets drooling over UFC vs. Strikeforce superfights. And despite the boss' insistence that, at least for now, Strikeforce will continue to do its thing while the UFC conducts its business as, um, usual, one thing you cannot deny about White is that he's always been a guy who listens to the fans and tries to give them the fights they want to see.

So maybe once Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard have settled matters in the UFC lightweight division at the end of next month, we'll see the winner in a cage -- octagonal? hexagonal? -- against Melendez. Maybe we'll see Strikeforce welterweight champ Nick Diaz stick out his chin and trash-taunt Georges St-Pierre, if the UFC titlist manages to take care of business next weekend against Diaz's training partner, Jake Shields. Maybe the UFC's Cain Velasquez and Strikeforce's Alistair Overeem will throw heavyweight belts at each other.

But several fans have written to SI.com in the wake of the Strikeforce sale to put in a good word for altogether different fights, ones that White has said the UFC has no interest in promoting.

"Now that Strikeforce is owned by the UFC," wrote Jose from Columbus, Ohio, "what does this mean for the future of women's fights?" Weighing in from Be'er Sheva, Israel, reader Ro'ee asked, "What happens to Coenen and Carmouche, for instance?"

That would be Marloes Coenen, the Strikeforce women's welterweight champion, and Liz Carmouche, who nearly took the title away in a thrilling bout in March. That fight, in which Coenen pulled off a fourth-round triangle choke after being beaten up for the better part of the first three rounds, got me to thinking of women's MMA in a whole new way.

Before that night, I viewed the women's game pretty much the way White sees it: as a competition lacking enough legitimate contenders to make it interesting. I had come to that conclusion by taking in a steady diet of Cris "Cyborg" Santos, the indomitable Brazilian who captured not just the middleweight belt but the sport itself by smashing Gina Carano back in 2009. In brutally and decisively mowing down everyone who's stood in front of her, Cyborg has created the aura of being so far ahead of other women that it simply isn't fair to throw someone into a cage with her.

That's still the way I see Cyborg's 145-pound division, frankly, but Coenen and Carmouche showed that at 135, at least, there are competitive fights. Miesha Tate is a credible next opponent for Coenen, and Carano soon will fight for the first time since the Cyborg beatdown. But even all of those tough women might not be enough to persuade White, who, in announcing the Strikeforce sale, explained his lukewarm position on the women's game to MMAFighting.com: "Can you do some cool fights here and there? Yeah, but not enough to create an entire division."

Clearly, there are enough bodies to fill two women's weight divisions. But competitive ones? I see where White is coming from. However, all of the Showtime exposure Strikeforce gets could bring new blood to the women's game. And really, we've seen similar imbalances of power in men's weight divisions, too. When Lyoto Machida rose to the UFC light heavyweight title, he was widely viewed as invulnerable. Now Jon Jones is champ, hasn't even defended the belt once and people are talking about how he can't be beat. Yet the fights go on.

Who knows whether the UFC will come around on women's MMA? One thing we do know is that White & Co. like to make money and favor fighters who get the fans' blood boiling. How else to explain the UFC stints of ratings draw Kimbo Slice and Phil Baroni, who was 3-7 in UFC bouts but never shied away from a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots thriller? So with Strikeforce apparently safe at least until its TV deal expires in a couple of years, the women have a lengthy audition to show White what they've got.

And even if the UFC opts to hand women's MMA a pink slip, no doubt someone else -- Bellator? A fight promotion that hasn't even been launched yet? -- will step up to keep the female fists flying.


Other topics ...

Great article about Jon Jones being unbeatable. In reference to what you said about the "Shogun" Rua fight being over after 20 seconds, true, "Bones" showed complete superiority when he threw Rua to the floor. But for him to miss on all of those early strikes and Rua being unable to take advantage was also a strong indicator.--Alexander, Chicago

What really surprised me about the Jon Jones fight, and what people are not giving him enough credit for, was his pace. Instead of pushing for the early knockout, it was beautiful how he paced himself, even with the pressure of him being the face of the sport, fighting for the title and being heavily favored.--Kent, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Shogun was really slow and didn't show any of the explosiveness we're used to seeing when he fights. He was definitely out of shape, coming off of a long time rehabbing his knee. Don't know what the outcome would be if he was 100 percent, but it definitely would not be that kind of a beating.--Bernardo, Rio de Janeiro

I hate to be the "prisoner of the moment" guy, but I know sports, and I definitely know what I saw in the Jones-Rua fight. That was the MJ versus the Lakers dunk-turned-layup where Jordan switches hands at the last moment. The statement: I am now king of this sport.--Chris, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Alexander and Kent: You each picked up on things that were largely overlooked -- or at least not emphasized -- in all the exhaustive analysis of Jones' dominant win. Going into the fight, the big question about the 23-year-old was this: What would (or could) he do if someone managed to withstand his fiery and creative early onslaught? Rua did survive Jones' unorthodox offensive early on, but the challenger did not leave himself open to counterattack. And "Bones" never got frustrated that Shogun wasn't going away. Instead, he simply took his time with a systematic destruction. That was more impressive than a 30-second KO.

Bernardo: There wasn't even the slightest hint from the Shogun camp that he was impaired. It might have been simply that Rua is too noble to make excuses, but I think he simply met a better fighter who'd beat him even if he were at the proverbial 110 percent.

Chris: What do you think Jones could do on a basketball court?

I appreciate your work in the MMA field, but on the topic of writers being banned I have to disagree with you. I seldom appreciate the heavy-handed approach of the UFC and Dana White specifically. However, in North America the media can be seen as wielding the same type of heavy hand. And one of the writers denied press credentials, Josh Gross, himself pointed out a while back that he could simply buy a ticket and go to the event. Or ESPN.com could simply send someone else.--Ian, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

You can't discipline an "anonymous source," so why not go after the reporters who use such tactics to get inside information? There is no doubt that this practice is commonplace in journalism, but this has always been a shady tactic and the sources are mostly cowards who don't want to lose their jobs.--Bo, Austin, Texas

It's really a shame that Dana White feels the need to pull these types of power plays, which are counterproductive for the growth of MMA. I know he's very proud of the fact that he's been uncompromising in his approach to building the UFC, but he just comes off like such a bully or jerk at times.--James, Chicago

Ian: Fans buy a ticket to watch a sporting event as a leisure activity ... or in some cases, probably more than we realize, a squeeze-the-life-out-of-you obsession. But those folks are not in the arena to work. Reporters on assignment are. A seat in the stands offers a view of the fights but not all of the access that a writer needs to do his or her job. And no credible media outlet would allow the UFC -- or any pro or college sports team -- to dictate which reporter it assigns for coverage.

Bo: Don't you think a fear of losing your job is good reason to insist on remaining anonymous in a story before agreeing to talk to a reporter? I mean, even reporters themselves are feeling the heat from the UFC. The day my story about the denied credentials ran, I received several e-mails from accredited MMA reporters, each one saying thanks for reporting on a story that needs to be told ... and then acknowledging that they didn't dare write the story themselves. Dana White and the UFC are feared by many in the media.

James: Among fans, or at least the ones who've chosen to respond to my story via e-mails or even in the online forums I've seen, you are in the minority. People have little sympathy for the media. After all, we get into events for free -- just like the train conductor gets all those free rides on the railroad (in exchange for working all day collecting tickets and dealing with passengers). We're viewed by some as arrogant, and I'm not going to dispute anyone's perception. I'm not going to dispute your perception of White, either, but I'll simply say this: The guy has done what he's done -- and done it Sinatra's way -- for a decade. His work style couldn't be more different from what you see in the people who run the mainstream pro sports. Could you imagine Roger Goodell, David Stern, Bud Selig or Gary Bettman inviting fans into their lives in video blogs, or responding on Twitter with either good humor or raw venom, whatever the fans tweeted their way?

White's media policy is heavy-handed and backward, especially in contrast to the way the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL operates, but he's always marched to his own beat. As the UFC gets even bigger and finds its place among the major sports, with major sports media coverage, we'll see if that policy continues to fly.

To place Dan Henderson third in your April light heavyweight rankings is absurd. Do you really think he is above the likes of Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson (who defeated him, yet you make it seem that Hendo being 36 at the time was a disadvantage as opposed to his age now), Shogun (who defeated "Lil Nog," something Hendo failed at) or Forrest Griffin (who clearly defeated Rich Franklin, while Hendo struggled to defeat him in a fight I gave to Franklin)? Henderson does deserve respect, since he is an MMA legend, but he doesn't deserve the third spot.--Roger, Los Angeles

Rashad Evans in not the second-best light heavyweight. Jon Jones will destroy him in less than two rounds. I really think Lyoto Machida could give Jones a good fight. Rampage Jackson? All he'd do is talk smack and not back it up.--Ryan, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I think your rankings for light heavyweight are pretty solid and help highlight a theory I have: The division is full of really good fighters but only one great fighter. Hear me out. There are a bunch of guys like Shogun, Rampage, Rashad, and Machida, none of them dominant enough to hold the belt for a long stretch. It was a division waiting for a dominant force, like Jon Jones has the potential to be. It's not so much that Jon Jones is the most dominant fighter ever, rather that he entered a division that had no dominant force and has been waiting for one since Chuck Liddell's chin went soft.

But Nick Diaz isn't even the best welterweight fighter in his own camp. How do you rank him over Jake Shields, who actually has a few quality wins, like over Dan Henderson, one of your top light heavyweights?--Homer, Ottawa, Ontario

Roger, Ryan and Homer: You guys should get together and discuss the light heavyweight division among yourselves. I actually think Homer is on to something in suggesting that the weight class consists of Jon Jones and then a bunch of guys. Not to diminish anyone's skills, but who else has broken away from the pack for more than a few furlongs? Maybe it was in that spirit that I put the 40-year-old Henderson at No. 3 over several others with reasonable claims to the spot.

But Homer, I do have to stand my ground on Nick Diaz. Fight after fight, he's shown the toughness and versatility to beat people at their own games. Not to get ahead of myself, but last weekend's win over Paul Daley solidifies his grip on the No. 3 welterweight slot in the SI.com rankings. Of course, if Jake Shields becomes UFC champ on April 30, we'd have to put Diaz, GSP and Jon Fitch in a game of musical chairs for the two up-for-grabs spots.

Oh, and one more thing, getting back to Roger and his reaction to the remark I made about Henderson's loss to "Rampage" back in 2007 not really counting because Hendo was just a kid of 36 at the time. Don't get so huffy, Roger. Allow my good friend Yosemite Sam to explain: "That's a joke, son. Don't you get it? I made a funny, and you're not laughing."

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.

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