Jeff Wagenheim: Cleaning out the MMA mailbag - Sports Illustrated

Cleaning out the MMA mailbag

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Does a UFC championship mean anything?

There are seven belt holders, and they're unquestionably among of the world's greatest mixed martial artists, from Anderson Silva to Jon Jones to Georges St-Pierre. Clearly, the sport's biggest fight promotion is doing something right.

But the UFC is also doing something wrong. It's dangling its biggest prize as if it's for sale.

How else to interpret some recent comments by company president Dana White? A week and a half ago, in the aftermath of a UFC on Fox event in Los Angeles, White told a gaggle of reporters about a conversation he'd had with his heavyweight champion. Junior dos Santos has long been expected to next defend his belt against the man he dethroned, Cain Velasquez. But according to Dana, Dos Santos apparently had different plans. "Alistair Overeem is a punk," the champ said, as relayed by the boss. "He's got a big mouth, he's been saying lots of bad things about me, and I want to knock him out and I want to knock him out now."

Now, I have no problem with Dos Santos saying what he allegedly said, in the same way that I have no problem with my kids asking on a Tuesday evening if they can watch some TV even though they know that their boob-tube time comes only on Saturday mornings. If you want something, go ahead and put your desire out there. Then it's the job of the parent or de facto MMA commissioner to enforce the house rules.

It was not even a matter of Dos Santos trying to dodge Velasquez, either; he just wanted to beat up the mouthy Reem first. Of course, it would not be fair to Cain or to the meritocracy of the heavyweight division for the No. 1 contender to be pushed aside. It's not Junior's job to weigh those factors when it's time to make a fight, though. It's Dana's job. So my problem lies with White's response to Junior's curveball.

What Dana said: "Junior, I like that. All right."

What Dana should have said: "Junior, as champion you are expected to fight the No. 1 contender. And that is Cain Velasquez."

Fear not, though. In the end, we are getting the right fight: The UFC announced earlier this week that Dos Santos and Velasquez will meet at UFC 155 on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas.

So why even bring up all of the above? Because Dana knew what he was doing when he floated the Dos Santos-Overeem scenario -- he was using the media to try to generate a fan groundswell for a fight that, with all of the trash talking that surely would be flung back and forth in the lead-up, might be a bigger pay-per-view cash cow than the softspoken Junior vs. the stoic Cain.

Handing out a championship bout on the basis of sizzle rather than substance, as much as that might fall in line with the syllabus of undergraduate marketing courses everywhere, is all sorts of problematic. Yes, I understand that the UFC is in the business of making money. And to that end, I take no issue with Dana & Co. putting together whatever fight the bean counters believe will generate the most dollars. Just don't call it a championship fight.

Imagine if, days before the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder were set to compete for the NBA championship, commissioner David Stern decided to replace that pair of teams with, say, the Lakers and Celtics. Those franchises have a storied and bitter rivalry, and Los Angeles and Boston are bigger TV markets. So why not do it, in the interest of ratings and the dollars that come with them? Because since neither team earned its way into the Finals, no one would acknowledge the winner as the true NBA champion, that's why.

In line with that way of thinking, if Dos Santos vs. Overeem had come to fruition, I would have responded with something stubborn and stupid, I'm sure, like refusing to acknowledge any of the UFC's championships. Or maybe I'd have insisted on referring to them within quotation marks -- as in, "Junior dos Santos will defend his 'UFC heavyweight belt' against Alistair Overeem" -- as if the titles were short works of fiction. Because, well, they would have been.

On that note, let's dip into the mailbag ...

Why is it such a bad thing Lyoto Machida got the title shot instead of "Shogun" Rua? Did you not see their fights? "Shogun" looked bad against Brandon Vera. I like Rua and appreciate how he never gives up, but come on. Machida looked way more impressive against Ryan Bader, a better caliber of opponent.

You suggested Machida-Rua III instead, with the winner getting the title shot. You can't make that fight for one simple reason: You shut out the possibility of ending the trilogy in a title fight later on down the road. If Machida beats the Jon Jones-Dan Henderson winner and Rua beats Alexander Gustafsson, THEN you end the trilogy as a title shot. Better than some title eliminator.--Hilario, San Benito, Texas

My problem with handing Machida the title shot has nothing to do with Rua. It's all about the process. See my rant above.

During the week prior to the UFC on Fox event I mentioned earlier, Dana White first tried to sell the Rua vs. Vera main event as an eliminator for a title shot. After that went over like a lead balloon with fans, the UFC poobah added the co-main event into the mix, declaring that "whoever scores the best win, whoever gets the fans excited" would get the winner of next month's Jones vs. Henderson championship fight. Is that the way a legitimate sports enterprise determines who'll challenge for a championship? As I wrote at the time, if Dana wants his title fight to feature the person who looks best, he should just put one of his octagon girls in with the champ.

Having said that, I'm less alarmed by Machida vs. Jones/Henderson than I would have been by Dos Santos vs. Overeem because, unlike the heavyweight division, the 205-pound class doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 challenger. I still do think Machida-Rua III would be the best way to determine who deserves a go at the belt, though.

It was all a set-up! The only way Frankie Edgar was going to beat Benson Henderson at UFC 150 was by KO. Now Dana White can convince him to go down in weight and face José Aldo, because the lightweight division is so stacked and full of contenders while there is no one in the featherweight division good enough for Aldo. It's all about the MONEY!--Macol, Philippines

I do agree, Macol, that money factors in to a lot of the UFC's decisions. (Have I beat that point to death yet?) But speaking of decisions, the UFC has nothing to do with selecting or influencing cageside judges. If the company did, Dana White's Twitter feed wouldn't be half as irate/entertaining as it is. So while the Edgar-to-featherweight scenario surely would work in Dana's favor, he isn't pulling any puppet strings behind the scenes to manipulate results and make everything unfold according to his script. He might have some P.T. Barnum in him, but he's no Vince McMahon.

Um, @BensonHenderson won the fight. Let's move on, please. Give the man his due.--@JHaroldJenkins via Twitter

As I wrote on fight night, I thought Frankie Edgar should have gotten the decision. He didn't dominate or come anywhere close to finishing "Bendo," but the ex-champ took at least three of the five rounds, in my view.

Despite that, I'm with you, J, on your other points: I'm ready to move on and I definitely want to give Henderson his due. He's a classy guy who fights with a champion's heart, and despite what I thought of the scoring, by no means should Benson be viewed as a loser.

I question how @jeffwagenheim can keep GSP atop and list of active fighters. He has not fought since April 30, 2011. Roughly 17 months ago.--@CitizenDino via Twitter

I know, Dino. I know. But Georges St-Pierre isn't banned or otherwise unlicensed, which is what keeps Alistair Overeem and Nick Diaz out of the rankings. The UFC welterweight champ's time away from the octagon does make his inclusion debatable, though. Maybe we should revisit our criteria for eligibility. And maybe we will if GSP doesn't return, as expected, in November to face interim champion Carlos Condit. (Notice how definitive I am in criticizing Dana White for his handling of his business, while at the same time remaining vague about what I should be doing to take care of my own?)

Please do us all a favor and stop writing about MMA. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were NEVER among the UFC's "greatest." They brought more personality than skill into the cage and they won over a LOT of fans, but they were NOT great fighters. You might as well suggest that Royce Gracie is a great fighter (he isn't) for beating Ken Shamrock before anyone knew Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now there are guys in the 135-pound weight class that would beat the crap out of ANY Gracie.--Rob, Washington, D.C.

Excuse me, Rob, for mistaking Couture's three UFC championship reigns in two weight classes, Liddell's four title defenses at light heavyweight and Ortiz's five defenses for signs of greatness, when in fact it was just a nice, marketable smile that earned each of them his Hall of Fame status.

I seriously don't understand where you're coming from. Royce is considered one of the greatest ever, because you can only truly measure a fighter -- or any athlete -- against his or her contemporaries. By your logic, Babe Ruth wasn't much of a ballplayer, either, because in today's game a chubby guy like him would ride the pine for the Minnesota Twins.

I'm a big Anderson Silva fan, but for you to proclaim, "No harm, no foul," in response to his Vaseline stunt before the Chael Sonnen fight because the ref toweled it off and didn't allow the cheating to influence the fight is like saying a fighter who takes a cardio-elevating PED shouldn't be banned if he gets the knockout in the first minute because cardio didn't come into play. Obviously, this was a minor infraction and Anderson completely deserved the win, but I'd like to think somebody at least talked to him afterward to make sure he doesn't do it again.--Ro'ee, Israel

You're right, Ro'ee. Silva spreading the greasy stuff from his face onto his upper body wasn't as benign a maneuver as I made it out to be. But the matter was promptly addressed by the referee, and because it had no impact on the fight -- Sonnen had no problem taking down a greaseless Anderson five seconds in -- I don't feel as riled up about it as I would have otherwise.

Let me give you an example of what truly irks me: when a fighter grabs the fence to avoid a takedown and gets warned by the ref ... but nonetheless gets to remain on his feet. When I'm elected MMA commissioner, a fighter caught grabbing the fence will be placed on his back underneath his opponent, because that's where he likely would have ended up otherwise. I'd maybe even put the opponent only in half-guard. To those to say, "How can you be sure the fence grabber would not have ended up on top in the scramble?" I would respond, "I can't be sure, but it's better to punish him than his rule-abiding opponent." I'd be a harsh commissioner, to be sure, the second coming of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.