UFC 165 is almost upon us, which means that this week’s Twitter Mailbag is overflowing with questions about Jones vs. Gustafsson, the ongoing saga of the UFC bantamweight title and much more.
Got a question of your own? Send it off to @BenFowlkesMMA on that new-fangled Twitter contraption. Just see what happens.
* * * *
I know we’re headed into a competitive title fight when I start getting questions like this in the TMB. Not that I can blame you for looking at it this way. Jon Jones is an 8- or 9-1 favorite according to most oddsmakers, and with good reason. While both fighters are tall and lanky (as you may have heard), the champ is the one who will likely get to decide where this fight takes place. If he wants to take Alexander Gustafsson down and try to submit him, he probably has that option. If he wants to keep it on the feet, it’s hard to see Gustafsson putting him on his back. Jones also has the more dangerous and unpredictable striking attack, which means if anyone lands a one-punch (or one-elbow) knockout, it’s probably going to be him.
So how does Gustafsson win? Honestly, I don’t know. I guess his best chance is to try to convince Jones to have a kickboxing match with him, then hope something big lands. It’s either that, or wait around for the champ’s toes start falling off.
Another sign that we’ve got ourselves an evenly matched title fight that fans expect to turn into a real barn burner? Questions about what’s next for the champion after he goes through the formality of winning this one. But just as we tried to imagine how “The Mauler” might win, let’s also try to imagine the situation that will result from the far more likely outcome. Say Jones dispatches Gustafsson with all the easy flair we’ve come to expect. Then what?
Glover Teixeira comes with the promise of power. Daniel Cormier – assuming he can safely make the 205-pound limit – brings technical expertise as a wrestler, plus a couple of bowling balls for fists. Those are our options right now, assuming Jones stays at home in the light heavyweight division for his next fight. Of those, Cormier is the more appealing, and the more marketable. You know the UFC loves a bad blood narrative, and with Jones and Cormier it’s already there, just waiting for the endless loop of commercials to spotlight it. I also think Cormier would be a tougher fight for Jones than Teixeira, who looked good but flawed in his win over Ryan Bader. First though, let’s let Jones deal with this big blond kid who isn’t going all the way to Toronto just to lay down for the champ.
Man, are you trying to call down the wrath of the MMA gods? Never, ever run around talking about how stacked a fight card is when we’re still this far out. That’s the mating call of the dreaded North American injury bug.
That’s easy to say when it’s someone else’s title. When it’s yours, and when you’ve worked as long and as hard for it as Dominick Cruz has, you probably wouldn’t be so eager to give it up. Especially not if you’d spent the better part of the last two years just trying to get healthy enough to defend it.
When I spoke to Cruz earlier this week, it was clear that he’s as frustrated as anyone with this injury layoff. Not only is it financially difficult for a fighter to be out this long (“There’s a reason why you see me on FOX as an analyst,” Cruz said. “I’ve had to change my job over these last two years in order to support myself while I haven’t been fighting”), it’s also emotionally hard. As Cruz pointed out, he started fighting when there wasn’t much of a future in MMA for guys his size.
“My first three fights I paid money just to fight,” Cruz said. “That’s something a lot of people don’t know. Because the sport was up and coming, you had to pay for your own medicals. I didn’t have sponsors and the promoter wasn’t going to pay for it, so I ended up paying $350 for my medicals in order to fight to get a $50 paycheck after I win. That should give you an idea of how much I love the sport.”
How do you tell that guy, “Yeah, we think it’d just be more honorable if you went ahead and gave your title away for now”? The UFC says it wants Cruz back by early 2014, and Cruz says that’s a reasonable return date. I question whether anyone could go through what he has and still show up ready to fight an opponent like Renan Barao or Eddie Wineland after so long away, but I also understand why Cruz would rather try than give up and re-enter the contender pool. That’s his title. If he has to fight to keep it, well, isn’t that kind of the job description?
That’s a tough one. At the top of this card you have two fights between four fighters who are all at or near the top of their respective divisions. Then you have a bunch of guys who aren’t. At heavyweight, both Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione seem to have bumped up against the ceiling of their potential. Now they’re fighting for paychecks and bragging rights, in roughly that order. Costa Phillipou is a solid middleweight on a good streak, and here he’s taking on Francis Carmont, who looks good on paper but is no fun at all in the cage. That leaves Pat Healy and Khabib Nurmagomedov (Nurmy, for short). As lightweights, they’re in one of the more crowded divisions, but the winner here will have really proven something. Depending on who that is and how he does it, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fight puts one of them within striking distance of a shot at the belt.
The first thing to understand here is that a concussion is not like a knee injury. You can’t always look at someone’s brain and say when it be fully healed. Sometimes concussion symptoms disappear quickly. Other times they linger for months and months. The symptoms Grant described in a recent interview with FOX Sports are pretty severe, not to mention scary. Come back too soon on an injured knee and you might be headed back to surgery. Come back too soon with an injured brain and you might ruin your life. I don’t blame Grant one bit for being careful with that. If he’s not ready to start getting hit in the head again, then he’s not ready to start training for a UFC title fight. At least he did the considerate thing and pulled out early, rather than waiting until the last minute and forcing the UFC to scramble for a replacement.
Short of kidnapping Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler, I’m not sure what else the UFC could have done here. You go down the top 10 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie.com MMA lightweight rankings and you see Benson Henderson, who just lost his belt to Anthony Pettis; Chandler, who simply doesn’t exist according to the UFC’s own rankings; Gilbert Melendez, who was unsuccessful in his recent bid for the title; T.J. Grant, who’s sidelined due to injury; Gray Maynard, who got knocked out by Grant; then, finally, Josh Thomson, who blasted Nate Diaz with a series of punishing head kicks the last time we saw him. Considering the circumstances, Thomson’s the best choice. I just hope he’ll be healthy enough to give all that he has against Pettis. If so, it should be one hell of a fight.
I wouldn’t say you’re the only one. At least not if we count Rafael dos Anjos himself, and maybe some members of his immediate family. The rest of us? I think we can see the wisdom of going with the former Strikeforce champ who just demolished Nate Diaz over the guy who slipped past Donald Cerrone with a clear, though unspectacular decision win. Once again we’re reminded that it’s not just who you beat, but how you beat them.
First of all, I love me some Tommy Toe Hold, so the more chances I get to see it, the better. Second, “UFC Tonight” is less sports newscast than infomercial, and we shouldn’t forget that. It’s a show where UFC employees talk to each other about the UFC, all on the cable network owned and operated by the UFC’s TV partner. Is there even a chance that “UFC Tonight” might report some news that the UFC didn’t want reported? Nope. Could you imagine UFC President Dana White going off on one of his media rants about the cast of “UFC Tonight”? No way. It’s fine if the UFC and FOX want to do their own show to promote upcoming fights and have their say in shaping fan perception – no different from a show on the NHL or NFL networks, really – but we shouldn’t let ourselves be duped into thinking that it’s journalism, no matter how much the set looks like what we’ve come to expect from genuine sports news broadcasts.
Mostly the difference is that one involves a lot more face-punching than the other, which is easier for most people to appreciate. You see Floyd Mayweather Jr. landing a half-hour’s worth of clean punches on another professional boxer, all while eating very few in response, it’s not hard to see that this is a man who excels at (a form of) unarmed combat. When Georges St-Pierre takes someone down over and over again, it probably doesn’t look as cool to most people, especially if they’ve never felt that mix of helpless fury and public humiliation that comes with being dominated by a superior grappler. To the uninitiated, it just looks like one guy laying on top of the other. Personally, I’d rather watch GSP work. But evidently there are a couple million people with money to spend who still prefer watching gloved combatants hit each other above the waist in three-minute intervals.
For those who don’t know what Monsieur Le Grand is referring to here, UFC OG Royce Gracie recently claimed that the reason Gracie fighters aren’t doing all that well in MMA these days is because they’ve gotten away from “pure jiu-jitsu” in favor of training, you know, all the other aspects of mixed martial arts. “Jiu-jitsu is enough,” Gracie said. It would be a reasonable position to anyone who stopped watching MMA in 1997.
Look, you’re not going to find a bigger jiu-jitsu apologist than me. I love jiu-jitsu, I’ve trained it for years, and it was my interest in jiu-jitsu that led to my interest in MMA. Like a lot of my peers, I was a teenager who saw Royce Gracie win those first few UFC tournaments and thought, whatever that is, I have to learn it. If Gracie doesn’t do that, there’s probably no way I’m sitting here, in my pajamas, getting paid to write about this stuff from the comfort of my own home. I’d have to go get a real job, which just sounds horrible. I owe you one, Royce.
That said, Gracie is just plain wrong about this, and we all know it. Jiu-jitsu is not enough. Not anymore. In part that’s because everyone knows it, or at least enough of it to stay out of trouble for a few rounds. Jiu-jitsu also doesn’t focus enough on getting opponents to the ground, and doesn’t offer much of a backup plan if you’re forced to stay on your feet. It is one dimension of fighting, which is why those who only excel at jiu-jitsu could fairly be called one-dimensional fighters. The reason Gracie fighters aren’t running the table in MMA these days is not because they haven’t spent enough time working on their jiu-jitsu. That’s the part they’ve got down. The problem is that everyone else has got it down too.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie.com and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @BenFowlkesMMA. Twitter Mailbag appears every Thursday on MMAjunkie.com.