Wednesday, August 12, 2009

UFC Champions: Too Good For The Health Of The UFC?

It has come to my attention recently after watching the last two UFC events exactly how good the ruling class is in the UFC today. We have seen dominating champions in the past such as Tito Ortiz, Frank Shamrock, Pat Miletich, Matt Hughes, and Chuck Liddell to name a few. However, I don't think we've seen an entire stable of champions rule the UFC the way the current champions have in the history of the sport. Having champions that are too good for the rest of the division can only hurt the UFC and they need to find a way to spice up the hunt for the titles across all five weight classes.

Let's take this division by division starting with the lightest weight class first. After watching BJ Penn's win over Kenny Florian at UFC 101 that is when this idea hit me. Penn has only lost one fight at lightweight in his entire career (11 fights in the UFC). He owns the lightweight title and has defended it twice already.

Kenny Florian was supposed to be Penn's toughest test to date at 155 lbs and was the clear number one contender. However, he never put Penn in danger once over the three plus rounds of action this past Saturday. Now they are promoting Diego Sanchez as Penn's next opponent.

What exactly does Diego offer that makes him any more worthy than Florian? Diego is a better wrestler for certain and also is a bigger fighter than Florian which we have seen both of those things cause Penn a lot of trouble in the past. However, at 155lbs they are on equal footing. If this fight were at 170 lbs I might be more inclined to drink the Kool Aid.

Penn has proven that his takedown defense with fighters his own size is top notch, his brazilian jiu jitsu is world class, and his boxing is both technical and powerful enough to end fights. Does anyone really believe Sanchez (or any other up and coming lightweight) has a legitimate chance of beating Penn in the near future?

Penn has rededicated himself to cardio and weight training finally matching his preparation with his talent. At this rate we could be seeing the next fighter ready to challenge Matt Hughes/Anderson Silva/Tito Ortiz's record for consecutive title defenses (five).

But isn't that boring? Don't we want to see guys who come in and inspire the underdog fervor we give to other professional athletes who come up winners just like a real life Rocky Balboa? Don't get me wrong, I love watching Penn display his considerable talent inside the cage but at what point do we start looking for someone to knock him off his perch because it gets old watching him beat down lightweights again and again?

Unfortunately it is also blatantly clear that Penn cannot move up to welterweight and be successful but that is not the point. The point is that having BJ Penn clean out the entire lightweight division is getting old and after Sanchez (and possibly Gray Maynard, who are similar fighters) is there anyone even worth putting in the cage with Penn? That's the problem.

Speaking of welterweights that brings us to the next problem: Georges St. Pierre. In my opinion he is the greatest fighter in the world and he has cleaned out his entire division so thoroughly that Dana White is actually considering letting him fight at 185 lbs which I honestly don't like. Mike Swick and Martin Kampmann are fighting to see who gets the next crack at St. Pierre.

No disrespect to Swick and Kampmann but if Thiago Alves couldn't beat a hurt GSP what could Swick or Kampmann do? GSP totally outclassed a monster and a top notch striker in Alves for five rounds thoroughly imposing his will on Alves to which Alves had no answer. Swick and Kampmann offer longer reaches but I don't think either of them have the striking skill or pure violence of Alves.

Does anyone really think that GSP won't just put those two on their back for another five rounds (or less if they can't survive)? GSP has now defended his welterweight title three times and is even closer to catching Hughes/Silva/Ortiz than Penn is. The welterweight challenger pool is deeper than 155 but not necessarily better.

So once again I raise the question. When does it get old watching GSP out wrestle guys who you know have nothing more than a puncher's chance of beating the future hall of famer? Maybe letting GSP fight at 185 is a smart move but it doesn't help out the welterweight division in the slightest.

Now on to the biggest problem of all: Anderson Silva. This man has tied Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz for the most consecutive title defenses in UFC history. He has so thoroughly cleaned out the 185 lb division (which is arguably the most shallow division in the UFC) that there were rumors flying after UFC 101 that he would fight at 205 lbs full time.

Silva has already won two fights at 205 lbs and neither went past the first round. In his last fight at UFC 101 (another reason why this card sparked this idea) he toyed with Forrest Griffin, the former UFC light heavyweight champion lest we forget, before getting the TKO victory. This man doesn't just win, he dominates.

He holds the record for most consecutive wins in the UFC. Only one man has even taken a round from him in his past seven fights (Dan Henderson) and that's the only reason Henderson is even being considered for a rematch, whereas other fighters like Demian Maia are afterthoughts even though they look great compared to everyone but Silva.

Silva has now started to dominate two weight classes simultaneously and I wouldn't be surprised to see him fight for the light heavyweight title before he's done in the UFC. However, this does no good for the middleweight division. His last two title defenses have been horrendous and he hasn't even been threatened in a fight since Travis Lutter had him in mount back in February of 2007.

He has so thoroughly dominated his weight class that the UFC can't even seem to figure out who to put in there because no one seems to challenege him anymore. When Silva fights I don't even think people have to put together a conscious thought before knowing instinctively who is going to win that fight. It gets old after a while no matter how good he is to watch.

The division in which they have the least of these issues, and in my opinion why it is the most popular division in the organization, is the light heavyweight division. Right now the champion is newly crowned Lyoto Machida. Including him, the title has changed hands three times in the past three fights.

This is what this sport is all about. The challenge and the excitement of that next hungry fighter coming for his title shot. Knowing that the champion has a worthy opponent who can take his game to the next level once that cage door closes. Unfortunately this seems to be the only division in which we're getting this type of action.

I have no qualms declaring my admiration for Machida's skills and I hope he is a great champion. However, I just don't see him hanging on to his belt as long as guys like GSP and Silva (and possibly not even Penn). I think Rua will be a nice fight for him though I would bet Machida is a heavy favorite. But overall the division is so deep it's hard to see him not getting caught at some point.

In this case that's a good thing! Seeing a challenger come in and make you go "Oh I don't know who's going to win this one," is what the fight game is all about. Promotions can make a lot of money off of stars who win all the time but they build fan bases by putting on fights where people are actually interested in seeing the match ups and with the possibility of the underdog winning. It's the culture that we live in.

With that said let's move on to the heavyweights. This is only division the UFC has where everyone knows that the champion of the UFC is probably not the best heavyweight in the world (and don't freak out fight fans, I think Fedor is better too but we can't KNOW until they actually fight). Brock Lesnar is a mountain of a man who has incredible athletic ability and great wrestling to go with the rest of his improving MMA game. As Randy Couture and Frank Mir both proved, no matter how talented you are, sometimes sheer size and strength can be too much even for some of the most talented fighters in the sport.

For the purposes of this argument let's leave Fedor out of the conversation because I'm trying to get at the lack of competition for the belt in the UFC specifically, not for the title of best heavyweight in the world without promotional affiliation.

Lesnar has now beaten two former UFC heavyweight champions for the outright UFC heavyweight championship. If you deem his fight against Mir a title defense then he has defended his title once already (I don't want any arguments about this so I'm leaving this purposefully vague so you can interpret it whichever way makes you more comfortable). He has also beaten tough journeyman Heath Herring and avenged his only loss.

His skill set is no doubt nowhere near some of the other fighters in the division but his size and freakish athleticism more than make up for that. His last two fights have proven how devastating he can be. The question is who can stop this runaway train?

The only guys even in the picture at this point are Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez (I've left Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira out of the running since he lost to Mir for a shot at Lesnar). I don't think Velasquez has any shot in hell at taking on a man like Lesnar at his current skill level. The only reason I would give Carwin a chance is because in terms of his sheer size he might actually be able to match up with Lesnar in some regards.

Unfortunately I would also think Lesnar would be a heavy favorite against Carwin if they were to fight. So is there really anyone in the heavyweight division people think could actually challenge Lesnar for the belt? Sure there are contenders but I really don't see anyone getting in his way of a shot at the record Silva/Hughes/Ortiz hold.

Ultimately having champions who don't have any true challengers becomes boring. No one gets excited because no one believes the contenders have any real chance no matter how much the UFC wants you to buy into their marketing propaganda. A record is only exciting until it's broken but after that it gets old watching the same champion beat up challenger after challenger without any real threats.

Americans love an underdog but ones that are live. I have nothing but respect for the fighters working their butts off at a title shot but maybe the champions in the UFC are too good for the health of the organization? BJ Penn has fought for the title at 170 lbs. GSP might move up. Anderson Silva is already campaigning at light heavyweight.

These are all reactions to the lack of competition within their own division. And if Machida gets on a winning streak like the others we will probably see the same thing. I don't have an answer for the UFC other than to try and find the next version of those fighters to challenge the ones they already have in place. Because until they do the next few years in the UFC could get awfully predictable. Who would've thought having so many of the best fighters in the world could turn into too much of a good thing?

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