Monday, April 15, 2013

UFC is Sports’ Most Progressive League

By Brad Oremland

The weekend before last featured mixed martial arts cards from Bellator, Invicta, ONE FC, and the UFC. I didn't catch ONE FC, but I'd say Invicta was the best of the other three, and not for lack of competition. Sarah Kaufman and Leslie Smith put on a show, but they were upstaged first by the brutal return of Cris Cyborg, and then by the sensational atomweight title fight between Michelle Waterson and Jessica Penne.

I was discussing this with a friend recently: in men's fights, the less-skilled competitors are often more fun to watch. In women's MMA, the opposite is true: the top women invariably entertain, and the lower level always seem to disappoint. The top men often fight defensively, whereas the weaker men have holes in their games that facilitate knockouts and submissions and exciting back-and-forth contests. The top women have amazing ground games and at least some level of striking. Some of the women on an Invicta undercard look like they've never taken a striking lesson.

The UFC is the Most Progressive League in Sports

Every major professional sports league tries to foster a basic progressive image. They sells jerseys targeted at women, they hold "___ Fan Night" to attract specific groups, they publicize charity initiatives, and they fine or suspend players for insensitive remarks. It's not my intention to demean any of that, but an oft-marginalized organization — one that is still (incorrectly) cited as an example of the uncultured element in sports — is doing better than any of the Big Three leagues in North America.

Just in the last six weeks, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has:

* Headlined a card full of male fighters with a women's match
* Announced that women will coach men on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show
* Suspended a fighter for transphobic comments
* Awarded a Fight of the Night bonus to women

If you're going to have women in your organization, you need to promote their matches, and Ronda Rousey is a particularly marketable star: attractive and articulate, with exceptional talent to back it up. Nonetheless, it says something that the UFC featured Rousey and Liz Carmouche rather than male stars like Urijah Faber, Dan Henderson, or Lyoto Machida. This past Sunday, Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate deservedly won the $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus over a card full of male fighters. It was a great fight and probably an easy decision, but the simple fact that women aren't being treated differently merits some positive notice.

More significantly, though, Zingano's victory earned her a coaching spot opposite Rousey on the UFC's flagship Ultimate Fighter reality show. The two women will coach both female and male fighters, and I believe that's unprecedented in a major sports league. For years, I wondered what would happen if Pat Summitt, the legendary women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, coached men. I doubt she was ever interested, but I bet that she could have done well — and I suspect there would have been huge opposition to the idea of a woman teaching men. I think a co-ed Ultimate Fighter is a bad idea, but not because I don't believe Rousey and Zingano can coach men effectively, and I credit the UFC for assuming they'll be up to it.

Perhaps most notably, the UFC suspended heavyweight Matt Mitrione just days after an impressive victory, because he went on a horrific rant against transgender fighter Fallon Fox (who is not signed to the UFC). The organization promptly suspended Mitrione and released a statement that read, in part, "The UFC was appalled by the transphobic comments made by heavyweight Matt Mitrione ... The UFC is a friend and ally of the LGBT community, and expects and requires all 450 of its athletes to treat others with dignity and respect."

When athletes say things they shouldn't, you expect a grudging apology from the offending party and an obligatory slap on the wrist from the organization. The UFC acted promptly with an indefinite suspension and probably the best statement to the press I've seen in more than a decade covering sports. Do you think the NBA would use the term transphobic? Would the NFL go out of its way to identify itself as "a friend and ally of the LGBT community?"

Even many sports fans, stuck 20 years in the past, still identify the UFC with a meathead culture (Meathead, incidentally, really is Mitrione's nickname), but baselessly. The UFC is among the most progressive and forward-thinking sports organizations in North America.

April 2013 UFC Rankings

The rankings below are exclusively for the UFC, so you won't see names like Pat Curran or Bibiano Fernandes on these lists. These rankings do not count as part of the UFC's official rankings.

Heavyweight (206-265 lbs)

1. Cain Velasquez
2. Junior Dos Santos
3. Fabricio Werdum
4. Daniel Cormier
5. Antonio Silva
6. Alistair Overeem
7. Frank Mir
8. Mark Hunt
9. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
10. Roy Nelson

Make it Happen: Josh Barnett in the UFC

Barnett has been coy about the details that are holding up his deal with Zuffa, and Dana White has yet to go on a profanity-laced tirade about Barnett's demands. But it's hard to understand how this isn't the best direction for both parties. The UFC wants the best fighters in the world, and Barnett presumably wants to prove he's still one of them.

Thank You, UFC, For: Cormier vs. Mir

This fight was planned once before, in Strikeforce, and scratched because of an injury. It's still a good matchup, and an intriguing UFC debut for Cormier.

Light Heavyweight (186-205)

1. Jon Jones
2. Lyoto Machida
3. Dan Henderson
4. Alexander Gustafsson
5. Mauricio Rua
6. Chael Sonnen
7. Glover Texeira
8. Rashad Evans
9. Phil Davis
10. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira

Make it Happen: Gustafsson vs. Gegard Mousasi

Their fight last week was scrapped after Gustafsson suffered a cut in training and wasn't cleared to compete. But if Mousasi's knee injury permits him to fight on the same timetable as Gustafsson — and it's not clear that it will — this matchup still makes sense.

Thank You, UFC, For: Henderson vs. Evans

So evenly matched that the fight odds are Pick 'Em: there is no favorite. The winner is a title contender; the loser may drop to middleweight.

Middleweight (171-185)

1. Anderson Silva
2. Chris Weidman
3. Vitor Belfort
4. Michael Bisping
5. Yushin Okami
6. Luke Rockhold
7. Alan Belcher
8. Jacare Souza
9. Costa Philippou
10. Mark Muñoz

Make it Happen: winner of Belfort-Rockhold vs. winner of Philippou-Souza

The winners should match off in a top contender's bout. Rockhold was the last middleweight champion in Strikeforce, and Jacare is 3-0 since losing the title to him, all wins by stoppage. Philippou has won five in a row. Belfort fought for the belt in February 2011. Since then, he's 3-0 at middleweight, and even gave Jon Jones a scare at 205. If he rattles off consecutive wins against Bisping, Rockhold, and the winner of Philippou-Souza, he's earned another shot at the champ.

It will be interesting to see who the UFC books to fight Uriah Hall in the wake of his upset loss on the TUF finale. May I suggest someone like C.B. Dollaway or Tom Lawlor?

Welterweight (156-170)

1. Georges St-Pierre
2. Johny Hendricks
3. Carlos Condit
4. Nick Diaz
5. Rory MacDonald
6. Demian Maia
7. Martin Kampmann
8. Jake Ellenberger
9. Tarec Saffiedine
10. Josh Koscheck

In the official rankings, Ellenberger is three slots ahead of Kampmann, who knocked him out less than a year ago. Since then, Ellenberger's beaten one guy who's out of the UFC (Jay Hieron) and another (Nate Marquardt) who's 2-2 at welterweight; Kampmann lost to Hendricks. Did Ellenberger move ahead just because he was fighting easier opponents?

Make it Happen: Condit vs. Maia

This won't last three rounds. Either Condit will score a knockout, or he'll get submitted. Maia has shown surprisingly effective takedowns, and that's the hole in Condit's game. Maia looks great at 170, and he deserves to face a top-level opponent.

Thank You, UFC, For: MacDonald vs. Ellenberger

If Ellenberger is for real, he can certainly prove it by beating MacDonald. The winner of this will probably get a title shot if Georges St-Pierre stays at 170.

Lightweight (146-155)

1. Ben Henderson
2. Anthony Pettis
3. Gray Maynard
4. Gilbert Melendez
5. Nate Diaz
6. Jim Miller
7. Donald Cerrone
8. Joe Lauzon
9. T.J. Grant
10. Jamie Varner

I know Pettis is dropping to 145 to fight Jose Aldo, but I already have enough lightweights ranked at 145, and it's not clear where Pettis' future is. Otherwise, Rafael dos Anjos would round out the top 10.

Make it Happen: Varner vs. Diego Sanchez

Sanchez recently tweeted out a mostly unrealistic wish list of opponents. Varner was fourth, though, and I could go with that.

Thank You, UFC, For: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Evan Dunham

Both are on the border of the top 10, and this fight should push one clearly into contention.

Featherweight (136-145)

1. Jose Aldo
2. Frankie Edgar
3. Ricardo Lamas
4. Chan Sung Jung
5. Chad Mendes
6. Cub Swanson
7. Erik Koch
8. Dustin Poirier
9. Dennis Siver
10. Clay Guida

Make it Happen: Diego Brandao vs. Conor McGregor

Two young prospects on the way up. They both fought a week ago in Sweden, so the timing should work out for a meeting in Boston later this year.

Thank You, UFC, For: Lamas vs. Jung

Obvious title-eliminator. Any other booking, for either fighter, would have been bad match-making.

Bantamweight (126-135)

1. Renan Barão
2. Michael McDonald
3. Urijah Faber
4. Eddie Wineland
5. Brad Pickett
6. Raphael Assunçao
7. Brian Bowles
8. Scott Jorgensen
9. Mike Easton
10. T.J. Dillashaw

Dominick Cruz hasn't fought in almost a year and a half, and he's not yet scheduled to return. When he does, he'll obviously be at or near the top of this list.

Make it Happen: a new opponent for Bowles

A former champion who has only lost to Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber is scheduled to fight George Roop? Is this one of those letting-it-go-on-too-long April Fools jokes like Wanderlei Silva pulled?

Thank You, UFC, For: Barão vs. Wineland

It will be a while before Cruz is ready, and Renan Barao has to fight someone. He's already beaten McDonald and Faber.

Flyweight (116-125) and Women's Bantamweight (126-135)

I'm not ranking these divisions until they have more fighters.

UFC on FOX 7 and UFC 159

There are two big UFC cards before the end of the month. UFC on FOX 7 features nine ranked fighters, plus T.J. Dillashaw vs. Hugo Viana, and a significant welterweight matchup between Jordan Mein and Matt Brown.

In the headlining match, former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez challenges Benson Henderson for the lightweight title. Melendez (+215) is a good fighter with no obvious weaknesses, but I believe Henderson (-260) is a little better in every facet of his game. A number of other Strikeforce transplants appear on the card, including Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier, who faces Frank Mir. I suspect Joe Silva quietly hopes that Mir (+320) wins an upset, because Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, and the winner of Junior Dos Santos-Mark Hunt are all positioned for title shots, and the match-making gets a little easier if Cormier (-400) drops out of the picture. Cormier is a heavy favorite for a reason, but if you're betting on the fight, I don't think he's worth 4:1 odds.

Elsewhere on the card, I predict Nate Diaz will defeat Josh Thomson, Chad Mendes will lie on top of Darren Elkins for 15 minutes, and Joseph Benavidez will outclass Darren Uyenoyama.

The following week's pay-per-view features a lopsided light heavyweight title fight between reigning champion Jon Jones (-825) and self-proclaimed middleweight "silver medalist" Chael Sonnen (+655). Those odds seem about right to me. Sonnen's only obvious path to victory is a five-round decision, whereas Jones can finish the fight in an instant. I'm sure Sonnen will put up a fight, but he won't be able to outmuscle and outwrestle Jones the way he did to Anderson Silva.

The other main-card bouts also feature clear, though less dramatic, favorites: Michael Bisping over Alan Belcher, Roy Nelson ahead of Cheick Kongo, Phil Davis over Vinny Magalhaes, and longtime UFC standout Jim Miller favored against Strikeforce refugee Pat Healy. Not to be boring, but I like all the favorites.

UFC 159 also features two fights that should be of major interest to serious fans: Sara McMann vs. Sheila Gaff and Leonard Garcia vs. Cody McKenzie. Gaff has been fighting for years, but McMann is riding a wave of hype; people have already talked about her as a threat to Ronda Rousey. An Olympic silver medalist (wrestling), McMann is 6-0 in MMA. Garcia and McKenzie are nowhere near title contention, but both are entertaining fighters who always put on a show. If you find anyone offering a prop bet that McKenzie wins by guillotine, I'll take it.

Boring main-card parlay: Jones + Bisping + Davis. That's only a +140 return, and I'm a little nervous about Davis, but the risk level is low. If you're not terrified by four-fight parlays, you could add Jim Miller to the mix. Odds haven't been released yet for his matchup with Healy, but I suspect he'll be in the neighborhood of -250. That would yield a win of about $240 on a $100 bet.

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