Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Key MMA matches in a crucial period

Originally posted by Dave Meltzer on MMAJunkie.com May 06, 2008 at 12:00 pm ET

Mixed martial arts is a business in which people throw around superlatives like they are nothing. There seems to be a steady stream of "biggest" this and "most important" that.

But the next few months will be pivotal for the sport, with shows – offering plenty of interesting match-ups – that will determine the industry's long-term landscape.

From a business standpoint, the May 31 EliteXC show from Newark, N.J., because it airs as a prime-time live CBS special, could be the most important show of the year. Its success or failure will have huge effects on the industry as a whole.

A successful show would instantly make EliteXC significant competition for UFC and, from a business standpoint, cause last year's $27 million in losses to be viewed simply as expected startup losses. A failure would make survival a significant issue while leaving a black mark on the sport as viable network prime-time programming.

From a pure sport standpoint, the highest profile featherweight and bantamweight fights in U.S. history both take place the next day, on a WEC show in Sacramento.

And what have to be considered the two biggest MMA promotions in the world, UFC and the Japanese-based DREAM promotion, have high-profile events over the next few weeks.

In addition, Fedor Emelianenko, the best heavyweight in the sport's history, will face his first truly significant competition in quite some time this summer, against former two-time UFC champion Tim Sylvia.

A look at some of the more intriguing upcoming matches and their potential ramifications:

May 11 – DREAM lightweight tournament: DREAM, the MMA division of the Japanese powerhouse Fighting Entertainment Groups (FEG), has its third show on Sunday. It's the first that airs live in the U.S., on HDNet at 3 a.m. Eastern late Saturday/early Sunday from Saitama, Japan. A replay will air at 4 p.m. ET Monday.

The lightweight tournament that began March 15 has three quarterfinal matches scheduled: Caol Uno (24-10-4) vs. Mitsuhiro Ishida (16-3-1), Eddie Alvarez (13-1) vs. Joachim Hansen (17-6-1) and Tatsuya Kawajiri (21-4-2) vs. Luiz "Buscape" Firmino (12-3). The fourth, Shinya Aoki (15-2) vs. Katsuhiko Nagata (4-2), has been moved to June 15 to give Aoki recovery time from injuries sustained in his April 29 win over tournament favorite Gesias Calvancanti.

The lone American, Philadelphia's Alvarez, looks to be a significant force with his strong punching power. Stylistically, Alvarez vs. Hansen has the potential for fireworks.

May 24 – B.J. Penn (12-4-1) vs. Sean Sherk (36-2-1): The main event for UFC 84 in Las Vegas is the UFC's biggest lightweight title match in years, if not ever. The Hawaiian-born and bred Penn, who won the title on Jan. 19 with a one-sided squash of Joe Stevenson, is considered to have all-around skills equal to virtually anyone in the sport.

Sherk had been champion, but was stripped after testing positive for the steroid Nandrolone in his July 7 win over Hermes Franca. Sherk has argued his innocence. Penn has been openly skeptical, adding a grudge element to the fight. The key to look out for is Penn always comes out looking unbeatable early, but historically becomes more human as time goes on. Sherk's best weapon is his conditioning, which is more important in a five-round title fight.

May 24 – Keith Jardine (13-4-1) vs. Wanderlei Silva (31-8-1): On paper, this looks like a crowd-pleasing fight with two guys who are going to aggressively try to match stand-up skills in a key light heavyweight division fight. Silva, 31, is a legitimate legend of the sport, as his five-plus-year reign as Pride 205-lb. champion is the longest major title run in history. But he's coming off three straight losses, to Mirko Cro Cop, Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell. Jardine, with wins over both Liddell and Forrest Griffin, will answer the question of whether Silva's best days are behind him. The winner has a good shot of facing the injured Liddell in his next match.

May 24 – Tito Ortiz (15-5-1) vs. Lyoto Machida (12-0): While the biggest match of Machida's career, it's almost secondary to the probable final act in the Ortiz vs. UFC president Dana White feud. Ortiz has made it clear he's leaving UFC after this match, and Machida's role is to send him out a loser. Can Ortiz foil his boss on his last night, and if he does, what will he say in his final UFC interview? Can Machida win over the U.S. public with a win over one of the most famous fighters in the game and put himself in line for a title shot?

May 31 – Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson (2-0) vs. James Thompson (16-8): It's historical because there can only be one first live prime-time major network card in history, and this is the show's main event. CBS and EliteXC are hoping Slice's street brawler charisma will mean ratings and mainstream stardom. Slice can punch, but his ground game is untested. Thompson doesn't take a punch well, and doesn't figure to test Slice's ground game either. The fight was made to be short and explosive.

May 31 – Gina Carano (5-0) vs. Kaitlin Young (4-1): The highest-profile match in women's MMA history. Last year, Carano and Julie Kedzie legitimized women's MMA to the Showtime audience by stealing the show on the first MMA event on a premium cable network. This fight is here with the hope lightning strikes twice, with 15 or 20 times as many viewers, and thus has more potential impact. Carano, aka Crush on "American Gladiators," has a unique likeability, in that she appeals strongly to both male and female fans. But it won't work unless they put on a great fight.

June 1 – Urijah Faber (20-1) vs. Jens Pulver (22-8-1): The WEC featherweight title match in Sacramento's Arco Arena is both the biggest fight in WEC history and the biggest featherweight fight ever in the U.S. The division, largely put on the map by Faber in the last year plus, sees the champ, one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, facing UFC's first-ever lightweight champion. Pulver, who has spent most of his career fighting bigger men, has an 8-0 record at 145 pounds. It's Faber's all-around game against Pulver's sprawl-and-brawl.

June 1 – Miguel Torres (33-1) vs. Yoshiro Maeda (23-4-2): This is the highest-profile bantamweight fight ever in the U.S. Torres put on a ground clinic winning the title from Chase Beebe on Feb. 13 in Albuquerque, taking him from unknown to a pound-for-pound top ten ranking. As far as international reputation goes, Maeda is by far the toughest test Torres has faced.

July 5 – Quinton Jackson (28-6) vs Forrest Griffin (15-4): The combination of the light heavyweight title in UFC being the marquee championship of the sport, and weekly buildup as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, makes this the biggest mainstream match of the next few months. Jackson will go in as the strong betting favorite to retain, but Griffin will likely be the crowd favorite in Las Vegas.

July 19 – Fedor Emelianenko (27-1, 1 no contest) vs. Tim Sylvia (26-4): It's the debut show of the new Affliction promotion, backed by the popular T-shirt brand. It's one of the biggest money fights in history with Emelianenko rumored to be getting in the $2 million range, and Sylvia believed to be getting $800,000 to show and a $200,000 win bonus. How they expect to recoup those costs is a huge mystery, since as great as Emelianenko is, he's never proven to have any drawing power in North America. Affliction is trying to challenge UFC with a strategy of bidding high to get a roster of top heavyweights. It's been almost three years since Emelianenko has faced a true top heavyweight. Sylvia, a two-time UFC champ who was battering current UFC champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira their entire fight until a quick submission on the ground, will at least test where the Russians stands. Is Fedor still "The Man" in this sport? And more importantly, will Affliction survive early losses and stay in the game? Or will they be this year's Bodog Fight, the rich owner who spends money and talks a long-term game, and quickly loses so much he's out of business?



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