Thursday, November 20, 2008
It's rare for me to stray beyond my typical academic haunts of handbooks and history. But I sometimes have to entertain my other passions. And I am a fan of mixed martial arts, in all of its various incarnations.
There was an important event this last weekend. Brock Lesnar, former NCAA and WWE wunderkind, defeated the sport's heavyweight godfathers: Randy Couture. This result wasn't totally unexpected. Vegas had it called on the betting line and a number of prominent analysts called for a relatively early KO. In beating Mr. Couture, Mr. Lesnar has become the heavyweight champion of the UFC and has gained a considerably amout of respect from fans. But he's still not top of the heap. During a contract dispute Mr. Couture refused to defend his title so an interim champion was named. There is an upcoming fight between Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for this particular title. There will then be a unification bout to finally establish the heavyweight champion. The outcome of this eventual fight is far from certain. Mr. Mir was victorious in Mr. Lesnar's debut -- although Mr. Lesnar has improved considerably since then -- and Mr. Nogueira is an MMA legend having fought and defeated many of the greatest fighters in both the UFC and in the now-defunct Japanese promotion, PRIDE. Mr. Nogueira's striking, jiu-jutsu, and ability to withstand massive amounts of punishment will make him a very difficult opponent for Mr. Lesnar.
The UFC is not, however, the only promotion for MMA. Perhaps the best heavyweight fighter in the world, for example, has never fought in the UFC. Fedor Emelienenko, from Russia, was the dominant force in PRIDE and decisively won his first fight against former UFC champion Tim Sylvia in the upstart Affliction promotion. Much conversation has now turned to the discussion of a potential fight between Mr. Lesnar and Mr. Emelienenko. The Russian has even expressed some interest in the matchup and it is well worth considering the outcome.
There is currently a great deal of miniformation in the discussion forums of various blogs. WWE fanboys claim that Mr. Lesnar is the greatest fighter ever while MMA hardliners take the view that Mr. Emelienenko is undefeatable.
Let's first consider Mr. Lesnar. Physically, the man is a monster and has to cut weight to make the 265 pound heavyweight cutoff. He is also incredibly agile and fast for such a large man. His wrestling and ability to control an opponent is very strong and his striking skills are developing rapidly. Could Mr. Emelienenko defeat such an opponent?
The Russian has certainly fought big men: Kerry Schall, Semmy Schilt, Zuluzhino, Mark Hunt, Hong-Man Choi, and Tim Sylvia. This list does, however, require some commentary. Schall, a wrestler, lacked the speed, power, and agility of Lesnar. Zuluzhino is a very large man, but lacked any discernible fighting skills in his encounter with Fedor. Hong-Man Choi is an incredibly huge individual but is a striker with limited wrestling skills. Schilt is also a striker. Fedor was able to win these bouts by controlling his opponents on the ground and forcing either a ground and pound or a submission. Fedor would have tremendous difficulty in using such a strategy against Lesnar.
The prospect of a Fedor/Lesnar fight introduces some other issues. Would the cage be an issue? Fedor always fights in a ring and has rarely had to use clinch or Greco-Roman skills. Lesnar may have a big advantage in the cage. Other PRIDE fighters -- notably Mirko Cro Cop Filipovic -- have struggled with the limits of the cage.
Another big question is the issue of weight class. The UFC has resisted efforts to reform weight classes, establishing light heavyweight from 205 to 225 and heavyweight from 225 to 265. According to this scheme, many of the dominant heavyweights would more realistically be light heavyweights (e.g., Fedor, Nogueira, Arlovski, etc.). This reform would then open heavyweight to the likes of Lesnar and Shane Carter.