Zuffa's tentacles in the talent pool grew when it was announced last week that the Fertittas had procured the wheezing PRIDE organization. Casual talk from Dana White was that the two promotions would have an inter-league show on an annual basis to help sort out the divisive rankings.
That's swell, but it's hardly indicative of the potential inherent in lording over two of the most prestigious knuckle-ups in the world. The buyout opens up several other possibilities, the most intriguing of which is the adoption of the talent exchange.
Consider: in both groups, elite-class athletes toil with no direct avenue to the title. Either they've been permanently derailed due to consecutive losses, or they've dropped the multiple opportunities afforded to them when it was their time to vie for the strap.
In the previously segregated climate of MMA, athletes usually responded to highly adversarial roads by changing paths. Randy Couture (Pictures), frustrated with the frames he was forced to try and manipulate at heavyweight, found new life at 205 pounds; Sean Sherk (Pictures), having gotten his face tenderized by Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), decided lightweight was a better fit.
The alternative in 2007 is lateral movement. In swapping struggling talent, both promotions would benefit by A) removing combatants simply treading water, and B) providing fresh opposition that could conceivably re-ignite a stale division.
As an appreciable bonus, fighters would likely welcome the opportunity to start with a clean slate. Phil Baroni (Pictures) struggled in the UFC -- in PRIDE he recorded consecutive knockouts. Anderson Silva dropped a bout to spaz Ryo Chonan (Pictures) -- in the UFC he's a mauler. (Maybe it's the exotic food. Or the exotic women.)
Some fair trades:
Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) for Pawel Nastula (Pictures)
Say what you will about Tim Sylvia (Pictures), but the man has an iron will. Dropping a bout to Randy Couture (Pictures) likely lit a forest fire under his ass, and it's a safe bet he'll be wearing the UFC strap again within the year. (Yes, I declare his chances against Mirko "Cro Cop" to be better than expected.)
That leaves Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) in flux. Dropping two consecutive bouts to Sylvia means it's very unlikely he'll get a fourth shot, and he seems lost in the shuffle of contenders lining up for a piece of Couture. In PRIDE, his ferocious and dynamic stand-up would make for good exchanges opposite Mark Hunt (Pictures) and champion Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures).
Gold Medal winner Nastula's bid into MMA has been a trial by fire: though his record isn't stunning, the talent level of his adversaries has been. The UFC has yet to see elite-level judo in the big man's division, a discipline that -- as Karo Parisyan (Pictures) has proved -- can be the most exciting expression of martial arts in the game. He'd inject a very needed dose of athleticism in the class.
Frank Mir (Pictures) for Aleksander Emelianenko (Pictures)
So I recently declared Mir a washout after a series of sub-par performances. The vitriolic responses did little to change my mind, but I do think he could benefit from a change of scenery. Mir in PRIDE would allow him to test the waters of heavyweights that have typically had little answer for the submission acumen of a ground specialist.
Emelianenko is a rough-hewn striker, but has the kind of aggressiveness and size that could present problems for a majority of UFC combatants; a bout with Tim Sylvia (Pictures) would be brutal while it lasted.
Besides, remaining in a promotion where your brother is seen as an insuperable champion doesn't bode well for your advancement opportunities. Fedor probably gave him noogies as a kid, and he'd do the same thing today.
Renato "Babalu" Sobral for Ricardo Arona (Pictures)
If there's one thing standing in the way of Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) returning to the heyday of his face-smashing glory, it's the methodical game of Brazilian Top Team standout Arona. In both of their fights, Silva's primal offense was suffocated; a stifled Axe Murderer is a boring Axe Murderer.
With Arona out of the picture, Silva could likely boost his profile and maul a path to a crossover fight with Chuck Liddell (Pictures). In the UFC, it would be fascinating to see if Arona's ground game would be enough to contain the human jack-in-the-box that is Liddell, or if he could avenge an earlier loss to Quinton Jackson (Pictures).
"Babalu" is a force at 205. Unfortunately, his run-ins with the "Iceman" have been more car wrecks than fender-benders. In PRIDE, he's open to a world of competitive bouts with the likes of Silva and Rogerio Nogueira.
Tito Ortiz (Pictures) for Mauricio Rua (Pictures)
Granted, Ortiz remains a box office draw for Zuffa. But his title prospects at 205 are about as encouraging as his finding a hat that fits.
Against Chuck Liddell (Pictures), he's gun-shy and virtually unable to get the fight to the ground. Against possible Liddell successor Quinton Jackson (Pictures), he's expressed a strong desire not to fight a friend. That leaves precious little opportunity to advance. Slot him overseas, where we can see if his cage-centric ground control can be adapted to the ring.
Rua is clearly the Chute Boxe savior of the new generation, but fighting in the same bracket as teammate and mentor Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) makes little sense. In the UFC, he'd be a sensational match-up for Chuck Liddell (Pictures), and a likely title holder if he happens to run into Quinton Jackson (Pictures) again.
Plus, he'd probably score a sweet GAP endorsement deal.
Joe Stevenson (Pictures) for Joachim Hansen (Pictures)
Distancing himself from others on the list, Stevenson has neither lagged nor dropped title opportunities. But I do fear his chances against fellow wrestling standout Sean Sherk (Pictures) are modest at best. Both men do one thing very well, which is control their opponent. Sherk just happens to be better at it.
Assuming Stevenson can't figure out the Sherk puzzle, he'd be a powerhouse in PRIDE's lightweight division, which doesn't currently host anyone with the wrestling ability these two possess.
Hansen is a beast: equal parts striker, grappler, and son of a bitch. I have yet to see him stop to take a breath in a bout, and there's virtually no bad match for him in the Ultimate. Slot him in against Melvin Guillard (Pictures) and it'd be like stuffing two wolverines in a burlap sack.
Travis Lutter (Pictures) for Paulo Filho (Pictures)
Lutter, as the kids like to say, "pwned" himself royally during the weigh-ins for UFC 67 when he came in above the weight limit for his well-earned shot at middleweight champ Anderson Silva. Despite the lackadaisical performance, he had Silva in trouble several times.
If his infraction warrants a banishing, it may as well be to Japan, where he can prove himself a valuable addition to the 185 class from scratch. If his mental game catches up, Lutter is a Top 10 athlete in the division.
Filho has essentially run though the middleweight class overseas, racking up an undefeated record against the likes of Kazuo Misaki (Pictures) and Murilo Rua (Pictures). How he'd fare against the more threatening strikes of Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin (Pictures) would be compelling.
In spite of all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the numerous power plays in MMA, fans have yet to experience much of a difference in the product itself. Sunday's Pride card pitted Jeff Monson (Pictures) against Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures) in a labored example of a cross-promotional bout. Not exactly the stuff of legend.
All the pieces are on the board. Why not put them in play?
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