Wednesday, April 27, 2011

5 things to keep in mind for UFC 129

UFC 129 this Saturday night in Toronto, Canada is the biggest MMA fight card of the year. The Rogers Center (home of the Toronto Blue Jays Major League Baseball team) with be filled with 55,000 MMA fans and the UFC estimates the gate will be around 11 million dollars. Also, there are two UFC Championship belts up for grabs that night. So here are 5 things to keep an eye out for this Saturday:

1. Jake Shields is better then you think he is
Chuck Liddel has described Jake Shield's takedowns as "awkward in a good way" while Jon Fitch has said Shields is "stronger then he looks". UFC Welterweight Champion George St. Pierre has said Shields is the toughest opponent he has faced in a long time and that he is not underestimating him. But even when you are not underestimating Jake Shields, in some way you will overlook some element of his game. The guy has won 15 straight fights for a reason. During his winning streak there have been three different men who have held the UFC Welterweight belt (GSP, Matt Serra and Matt Hughes). Shields always finds a way to win and that should worry St. Pierre the most. You will see the best Jake Shields ever in the Octagon this Saturday; is George St. Pierre really prepared for that?

2. Jose Aldo has never faced an opponent like Mark Hominick.
Since joining the WEC, Jose Aldo has faced fighters who are wrestlers or takedown experts. He has beaten all of them. But Mark Hominick is different then all of Aldo's previous opponents because Hominick has elite level boxing skills and is underrated on the ground. Hominick trains with Olympic level boxers as sparring parteners. The current Featherweight Champ has been known for his excellent standup skills. Yet Aldo's best chance at winning this fight is taking it to the ground and submitting Hominick. I cannot remember the last time Aldo attempted a takedown. He hasn't even submitted an opponent in 6 years. Aldo is considered one of the best fighters in the world yet Hominick has more then a puncher's chance to leave the octagon with Aldo's featherweight belt. Can Aldo handle Hominick on the feet?

3. Can Lyoto Machida find his form or will Randy Couture grind out a win?
Before his last two losses to Maurico "Shogun" Rua and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Lyoto Machida had never lost a fight. He had beaten aggressive fighters like Thiago Silva and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou. He has beaten top level wrestlers such as Tito Ortiz and Rashad Evans. In 2005 he was able to stiffle B.J. Penn en route to a Decission victory. So the fact that he is on a two fight losing streak is perplexing. Randy Couture has said that he thinks his style of fighting matches up well with Machida's allussive fighting style. Although Couture has a wrestling base, his style is different then Rashad Evans or Tito Ortiz: Couture is strategist who uses his mind to maximize his physical skills. If Randy can get his hands on Machida, it will be a long night for the former UFC Light Heavyweight Champ. Machida has a good ground game but I'm unsure if he is prepared for a fighter like Randy Couture who is willing to grind out a win. Machida needs this win more then Couture which makes Lyoto a desperate fighter coming into this matchup while Randy is relaxed and ready for war.

4. Ben Henderson has something to prove
Before losing his WEC Lightweight belt to Anthony "Showtime" Pettis, Ben Henderson had won 10 straight fights. He had beaten the best of the WEC lightweight division and people were wondering how he would fair against the best of the UFC. Now Henderson's first fight since losing his WEC belt is against a fighter who some view as the "gatekeeper" to being considered a contender in the lightweight division. Mark Bocek's three losses in the UFC have been to Frank Edgar, Mac Danzig, and Jim Miller. Henderson is more talented then Bocek yet the fight is in Canada and Bocek will have the crowd behind him. The pressure is on Henderson to live up to expectations and forget about his loss to Pettis.

5. There has never been a UFC event with 55,000 fans, how will the fighters handle it?
Veteran fighters like George St. Pierre, Jake Shields, and Randy Couture have fought in many types of enviroments and they know how to handle the pressure and the crowd. But Canadian fighters Mark Hominick, Mark Bocek, Rory McDonald, and Sean Pierson have never been involved in a MMA event such as this. The crowd will be mostly behind them, how will the handle that pressure? Also young fighters such as Jose Aldo, Jason Brillz, Ben Henderson, and Jake Ellenberger have never fought on such a large stage stage before with 55,000 people or an event with the amount of publicity leading up to it. This is a big deal for the UFC and Canada, it will be interesting to see which of these fighters come of age in the Octagon and who will let the pressure crush them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How Zuffa's Acquisition of Strikeforce is already benefiting MMA fans

There were many questions and expectations that came from the media and MMA fans when Zuffa (the parent company of the UFC) purchased Strikeforce. There were questions about how Strikeforce would be operated, how long they would stay with Showtime, the potential for Strikeforce and UFC fighters to compete against each other, etc. Although UFC President Dana White claimed it would be "business as usual" for the two MMA promotions, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker confirmed there will be potential "super fights" between fighters from each promotion. We saw UFC media people involved in the Strikeforce event earlier this month. Also, Dana White went to the event with a Strikeforce shirt on! It is certainly a new world in MMA.

Unlike when Zuffa purchased PRIDE and WEC, Strikeforce already had a strong US following and was seen by MMA fans here in North America as a "rival" of the UFC before the purchase. PRIDE was considered by some in Japan as big as the NFL is in the US. WEC was a small, yet successful organization that was seen as the place in North America to go for top level Featherweight and Bantamweight fighters. Eventually, both WEC and PRIDE fighters were absorbed into the UFC. This will probably happen at some point with Strikeforce, but there are still contracts that must be honored. There is the broadcasting agreement with Showtime and unique contracts with fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko (M-1, his agent, has a promotional agreement with Strikeforce and Showtime) and Nick Diaz (who has a clause allowing him to compete as a professional boxer). Also, there is still good money to be made with Strikeforce because of Scott Coker's relationships with CBS and Japan.

The way MMA fans are benefiting from this business transaction is that there is more top level MMA events that do not have conflicting schedules. Fans do not have to choose between Strikeforce and UFC anymore. Strikeforce has had a history of being abit disorganized with their event scheduling and setting up fights. Now with Zuffa as their parent company, it appears Strikeforce is operating more efficiently, which means more great fights for the fans.

A recent example of this is the announcement that Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Dan Henderson will be fighting Fedor Emelianenko this summer. In the past, such big fights would be rumored for months and nailing down the date would appear difficult. This is not a reflection of Scott Coker as we now know, but a reflection of how Strikeforce was operating with limited personnel and resources. Coker is only one man being pulled in many directions. Now with the help of Zuffa's established infrastructure, Strikeforce can operate at full strength in a similar way to how the UFC efficiently operates.

Whether it is Strikeforce Lightweight Champion talking publicly about him potentially fighting the UFC Lightweight belt holder or Jason "Mayhem" Miller suddenly coming to the UFC because his contract "had expired" with Strikeforce, fans are going to get to see the fights they want, which is more money for Zuffa, UFC and Strikeforce. Also, fighters get more exposure which leads to more ways for them to make money outside the octagon. There are rumors that there will come a day when the UFC has its own television network (similar to what the NFL has with the NFL network). Dana White wasn't kidding when he said he wants to make MMA the biggest sport in the world. In the end, this is a real win-win for everyone involved.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bold (and not so Bold) MLB 2011 Predictions

Baseball is the most unique of the major team sports. A major league baseball season has 162 regular season games, and the World Series ends around Halloween. There are nine unique positions and the American League has a Designated Hitter (so the pitcher can focus on pitching). So when attempting to predict outcomes for a baseball season, understand that the odds of one getting them all correct is ATLEAST 568-1. In other words, you are more likely to get into a car accident going to and from work or school today then correctly predicting the Major League Baseball season winners, losers, League Champions and World Series winner. Now that I have totally destroyed your confidence in any baseball analysist's expertise, here are my Predictions:

AL West Division Champ: Texas Rangers
Reasoning: Why not? Seriously, they won 92 games last season and Cliff Lee didnt pitch that in August and September for them. They went to the World Series after beating the last two American League Champions (Yankees and Rays). They upgraded their offense by adding Adrian Beltre. Yes I know they lost Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina, but they also added Mike Napoli. And look at the rest of the division: Angels big upgrade was Vernon Wells and Oakland got Hideki Matsui. Like that is going to worry one of the best offensive lineups in the American League.
X-Factor: Micheal Young
Young wasn't happy that after being asked to change positions twice he was now asked to become a DH/"Super Utility Player" (who came up with these bizzare title anyway?!?). The guy is the franchise's all-time hits leader and you can't let him keep one position for more then two years at a time? He feels disrespected and the Rangers know that they can't keep him happy much longer. They may trade him to get another starting pitcher. Rumors of a Young to Philadelphia for Joe Blanton deal has not been ruled out by either team. Another possibility is Young going to the Rockies. In the end, how well Young performs in his new role for the Rangers or what he brings back in a trade for them could be the key to the season.

AL Central Division Champ: Chicago White Sox
Reasoning: I have been wavering back and forth before making this choice between the Sox and the Twins. But the more I think about it, the simpler the decission becomes. My faith in the Twins has broken down after numerous first round playoff ousters and the fact that they are hoping Joe Mauer, Justin Moreneau, and Joe Nathan are healthy and back to top form. The White Sox were lacking offense last season. So they added Adam Dunn while keeping Paul Korneko. They will probably make a deal around the trade deadline to improve their starting pitching or outfield depth, but if they stay healthy and consistent they can win the division.
X-Factor: Manager Ozzie Gullien
Let me preface this by saying I'm a fan of Ozzie. The dude is entertaining, cool, brutally honest, and wants to win more then any manager in baseball. Sure he can be crazy but thats why he is great. He isn't a hot head like Lou Pinella or melancholy like Tony LaRussa or whatever Charlie Manuel is. He's smart, maybe too smart. If Ozzie can work his magic with his players like he did several years ago, he can push them to the World Series. Or drive every nuts and they will finish 3rd in the division. Just make sure when he speaks to the media the cameras and tape recorders are on!

AL East Division Champ: Boston Red Sox
Reasoning: They added Adrian Gonzalez (best hitting 1st baseman in baseball who isn't named Albert Pujols), Carl Crawford (2nd best player the Rays franchise has ever produced behind Evan Longoria), and Bobby Jenks (one of the top bullpen arms in baseball). How can you not pick them as the favorite? The Yankees are a year older, the Rays replaced Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford with a 39 year old Manny Ramierez and a 38 year old Johnny Damon, while the Blue Jays dumped Vernon Wells and Shawn Marcum for Juan Rivera and prospects. The only thing that can stop the Red Sox from winning the division is...themselves.
X-Factor: Mental and Physical Health
If this was a video game, this team would be ranked number one in the American League. If "Dice-K" Matsusaka, Bobby Jenks, Carl Crawford, and JD Drew can keep their heads screwed on right while Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Mike Cameron stay healthy, this team can win the World Series. The odds of all this happening...

AL Wild Card Winner: New York Yankees
Reasoning: On paper they look good. But their pitching will ultimately hold them back. AJ Burnett is alwaysa question mark. Also, is Freddy Garcia really able to stay good enough for an entire season? Is Joba Chamberlin fat or more muscular? Can Ivan Nova hold up for 25-28 starts? When will Mariano Rivera hit that wall called "age"?
X-Factor: General Manager Brian Cashman
The Yankees will make a deal (or two) before the trade deadline this year. It will probably determine whether or not they make the playoffs (unless the Red Sox collapse and the Yankees have their best season ever then the trades wont be neccessary and then the Twins will win the Wild Card and lose to the Yankees in the first round AGAIN).

AL MVP: Adam Dunn (He has never played in the American League before and he will probably carry the White Sox offense during stretches of the season)

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester (He is one of the best pitchers in the AL and he hasn't met his potential yet. Maybe this year will be the year)

AL Rookie of The Year: Kyle Drabek (The kid is a topic line talent. He maybe be better then his dad Doug Drabek)

NL West Division Champ: San Francisco Giants\
Reasoning: Yeah I'm making a real leap of faith to pick the defending World Series Champs to win their division. On paper, they look deeper and more talented then last year's team. While all of those young pitchers went through the postseason experience and know what it takes to win now. They have one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball and barring any major injuries they can have all five starters win atleast 10 games each.
X-Factor: Buster PoseyThe NL Rookie of the Year was a major key to the Giants run to win the World Series and the way he handles the pitching staff makes him one of the top catchers in baseball. But will he continue to improve or take a step back this year? What happens if he misses time with an injury? He is the major driving force for this team and if he doesn't atleast perform how he did last season, there will be problems.

NL Central Division Champs: Cincinnati Reds
Reasoning: I wanted to pick the Brewers to win the division but their bullpen and lack of bench depth worries me. I wanted to pick the Cubs to win the division but the fact that they never play up to expectations is a concern. I know the Cardinals are going to have a rough season without Adam Wainwright and the potential of Chris Carpenter being traded to the Yankees (Oh wait, sorry, that was a SPOILER ALERT). So I am left with the Reds. Last year's division champions. Also a team that improved at Shortstop by adding Edgar Renteria. Also, they have the most players on a team in the Central that have a track record of playing up to their abilities.
X-Factor: Scott Rolen
No one will get suprised this year by how good Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are. Rolen is one of the veteran leaders for this team and they need him to have another solid year with his bat and health. Without Rolen in the lineup their defense is much weaker and they lack a serious right handed power bat.

NL East Division Champs: Philadelphia Phillies
Reasoning: The best top three starters in baseball. Think about it in numbers. If Roy Halladay wins 20 games, Cliff Lee wins 19, Roy Oswalt wins 16 then Cole Hamels win 13 games and Joe Blanton 12 games, thats a total of 80 wins just from your starting pitchers! Also, dont forget that they still have a great offense even without Jayson Werth there. This team is full of winners and they will find ways all season to win and stay on top of the division.
X-Factor: Injuries
Chase Utley and Brad Lidge both start the season on the Disabled List. Last year Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez all delt with injuries that hurt their performance. Also, Roy Oswalt has a history of back issues while young talent Domonic Brown who was suppose to replace Jayson Werth in Right Field is injured too. The team has depth but they still need everyone health if they hope to win the division and make it back to the World Series. Thanks to injuries over the last few years they have gone from World Series champions to World Series runners up to losing in the NLCS. Do they keep digressing or do they get back to the top of the mountain again?

NL Wild Card Winner: Milwaukee Brewers
Reasoning: I have trouble believing that this team wont produce enough offense to keep them close until July when they can trade for more bullpen help. Their starting pitching is underrated because they are in the same league as the Phillies, Giants, and Braves. Prince Fielder has gotten in good shape (well for him atleast) and wants to show how much he is worth since he will be a free agent after this season. Once Zack Greinke, Manny Parra, and Corey Hart come back from the injuries, this team has alot of potential.
X-Factor: Manager Ron Roenicke
He is their new manager and the hope was that a new voice in the clubhouse could change how the team performs on the field. If these guys work together and want it bad enough, they could reach the World Series. But can the new guy motivate them? At times last season it seemed that guys just were disinterested at the plate and were indifferent about winning. That has to change, especially since they acquired 2 young, talented pitchers during the off season. So the pressure in on Ron Roenicke to push the right buttons to get this team rolling.

NL MVP: Carlos Gonzalez (You think he was good last season, imagine how good he will be this season now that he has mommentum, confidence, and more experience. The sky is the limit for him and with the help of the launching pad known as Coors Field, I think this will be his year to get the trophy.)

NL Cy Young: Yovani Gallardo (the best yong pitcher in baseball who most people dont know about. With Shawn Marcum and Zack Geinke getting most of the attention Gallardo can show he is the real ace on this starting staff and dominate the National League with his electric stuff)

NL Rookie of The Year: Kenley Jansen (He allowed only two earned runs in 27.0 innings last year for the Dodgers. His cutter has been compared to Mariano Rivera. He could take over the closer's role by late May and then suprise everyone in the NL with his talent.)