Saturday, August 22, 2009

Friends As Foes: Tackling the Teammate Debate

MMA Weekly is reporting that uber-talented light heavyweight prospect Jon Jones has joined forces with Greg Jackson and his team in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

While this certainly increases the expectations for the undefeated up-and-comer, if that is even possible, the addition of "Bones" to the Jackson Camp also helps one of the most discussed topics in Mixed Martial Arts rear it's ugly head once again.

The idea of teammates fighting has been getting a lot of play lately, most recently with Dana White's insistence that if Anderson Silva continues to lay waste to top level talents in the light heavyweight division, a fight with champion, friend and training partner Lyoto Machida will happen.

Now we have arguably the best prospect in the entire sport joining a team with former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans and gatekeeper Keith Jardine, who go from being potential opponents to out of the question.

We know what side the UFC is on and we know what side the fighters are on.

Where do you stand on the issue of teammates fighting?

From a business standpoint, the stance of Dana White and the UFC is very understandable.

Their aim is to help determine who is the best in each division, making the most compelling and entertaining fights imaginable to meet that end. Friendships do not factor into the equation, as this is a solely a business issue for the UFC.

Even though White says making a Machida-Silva fight happen is "about seeing who's best," there is no question that it is also, if not primarily, about potential revenue.

A fight pitting two of the best Pound-for-Pound fighters in the world against each other atop a pay-per-view card would do massive numbers for the company.

Stepping outside of the boardroom and away from the bottom line, there is also the advancement of the divisions for the UFC to be concerned with.

For instance, a fighter like Jones is certainly in need of a step up in competition after reeling off three straight impressive wins, and a fighter like Jardine would have fit the bill perfectly. With that option now unavailable, who stands opposite Jones the next time he enters the Octagon?

A fighter the caliber of Rich Franklin would presumably be too much of a jump, while pitting Jones against fellow up-and-comer Luiz Cane would send one of the two prospects in the wrong direction.

Of all the light heavyweights on the UFC roster, Matt Hammil is the only fighter without a fight already lined up. Despite the great depth of the division, the options are actually quite slim.

Perhaps even more potentially problematic is the welterweight division, where American Kickboxing Academy members Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick all reside in the Top 10 of the USA Today / SB Nation Consensus Rankings.

Playing extremely hypothetical Devil's Advocate, what happens if Swick gets passed Martin Kampmann and manages to pull a Matt Serra and defeat Georges St-Pierre early next year?

Though Fitch is widely considered the #1 contender and would be the obvious choice of the fans and the UFC as Swick's first opponent, he's gone on the record numerous times stating that he will never fight one of his AKA teammates.

Then the UFC is left with a champion who immediately eliminates two strong challengers because they are teammates and has the unenviable task of trying to build interest in what would clearly be a lesser fight.

Of course, there is the fighter's side of the coin as well.

First and foremost, and perhaps something that doesn't get stated enough in this discussion, the UFC (or any other organization for that matter) cannot force a fighter to sign a contract.

Dana White can tell the media and the fans as many times as he would like that he'll "make that fight," but the simple fact of the matter is that he simply doesn't have the power to do so.

Just as Martin Kampmann was able to decline the UFC's offer to fight TJ Grant earlier in the summer, the AKA teammates can do the same if asked to stand opposite one another.

And for those who will undoubtedly bring up potential firings or coercive tactics to entice fighters to square off with their friends and teammates, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that the UFC would let a top tier talent like Jon Fitch become a free agent simply because he didn't want to fight Josh Koscheck or Mike Swick.

These guys work and train together day in and day out, building a chemistry and rapport that exceeds any monetary benefit facing each other could potentially yield.

The best argument against these potential teammate matchups should actually make a great deal of sense to both sides and comes courtesy of Sherdog's Jake Rossen:

With their reluctance well-documented, can you imagine the level of hyper-analysis that would follow their every move? Say one gets knocked down with a stiff jab -- or worse, someone torques an ankle or knee. Happens all the time. But if it happens in the context of two reluctant sparring partners in a prizefight neither wanted, there would be no end of speculation over the potential for choreography.

Certainly, the last thing that both the fighters and the organization would want is rumblings of a fight being fixed and that would surely start should something like this happen to take place.

He also discusses the difference between friends competing against one another in other sports to doing the same in MMA, citing that two chess masters don't have to deal with the ramifications and implications of punching one another in the face should they decide to face off.

Is the stance taken by the UFC wholly understandable from a business perspective?

Absolutely; the best fights make the most money and they're in the business of making both.

But are the fighters in an equally understandable position, having little interest in lining up opposite their closest friends?

Without a doubt.

So what is the solution?

In truth, there probably isn't one.

Dana White will continue to talk tough about making these fights happen and the consequences of saying no, while the fighters remaining opposed to such an idea.

Sometimes the arguments of both sides make perfect sense and can leave you stuck in the middle, unable to choose a side.

That's where I'm at.

What about you?

Pictured (L to R): Mike Swick, Bob Cook, Jon Fitch - American Kickboxing Academy

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