Saturday, February 24, 2007

Looking into the crystal ball

By Mike Chiapetta

UFC 68 could be the first step toward Liddell vs. Cro Cop

Since the announcement of Randy Couture's return to the octagon, fans everywhere have debated his title matchup against UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. The conversation has always hinged on a few things:

First, should Randy be coming back, especially in the heavyweight division? Second, can he really beat the 6-foot-8, 265-pound Sylvia?

And last, at 43 years old, does he really have much of a future in mixed martial arts? The fact of that matter is that none of those questions are really relevant at all. Because from the UFC's perspective, they win regardless of who wins.

Let's look at the potential outcomes.

If Couture wins, he not only improbably recaptures the heavyweight title for the third time, he builds a feel-good story that will draw in hardcore fans, casual fans, possibly even non-fans. For those who don't regularly watch the sport or understand the skill levels of the two men, it simply looks like David vs. Goliath. An aged David vs. a young Goliath, to be more precise, which makes it even better. Because who can't understand how unlikely it is for a 43-year-old to physically beat up a bigger and stronger 30-year-old?

So that would leave you with a re-energized Couture holding the belt, one of the most recognizable names in the UFC at the top of heap and ready to defend the title against the next challenger.

On the other hand, if Sylvia wins, he regains some of the luster that he's lost in the last two fights. Let's get something straight here: Sylvia has no reason to apologize for winning. However, fans want to see fighters with aggression who consistently look to finish instead of cruise to a decision.

Sylvia has had some very decisive wins in his time, but the last two title defenses (against Andrei Arlovski and Jeff Monson) were not exactly highlight-reel variety. A win over Couture gives him a victory over a Hall of Famer. Even if it goes to a five-round decision as his last pair of matches have, there is something noble and satisfying about a win over an accomplished athlete like Couture that will rub off on Sylvia. Isn't it the same formula we saw Tito Ortiz ride on his way to a title match against Chuck Liddell?

Which brings us to why the UFC wins regardless of the outcome.

This match is only partially about Couture and Sylvia. In the end, it is really about Mirko Cro Cop. That is written with no disrespect to either of the two heavyweight combatants, but the UFC invested quite a bit of money in bringing the Croatian superstar to the U.S. They've already said that if he defeats Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70, he will be challenging for the heavyweight title. And they realize that they still need to educate some fans about Cro Cop.

Even though he's well known overseas, and by fans of the PRIDE organization, Cro Cop has been something of a mystery to US fans. Lots of them had heard of him; few had actually seen him before his UFC debut win over Eddie Sanchez at UFC 67.

While no one is crowning him yet, it would surprise no one if Cro Cop becomes the heavyweight champion soon. And as long as he can get past Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70, he'll get that chance.

That would give the UFC a potential Cro Cop-Couture or Cro Cop-Sylvia matchup. And given that most would expect the Croatian heavyweight to defeat either man and become the champion, you know what else is in the not-too-distant future?

Chuck Liddell.

Cro Cop vs. Liddell

That's the biggest fight UFC can possibly make, and it's a fight they will have a hard time resisting.

While in some ways, it would be better for Liddell to remain the man in the light-heavyweight division and have two dominant champions, every promoter dreams of putting on mega-fights. If you have ever seen the look in Dana White's eyes when he talks about matching up PRIDE's Wanderlei Silva against Chuck Liddell, you understand what I mean. His eyes light up and a smile instinctively crosses his face.

And Cro Cop vs. Liddell is even bigger than that. It is a fight that every fan will want to see it. Liddell has already voiced an interest in moving up a division to put together that fight, and Cro Cop will take on the challenge.

It's no coincidence that Cro Cop signed a six-fight deal with UFC. White hasn't made the organization a success without long-term vision. And right now, in his crystal ball, he sees Chuck Liddell staring down Mirko Cro Cop in the center of the octagon.

And the road to that fight starts on March 3, when Sylvia and Couture set up Cro Cop's title opportunity.

Sure, a lot of things can happen between now and Cro Cop vs. Liddell. Someone can get hurt; Cro Cop could lose; Liddell could lose. But in these best laid-plans, all the UFC can do is make the best matchups and react to the results.

The beauty of it all is that Sylvia and Couture both have the opportunity to inject themselves into the title picture at every turn; all they have to do is win. Cro Cop vs. Liddell can't and won't happen if either man loses.

But for now, at UFC 68, the fight between the "Maine-iac" and "The Natural" is important not only for what it is, but for what it might lead to.


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