MMA debate: Is it perfect timing for Edwards-Masvidal? What to make of Jon Jones' suspension?

3 months ago 28

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Last week, the UFC announced that top-10 welterweights Leon Edwards and Jorge Masvidal will meet on Dec. 11. This announcement was a long time coming -- as in, more than 2½ years.

It was way back in March 2019 that Edwards and Masvidal had a confrontation backstage after both had won bouts at a UFC Fight Night event in London. Masvidal ended up bloodying Edwards' face with a quick flurry of punches -- which he iconically labeled afterward "the three-piece with the soda."

Now, finally, they will meet in the Octagon. Does the grudge still have heat? Or did the UFC wait too long to match up Edwards, who is No. 4 in the ESPN welterweight rankings, with the 10th-ranked Masvidal?

Elsewhere in the MMA world last week, Colorado became the second state to employ open scoring in MMA and boxing matches, which makes the judges' scorecards public after each round. This flies in the face of decades of combat sports tradition. Is it an idea whose time has come?

One of the biggest headlines of the week was the decision of Jon Jones' coach, Mike Winkeljohn, to ban Jones from his longtime gym, Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the wake of Jones' latest arrest -- this time for charges including misdemeanor battery domestic violence.

ESPN's MMA writers, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi, along with editor Jeff Wagenheim, weigh in on these topics of interest -- starting with the Edwards vs. Masvidal booking.

Raimondi: I have to be honest with you both. I have mixed feelings about this fight. In a vacuum, it's obviously fantastic. The backstory is rich, with the 2019 scuffle between the two in London. I just think Edwards vs. Masvidal should have happened already, when the proverbial iron was hot. I'm not so much in love with the timing of this one. I'm not trying to complain -- again, I badly want to see them fight -- but what does Edwards have to gain here? Hasn't he already done enough to earn a title shot? Plus, the fight I want most for Masvidal now is against Colby Covington. Hopefully that one can still happen, but the timing might not line up. Brett, what are your thoughts?

Okamoto: I've got nothing but excitement over this fight. Maybe the "iron was hot" back in March 2019 when the backstage scuffle occurred, but this is one of those irons that remains hot, my friend. All you have to do is watch a video of that scuffle, revisit the "three piece with the soda" line from Masvidal, and remember how badly Edwards has wanted this for a long time ... and the hype is real. I can't wait.

The only thing I would say is that, yes, Edwards deserved a title fight. So, it's not really fair he's been asked to take this fight first, against a guy in Masvidal who is coming off back-to-back losses in title fights. Also, I think Edwards would have benefited had this fight been a title fight; if he were to become a champion, he'd be in a position to collect pay-per-view points in that scenario. But Edwards sounds pretty happy with what he's making for this one. He tweeted "Millionaire" shortly before the fight was fully agreed to. If Edwards is happy, I'm happy. And this is gonna be a lot of fun in December.

Wagenheim: I agree that this is still a hot fight, and I'm as excited for it now as I was 2½ years ago. Right after "three piece with the soda," I remember thinking that booking these two for a fight was a no-brainer. There was a built-in storyline, a grudge. But then I thought more deeply about that, and here's my complaint: Would an immediate booking have been the message we want to be sending fighters -- if you want to drum up interest in a big fight, go hit someone backstage? I know that strategy wouldn't work for everyone, but I don't want to plant the idea in the heads of rising fighters looking for a promotional push.

I say it's fine that the UFC held off. Masvidal has done big things since that night in London, and Edwards finally got his high-profile date when he fought Nate Diaz in June. Sure, Leon has already earned a title shot, but the champ is occupied at the moment by a Nov. 6 rematch with Covington, so in the meantime let's see these two guys compete -- yeah, just compete, with no focus on settling their differences -- and may the better man rise to the top.

Raimondi: Wow, no first-round feeling-out process here. Both of y'all are already swangin' and bangin'. That's fine. I stand by my original feelings. I'm no hot-take merchant and never will be. But I have reservations about where this fits in the division. Joe Silva, the OG UFC matchmaker, always said it was his job to create contenders for the title. I'm not sure Edwards vs. Masvidal completely achieves that. If Edwards wins, great ... but he already deserves his shot against the Usman vs. Covington winner. But what if Masvidal wins? And that's a distinct possibility. Usman has already beaten Masvidal twice. If Usman beats Covington again and Masvidal beats Edwards, where does that leave the upper tier of the UFC welterweight division?

Okamoto: It kind of leaves it where it already is, in my opinion. Right now, you've got Kamaru Usman and you've got everyone else. I am very much looking forward to the Covington rematch in November, and I believe it will be competitive. But as you said, Marc, Usman already has a win against him. He also has a win against the No. 3-ranked contender, Gilbert Burns. Oh, and the No. 4-ranked Edwards. This is just where the division is. Usman has established dominance.

Right now, there's just no hype around a second fight between Usman and Edwards. So even though Edwards deserves the shot right now, I don't mind the idea of him taking the risk of fighting Masvidal -- in a fight we all want to see -- and getting well paid to do so. And if Edwards wins, then there should be interest in him fighting Usman again. If it works out that way, it makes the division better. And if Masvidal ends up winning, I don't think the division is really any worse off than it is right now.

Wagenheim: It's futile, my friends, to apply a logical progression to any UFC title picture. Bottom line for me: A win over Masvidal would be the second straight high-profile resume enhancement for Edwards, and if Masvidal were to hand Edwards his first loss since 2015, Masvidal would have earned his way back to Usman. That's more than he did last time. Masvidal's second title shot, you'll recall, came right after he'd been dominated by Usman in their first meeting. So I'm just happy to be getting what promises to be a fiery fight -- unless I've just jinxed it -- and we'll worry about the future when we get there.

But for now, let's shift to another topic in the news. Marc, you reported last week that Colorado is adopting open scoring in MMA and boxing, which to me seems like a step toward addressing the judging concerns in MMA. But Brett, in retweeting Marc's news story, you expressed your opposition to open scoring. Care to explain yourself?

Okamoto: So, the only real positive I see that would come from open scoring is that the combatants would know the judges' scores during the fight. And if that's something the fighters really, really want, then I have no problem with it. Their opinion means more than mine. But I've never really heard fighters or coaches express that. Have you guys? I mean, I've heard it here and there, but this is not a complaint I've heard that much. Boxing has been around for far longer than MMA, and it doesn't have open scoring. And I haven't heard many boxers ask for it, either.

So, if the athletes and coaches don't care, what does it accomplish? It doesn't hold judges more accountable. A bad score read in real time is just as bad as a bad score read after a fight. And as I wrote on Twitter, I don't like what open scoring does to the viewing experience. Think about a UFC title fight. At the end of the day, those are the biggest fights in the sport, right? If a fighter in a title bout is down 3-1 after four rounds, do you want to know that as a viewer? Isn't there an anticipation in not knowing? I like it when a fight is coming down to the wire and both corners are saying, "We think we're ahead, but we're not sure. Go win this round." That's drama.

I know there was a study in Kansas and some of the data suggested fighters do not coast in the final rounds of bouts even when they know they're ahead. But if it's a title fight, matching the very best in the world, I'm telling you those elite fighters will know how to minimize risk if they know they're ahead 3-1 and we'll see a different fifth round than we're seeing now. Did you guys watch the Austin Trout-Canelo Alvarez boxing match, which featured semi-open scoring? If not, go take a look. Semi-open scoring legit ruined that fight. I don't like it.

Raimondi: Those are all strong, reasonable points, Brett. But while I don't really disagree with anything you argued here, I will say I have no problem with commissions in Kansas and Colorado experimenting with open scoring. One of the things that can be done -- and, I think, should be done -- in combat sports is testing different types of rules at the lower levels. There are tons of regional events and club shows every weekend. Why not experiment with potential rule changes and collect data the way Kansas has done with open scoring?

MMA's rule set hasn't changed much since 2001, yet this is a vastly, vastly different sport now than it was then. The fighters are much more athletic and well-rounded in this generation. Rules don't have to stay the same forever; the NFL, for example, is constantly evolving its rules. In combat sports, you really don't know how certain regulations will play out unless they are actually implemented and studied. I just hope people realize that open scoring does next to nothing to actually improve the problem of poor judging. And to me, I'd rather see regulations put in place -- whatever they may be -- to fix that first.

To your point about the opinions of fighters and coaches, Brett, when I wrote that piece last week about Colorado adopting open scoring as an option, I had several coaches reach out to me in support of it. I can see fighters having mixed feelings about open scoring. But coaches? I feel like they would love it. For coaches, knowledge is power and they can adapt a game plan as the fight goes on with the information they have about where their fighter actually stands on the scorecards -- not just where the coach thinks the fighter stands. Jeff, I'm interested in your thoughts here.

Wagenheim: Well-rounded sports fan that I am, Marc, I will draw upon an observation I made while watching a postseason baseball game the other night. In the first inning, the pitcher placed one perfectly on the outside corner -- you could see it hit the edge of the box the network superimposes on the screen -- but the umpire called the pitch a ball. A couple of batters later, the ump made the same call on a pitch in the exact same location. Both calls were wrong, but at least the pitchers and batters knew right away they had to adjust their expectations of a strike zone for the rest of the game. Wouldn't that type of knowledge -- what a judge is looking for -- help a fighter? If a judge has just scored Round 1 for your opponent, whom you out-struck before you got taken down late, you can adjust your approach for the rounds still to come. Knowing the score is an integral part of winning in sports.

Athletes in every sport, from Little League to the pros, know the score throughout their games. Why do we keep it a mystery in MMA and boxing until a decision is announced -- and then we complain about the decision? Yes, there should be better judging. Yes, criteria should be broadened to account for the wide range of margins in determining who has won a round -- from the toss-up to the tightly contested to the dominant to the near-finish. All those things should be addressed, and to me open scoring is part of the solution.

Okamoto: I will say one last thing on this: The "every other sport lets us know the score" argument doesn't do much for me because ... I don't care. Pretty much every other sport considers it a foul to punch someone in the face, which is kind of the whole point in this one. So, just because knowing the score is obviously necessary in one sport doesn't make it necessary in this one, in my opinion.

But let's turn to our final topic, and we'll make it a lightning round of sorts. Veteran coach Mike Winkeljohn has come out and said that Jon Jones is "temporarily suspended" from Jackson Wink MMA following Jones's recent arrest in Las Vegas.

My initial thoughts: What does a temporary suspension mean? Jones doesn't have a fight booked right now, and he might not for some time. If he stays out of trouble and shows some kind of remorse for what allegedly happened (which to this point he has not, at least publicly), will he be back at Jackson Wink before his next fight? Until we know the answer to that, I don't know what to make of this. But I will give Winkeljohn credit for taking some kind of action on an individual in Jones who I think we would probably all agree has not always faced the most severe repercussions for his actions.

Wagenheim: I'll zero in on two things Winkeljohn said. First, he acknowledged that Jones has been surrounded by yes men, which I believe is not uncommon for high-profile, big-money athletes, and I was glad to see someone in Jon's circle finally, finally say enough is enough. And when Winkeljohn noted that part of his impetus for separating Jones from Jackson Wink is that Winkeljohn teaches women's self-defense at his gym, I found that poignant. I hope this makes a difference, but like you, Brett, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach.

Raimondi: I just think those coaches down in Albuquerque are in an impossible position. I understand Winkeljohn taking a stand and not letting Jones into the building. The legal system will have to play out with regard to Jones' latest arrest, but like Brett said, Jones hasn't faced the most accountability for his actions over the years, and being taken away from his team, at least temporarily, could serve as a wake-up call.

The thing is, Jones has never gotten in trouble for anything that has happened inside the gym. For the most part, the coaches down there have acknowledged that Jones is on his best behavior when he's at the gym working, focusing on and preparing for his next fight. It's when Jones strays from the discipline of his fight lifestyle that he gets in trouble. It's a tough spot for Winkeljohn and fellow coaches Greg Jackson and Brandon Gibson. They all care about Jones deeply. Winkeljohn referred to him as like a little brother on "The MMA Hour." Jones has been with those guys since he was in his early 20s, almost a kid. Jackson and Gibson, in fact, will still train Jones off-site despite the temporary suspension from the gym.

All of this is to say there is no perfect answer. Ultimately, it'll be up to Jones -- and only Jones -- if he wants to get the help he so clearly needs and turns his life around. No amount of arrests, stripping of title belts or temporary suspensions from gyms will matter unless Jones makes that earnest choice to change and get better. I hope for his sake and the sake of his family and those who have stuck by him that this latest incident acts as a catalyst.

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