Mailbag: Where does Robert Whittaker rank all-time at middleweight? Plus fallout from UFC Saudi Arabia

UFC Saudi Arabia is in the books as the promotion made it’s debut outing in Ruyadh this past Saturday, with Robert Whittaker demolishing short-notice replacement Ikram Aliskerov in the first round. Alexander Volkov also picked up a big win over Sergei Pavlovich in the co-main event, plus some other things happened, so let’s dive into things before moving on to UFC 303 and International Fight Week.

Robert Whittaker

“Has Bobby Knuckles firmly established himself as the third greatest middleweight of all time over guys like Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Dan Henderson and Gegard Mousasi?”

Great question! Though I’ll start by saying leaving Rich Franklin off this list is tough scenes. Franklin was an exceptional fighter who just so happened to have his prime run concurrently with Anderson Silva. Tough break.

I’ve said this plenty before but it bears repeating whenever we start arguing about the greatest anything: it’s a subjective thing. To me, “greatest” is primarily about accomplishment not “well, he beat this guy, ipso facto, he is better”. And by those terms, pretty inarguably the greatest middleweight of all time is Anderson Silva, with Israel Adesanya trailing considerably behind him.

No. 3 is interesting, though. If we’re talking all of MMA, I think the default for awhile has been Hendo, but I’m not sure it’s correct. Henderson has an incredible resume, but it’s also all over the map with light heavyweight and openweight bouts. If we’re just talking what he’s done at 185 pounds, Whittaker probably surpassed him.

But Weidman is another story. Weidman is in the that spot where he fell off so dramatically from his peak that newer fans overlook him (we refer to this as “The B.J. Penn Zone” or “The Tony Ferguson Zone”). But Weidman has a pretty major trump card over Whittaker’s all-time case: three title defenses. Whittaker is an exceptional fighter, but he also never successfully defended the belt. He won an interim title, got promoted to undisputed, and then lost his next fight. It’s a bit harsh, but it’s the truth.

I say it all the time but defending a title is the hardest thing to do in MMA. (Mike) Heck, even Whittaker sort of agreed with that by saying he lost to Dricus du Plessis because he underestimated him. You don’t do that sort of thing in a title fight because the gravity of a loss is so severe. The stakes are different and the fights simply mean more. So while you can argue that Whittaker has more good wins than Weidman does at middleweight, none of those wins are as good as Weidman’s three title defenses.

Weidman remains No. 3 on the list for me. But credit to Whittaker who should start a club with Rich Franklin about having almost an entire career of being world-class-but-not-the-best.

Ikram Aliskerov

“Should we have seen the deficiencies in Aliskerov’s striking coming?”

A lot of people were quick to bury Ikram Aliskerov on Saturday night after he got annihilated by Whittaker, especially since there’s a clip circulating showing Whittaker figure out Aliskerov in about 12 seconds. It’s to be expected but I would caution everyone against jumping to conclusions about Aliskerov too soon.

The truth is Aliskerov was given an impossible task, and he’s not John Wick. Aliskerov went from fighting the the 100th best middleweight in the world (perhaps that’s generous even) to fighting the fourth, with a week’s notice, on the other side of the world, and the man cut weight twice in that time span. Imagine how good you would be at even menial tasks if you had to kill yourself for the second time in a week and do it while jet-lagged. He had to fight one of the best middleweights of all time. He wasn’t really set up for success.

Now, does that mean Aliskerov would win under different circumstances? Probably not. He’s still developing and Whittaker is still very good. But that’s the sort of thing we’ll determine over a longer timeline. But to make any snap judgments about a fighter based on one fight given these circumstances is a bit reactionary. Let’s see how he does his next time out.

Robert Whittaker Pt. 2

“Whittaker vs GSP or Bisping are fights that got away. How would Rob have fared in both those fights?”

Won’t spend too much time on this since it’s not massively topical but I like to think about these things.

Whittaker dummies Michael Bisping. Even the best version of Michael Bisping would not have had much to offer Whittaker and by the time they would have fought, we were far from the best version (technically yes, physically he super shot).

Georges St-Pierre would have been fascinating because Whittaker’s game is sort of GSP’s game before GSP decided he can simply take everyone down to minimize danger. My guess is the size and the fact that GSP was also past his prime at the time means Whittaker would have taken it, but it would have been competitive.

Alexander Volkov

“Does Volkov’s fairly dominant win over Pavlovich take the shine off Tom Aspinall’s win over Sergei at all?”

Of course not, because you know who also mushed Volkov? Tommy Aspinall, Aspinall! Tooooommy Aspinall! Nah nah nah nu nah nah nah nah nah nahhhhh!

People aren’t high on Tom Aspinall because he clobbered Sergei Pavlovich. They’re high on him because he’s clobbered Pavlovich and Volkov Marcin Tybura and Serghei Spivac, and literally every other person that’s been in the cage with him over the past decade, except the freak injury with Curtis Blaydes. The history of MMA tells us that when fighters are this dominant over this many people, it’s a good sign that person is future long-reigning champion.

But back to Volkov who I want to give proper shine to because the man has sneakily become a great fighter. Yes, he has some high-profile losses in the UFC, but the man also has some big wins and he’s markedly better every time I see him. Most importantly, he seems to have finally figured out how to truly fight to his strengths: being enormous.

For some reason, a lot of very tall guys suck at fighting that way. Think of the weird way Stefan Struve made himself smaller, putting his chin directly in the line of fire. Volkov is the opposite side of that. He’s put everything together with using his length to keep fights away and kick the hell out of people, or knee them when they force things closer. Pavlovich, a murderous puncher, spent the entire fight simply unable to navigate the range and got progressively more frustrated.

Against absolutely top-shelf, elite athletes, Volkov is still going to struggle because all that bigness comes with the price of lumbering around. Agile, sharp footwork kills him. But 99 percent of heavyweights don’t have that so Volkov is going to continue to be a nightmare for most dudes in this weight class.

Sergei Pavlovich

“Is Sergei just the white version of Derrick Lewis?! Looks amazing with the perfect match-up, but is otherwise just meh”

This is disrespectful to both Pavlovich and Lewis. I do not subscribe to this.

Lewis isn’t a guy who looks amazing with perfect matchmaking. He’s a marvel of an MMA fighter who figured out that he could min-max heavyweight MMA and get shockingly close to a UFC title. Lewis is basically entirely athleticism and power, with a splash of savvy gamesmanship and a ton of heart. The man can’t grapple but also can’t be held down. He hits ridiculously hard but also can get clubbed in return. He has three minutes of cardio but somehow routinely finishes people in the third round of fights. The man contains multitudes. And don’t forget, he splattered Curtis Blaydes. No one would call Blaydes a good matchup for Lewis.

Pavlovich is another horse entirely because the truth is, we still don’t know much about him. I’ve competed Pavlovich to discount Francis Ngannou on more than one occasion and I’m sticking with that. Pavlovich has such absurd, fight-shifting power and sneaky hand speed that almost all of his fights have ended the first time he touched someone. I liked this fight because we actually got to see more of Pavlovich’s game, but the truth is this was a bad matchup for him so we still didn’t learn much. We learned that he doesn’t have the footwork to corner Volkov and didn’t have a lot of other ideas when Plan A didn’t work. Well, we learned the same thing about Francis Ngannou in his first fight with Stipe Miocic, and then he turned around and nuked everyone after that. Pavlovich could be in the same boat. We’ll just have to see.

Shara Magomedov

“Can shara bullet become a legitimate title contender if, from what Dana White has said, they are only going to let him fight in Saudi or Abu Dhabi? I know there is probably a reason he can’t fight anywhere else but with limited fight cards, it seems a stretch.”

Though I don’t know this for sure, I believe the reason he can’t fight for most sanctioning bodies is because he’s blind in one eye. They frown on that, though honestly, it’s a bit ridiculous. He’s a grown man and can make his own choices. But I digress.

While it certainly won’t help matters, a fighter could definitely still become a title contender despite only competing on cards in Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi. The UFC heads to Abu Dhabi once or twice a year and with Saudi now in the rotation, that’s up to four dates per year someone like Shara Bullet would have available. That’s plenty of opportunity to climb the ladder, assuming the UFC wants that to happen.

Fortunately the point is moot because Shara Bullet won’t be a legitimate title contender anyway since he’s not that good.

Don’t get me wrong, Shara Bullet is decent and he certainly can be fun, but he’s 30 years old and very, very limited. There’s a reason Bo Nickal immediately called him out, because Bo knows that’s an easy fight against a guy with some hype. Shara is a bad grappler and mediocre wrestler, he’s just been given some good matchups. And that’s fine! Keep giving him those. Not everyone needs to fight for a title. Let’s just have this dude throw hammers with a bunch of other strikers because MMA is supposed to be fun.

UFC 303

“What would the reception be if the current UFC 303 fight card/bout order was the initial planned offering for international fight week?”

Probably pretty high.

It’s now officially UFC 303 fight week and while the specter of Conor McGregor and what was supposed to happen will loom large all week, we’re actually looking at a pretty decent pay-per-view event. Alex Pereira is one of the bigger stars in the company, Jiri Prochazka is a beloved weirdo, and the two of them will make sweet, violent art together on Saturday. It’s a terrific main event.

The co-main is also great. I will maintain until the day I die that Brian Ortega isn’t very good, but he continues to win fights he’s losing, and he’s now taking on Diego Lopes, a guy who has vastly exceed expectations. That will be fun.

As of this moment, Anthony Smith is fighting Roman Dolidze, but given that this fight was originally Jamahal Hill vs. Khalil Rountree Jr., who know what two light heavyweight-adjacent fighters will step into the cage on Saturday in the feature fight? Plus, Ian Machado Garry and Michael “Venom” Page is an absolute banger of a fighter that might end up determining the next welterweight title challenger.

This is a good card and if it was presented like this from the start, no one would have anything negative to say about it. It’s only because the slapdash nature of the booking for most of the main card fights is there any negativity this week. But it will be fun and that’s all that matters.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in tweets (Xs?)! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again, and see y’all next week.

Fonte: mma fighting