UFC debate: Are quick turnarounds helping the sport? Plus, Smith vs. Rakic and expectations for Lawler


The coronavirus pandemic has no doubt had a major impact on the UFC. With travel restrictions and positive test cases having led to canceled fights, putting on a card hasn’t been easy for UFC president Dana White and the organization’s matchmakers.

But fighters taking bouts on short notice has been common since the UFC restarted during the pandemic in May. So has fighters making quick turnarounds.

Top prospect Khamzat Chimaev won twice in an 11-day span. Hannah Cifers will be fighting for the third time since May 30 on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night prelims. And there are many more examples, but you get the picture. Are the quick turnarounds benefiting the UFC?

Saturday’s main event features former light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith, who is fighting for the second time since May 13. After he dominated Glover Teixeira in Round 1 that night, Smith took a pounding for much of the final four rounds. Can he rebound against Aleksandar Rakic, who has won 12 of his past 13 fights?

A fighter who isn’t making a quick turnaround Saturday is one of the UFC’s most respected veterans in Robbie Lawler. The former welterweight champ, who hasn’t been in action in over a year, will face Neil Magny in the co-main event. What does the 38-year-old Lawler have left in the tank?

ESPN’s expert panel of Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim addresses those topics and more.

How do you feel about the quick turnarounds for fighters since the pandemic? Are the quick turnarounds hurting the sport?

Okamoto: I don’t see how they could be “hurting” the sport. In a way, they’re keeping the sport going. The UFC has been able to continue to fill cards, in part, because athletes are willing — and even eager — to fight as frequently as possible. Of course, it has worked out better for some than others. That’s to be expected. And everything has a limit, right? If the frequency of fights is having a negative effect on someone’s performance, then they should rethink it. But Merab Dvalishvili cleaning up during a pandemic? Khamzat Chimaev fighting twice in 11 days? These are good stories, and great for those athletes.

Raimondi: I certainly don’t think it’s hurting the sport. Let’s put it into perspective here. It’s still a pandemic. Every fighter is in a different situation, when it comes to health, lifestyle and something as simple as geography. So not everyone can fight at this moment. The athletes who can fight are fighting — and trying to as much as possible. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Let them get paid. Do these UFC cards have the depth and quality as the ones five months ago? No. There are many fighters debuting on short notice or simply agreeing to bouts on short notice. But I’d be lying if I said every card over the last few months hasn’t been entertaining. Just about every single one of them has been.

Wagenheim: This pandemic time has twisted all of our lives, including those of pro fighters and the promoters who match them up. I’m sure the UFC would love to be more fully utilizing its roster, but travel restrictions being what they are, options are limited. I seriously doubt that the athletes mind being so busy. They’re prizefighters. They get paid only when they compete. As for any negative effect on the sport as a whole, I’d be concerned only if the UFC were rushing into unwarranted championship fights just to fill out the schedule. But if anything, title fight matchmaking has been on an upswing in recent months, with some marvelous fights of consequence still to come.

Murphy: I have no problem with healthy fighters making quick-succession Octagon appearances, even in the midst of a pandemic. Participants and gyms that take proper precautionary measures to train safely should not arbitrarily impact layoff length. Most of the UFC roster faced comparatively short breaks in early stages of their careers. Taking back-to-back bookings on short turnarounds for them is nothing new.

Khamzat Chimaev won twice in 11 days in July. What good would it have done to shelve him for three months after absorbing one significant strike in the first win? Even Maki Pitolo, off a loss, endured just 13 significant strikes before tapping to Darren Stewart’s guillotine three weeks ago. If Pitolo cut weight responsibly and walked away with minimal damage, there should not be pause to book him in Saturday’s featured prelim opposite Contender Series winner Impa Kasanganay. In fact, frequent booking could encourage participants to stay closer to contracted weight long-term.

Who’s the one fighter you’re most looking forward to seeing Saturday?

Okamoto: I’ll cheat and say two: Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev. I’ve been waiting for this rematch since February, as I’m sure many others have. I was backstage in Virginia when Cutelaba came back from the controversial referee stoppage. That was the angriest I think I’ve ever seen a fighter backstage after a fight. Go back and watch that fight, and watch Cutelaba’s fury afterward. This thing is overdue. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Raimondi: Robbie Lawler. But that’s probably my answer going into every card that Lawler is on. This one stands out, though, because he has lost three straight and has not fought in a year, since that defeat to Colby Covington. Neil Magny is a very tough test for anyone at welterweight and this is no exception. Lawler is 38 years old and is on Year 19 as an MMA pro. He also is coming in on short notice. Magny’s original opponent, Geoff Neal, was very ill recently, so Lawler stepped in. This fight could be make or break for Lawler, who has truly been one of the most exciting fighters in MMA history. Let’s see how much he has left.

Wagenheim: The first time I attended a UFC event, back in 2003, the lineup included then-champion Matt Hughes, former champions Ricco Rodriguez and Evan Tanner, stalwarts Frank Trigg, Matt Lindland and Yves Edwards, plus entertainers Tank Abbott, “Cabbage” (a.k.a. Wesley Correira) and Phil Baroni. But the fighter I remember most from that night at Mohegan Sun Arena was a 21-year-old named Robbie Lawler. And ever since, I’ve always been excited for a Lawler fight because I know he’ll be throwing leather with wild abandon. He’s 38 now and, having lost his past three fights, not the top contender he once was. But if I could watch only one fight Saturday, it’d be Lawler’s.

Murphy: In one of 2020’s most bizarre scenes before the pandemic shutdown, referee Kevin McDonald stepped between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cuțelaba in February, awarding a TKO win to Ankalaev. Cuțelaba, ruled out on his feet, immediately protested. Widespread disappointment in the ruling was compounded by prefight heat. During Bruce Buffer’s introductions, Cuțelaba bumped Ankalaev, requiring security intervention.

The UFC rebooked an immediate rematch and — after a few opponent swaps and further postponements for COVID-19 reasons — we finally, hopefully, get Ankalaev-Cuțelaba II this weekend in Las Vegas.

Before the disputed loss to Ankalaev, Cuțelaba had won three of four fights, all by first-round knockout. Cuțelaba is has an affinity for knockouts and had momentum stymied by a premature stoppage. That, plus having an opportunity for redemption face multiple delays, is a cocktail for an explosive performance.

Who wins: Anthony Smith or Aleksandar Rakic? How?

Okamoto: I’m going to take Rakic, the 3-1 betting favorite in this one. It’s a little surprising to see Rakic that high of a favorite against a veteran like Smith, who has seen everything, but it’s not surprising to see Rakic as the favorite overall. There’s a new crop of light heavyweights who have shown potential — and even though most have already faltered in the UFC, that potential is still there. Names like Rakic, Michal Oleksiejczuk, Jimmy Crute, Johnny Walker, Ryan Spann, Alonzo Menifield, Kennedy Nzechukwu. I’m still relatively high on all these guys, even though they’ve all lost in the UFC. Rakic has a big opportunity here and I think he gets it done on the feet.

Raimondi: Smith and I think it comes down to experience. There isn’t much Smith has not seen in his career. I believe he’s still a top light heavyweight despite his most recent loss to Glover Teixeira. That was a weird one. Smith was winning early, pretty dominantly. Teixeira, though, is hard to keep down. Rakic is a prospect, but he’s coming off a loss to Volkan Oezdemir. Smith finished Oezdemir and I think he beats Rakic. This will be Smith’s 49th pro fight. Rakic has only 14. That stuff can make a difference in an evenly matched bout.

Wagenheim: Rakic had won 12 fights in a row, including four in the UFC, before dropping a split decision to Volkan Oezdemir in December. Smith is coming off a loss, too, but all defeats are not created equal. He suffered a savage beatdown in May at the heavy hands of Glover Teixeira. Will Smith show lingering effects from that fifth-round TKO in a fight that should have been stopped long before it was? Perhaps this variable is what has prompted oddsmakers to install Rakic as a heavy favorite. Smith does have a clear path to victory by taking the fight to the canvas, where he’d have an edge. But he’s not a big takedown guy and Rakic has shown an ability to keep his fights on the feet. I see Rakic as the last man standing.

Murphy: I might look like a fool Sunday morning. I see why Aleksandar Rakic is comfortably favored over Anthony Smith. The 28-year-old Austrian could have an active 13-fight win streak — I thought he won two rounds against Volkan Oezdemir, a fight Rakic lost by split decision in December. That came after back-to-back first-round demolitions of Jimi Manuwa and Devin Clark. Conversely, Smith has lost three of his past seven fights.

The difference is the stage on which Smith has exclusively performed since the start of 2018. Those three losses came to Jon Jones and former title challengers Thiago Santos and Glover Teixeira. This will be Smith’s sixth straight main event. Chan Sung Jung is the only other non-champion to have appeared in that many consecutive UFC main events. This will be Rakic’s first, albeit still a three-round fight.

Smith’s frequent bookings make him seem old, but he turned only 32 last month. He has the rare combination of extensive experience and tread remaining on the tires. I’m taking Smith in an upset, especially at better than 2-1 odds, and I think his jiu-jitsu makes the difference.

What do you expect from Robbie Lawler?

Okamoto: Violence, of course. Do I think Lawler is still in his prime? Of course, not. He’s 38 and has over 40 professional fights under his belt. But I’m not expecting his performance to fall off a cliff yet. He has lost three in a row, but he injured his knee in 2017 against Rafael dos Anjos, had a bit of controversy in his loss to Ben Askren and just ran into a really, really good welterweight against Colby Covington. Magny can be an awkward matchup for people. He’s long, he’s well-rounded, he’s always in great shape. It’s definitely not an easy matchup for Lawler and he might drop his fourth in a row, but he’s still Robbie Lawler, man. Worth being excited about.

Raimondi: Good question. I truly don’t know. As I wrote above, Magny is an exceptionally hard test. In fact, Magny is the exam you must pass before ascending in the welterweight division. Is Lawler, the former champ, at that level still? We’ll find out Saturday. My guess is Lawler surprises and it’s a very competitive fight. Magny has had trouble in the past with athletic strikers who close distance quickly. Lawler has been that in the past. But he’s also 38.

Wagenheim: Lawler has lost his past three fights, and four of his past five. But those defeats came against some of the iron of the welterweight division: Tyron Woodley, Rafael dos Anjos, Ben Askren and Colby Covington. Lawler might not be at the top of the food chain anymore, but he will be “Ruthless” until the day he hangs up his gloves. Saturday’s co-main event with Neil Magny is a fitting matchup for Lawler at this stage of his career. Let’s see what he has left.

Murphy: This pains me to write. I flew to Atlanta to watch Robbie Lawler’s welterweight title defense against Tyron Woodley at UFC 201 — not as credentialed media, but as a fan. After a career spanning nearly 20 years, debuting in this promotion at UFC 37, Lawler might have reached the end of the road.

He carries three straight losses into Saturday’s co-main event. One was a five-round decision to Colby Covington, whose antics obstruct his elite skill, and another was a funky submission loss to Ben Askren — pun intended. Regrettably, longevity and three consecutive Fight of the Year-caliber outings don’t mix. The last of those, a title defense against Carlos Condit at UFC 195, very well could have been scored for the Natural Born Killer. Lawler is a coin flip from having lost five of his past six.

Against Neil Magny, a fighter famous for activity with many shared opponents, Lawler is a 2-1 underdog. I think Magny’s range gives Lawler problems, and Magny comes away with the decision.

Bold prediction for the weekend:

Okamoto: Alexa Grasso gets her first finish in the UFC, and first overall since 2014.

Raimondi: The Ion Cutelaba vs. Magomed Ankalaev rematch produces a future light heavyweight title contender. This is such a great fight and I’m glad it got rebooked, once after Cutelaba lost by TKO in a controversial referee stoppage and then after Cutelaba tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. Ankalaev has won four straight. Prior to the odd loss to Ankalaev in February, Cutelaba had won three of four with the only loss coming to top 205-pounder Glover Teixeira. Ankalaev is 28 years old and Cutelaba is 26. I believe both will be long-term faces for a revamped division without Jon Jones at the top.

Wagenheim: A mere 18 days after earning a UFC contract with a victory on Dana White’s Contender Series, welterweight Impa Kasanganay will get his first UFC win. He faces a significant step up in competition in his prelim against Maki Pitolo, but Kasanganay, an undefeated 26-year-old out of North Carolina, appeared to be up to the task when he stepped into this same Octagon a little over two weeks ago.

Murphy: Taking Smith over Rakic should count as a bold prediction. But consider this a second, bonus proclamation.

As it stands, only two fights — the main event and Ankalaev-Cuțelaba — have plus-odds to finish inside the distance. That means oddsmakers project nine of the 11 bouts scheduled for the small Octagon at the Apex to go the judges’ cards. That’s entirely too high. Historically, the finish rate in the small Octagon is over 50%, numbers sustained for events at UFC headquarters.

My bold prediction is that at least five of the 11 fights will be decided by knockout or submission. It’s not the sexiest premonition, I know, but it could be useful. If accurate, over 11 bouts, wagering a small, even amount for each fight to not go to decision would yield an outstanding return. And perhaps more importantly, it will make for a more enjoyable watch.

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