Each week, ESPN.com writer and MMA Live Extra analyst Brett Okamoto provides his take on the hottest topics in the world of mixed martial arts.
This week, Okamoto squares off with UFC commentator Jon Anik to debate the latest news and trends. Anik, a former host of ESPN's MMA Live, recently made headlines by following through on his promise of getting a tattoo of 209 -- the area code of Nate Diaz's hometown of Stockton, California -- if Diaz was able to upset Conor McGregor at UFC 196.
1. Who would you favor in a rematch if they were to fight at 155 pounds: Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz?
Jon Anik: I think it's an even more compelling fight if they do it at lightweight. I think going into the first fight, the reason why a lot of people were skeptical about Nate Diaz was because they like to see him in shape at 155 pounds as opposed to fighting at 170. I do think McGregor's cardio was compromised in that fight. I don't want to lose sight of everything Diaz was doing to compromise McGregor's cardio, but I do believe if they were to fight again at 155, a smarter, more patient, better-disciplined approach from McGregor would yield a better result for him.
If you fight either Diaz in the pocket, as McGregor did, in any sort of reckless way, more often than not you're going to come out on the wrong side of it. I'm not going to give a pick but I can say the Vegas odds would be a lot less pronounced than than they were the first time.
Brett Okamoto: My guess is the betting line would still be in McGregor's favor, despite what happened on March 5. If these two fought later this year at 155, McGregor would be a small betting favorite. That's my guess at least. I do think McGregor's mistakes were more tactical than technical. He's used to opponents going down from the left hand. When Diaz didn't, McGregor's answer was to basically swing harder.
His postfight assessment was accurate, I thought. Those heavy left hands and spinning kicks -- against someone with the chin and cardio of Diaz -- worked against him, drained his energy and left him lingering in the pocket with his hands down. All that said, it's not lost on me that Diaz had 11 days to prepare and would likely look better as well. It's a tough rematch to call. But my early lean would be McGregor.
Anik: Magny, 28, has basically won more fights than anyone since the beginning of 2014, but the question always beckons: Can this guy win the big fight? He stepped up on short notice and beat Kelvin Gastelum, so he has won big fights, but when you put him in a title eliminator against Demian Maia in Brazil, Magny falls short. I do believe his ceiling is a UFC title shot, although I think he would have to be near-perfect on that particular evening to beat a UFC welterweight champion. With Lombard, I go way back with him. I called three of his fights when he was still with Bellator MMA. For whatever reason, the power hasn't translated in the UFC. He hasn't gotten guys out of there the way I thought he would when he signed with the UFC. Who has the higher ceiling? Despite the fact he's a little older (38), I do believe it's still Lombard.
Okamoto: I guess I agree with Anik regarding Lombard's higher ceiling in that if I had to pick one of these guys on one night in a UFC welterweight title fight against whoever has it (Robbie Lawler, Rory MacDonald, Stephen Thompson, Georges St-Pierre, etc.), I'd pick Lombard. He's more dangerous. He's an elite, elite athlete. He's a lifelong competitor, when you consider the judo background. If I get one guy on one night against the best of the best, I'm probably riding with Lombard. But big picture, I think Magny has a better shot of holding a UFC title because he's 10 years younger and far more consistent. He has a little room to grow, whereas I believe we've seen Lombard's limit. Frankly, I think it's a tough road for either one, but if I had to put money on one of them actually holding UFC gold, I'd have to favor Magny.
3. The UFC has seen its share of breakthrough stars in the past year; who will be the next athlete to truly cross over into mainstream stardom?
Anik: It's tricky because a lot of the names that come to mind for me -- whether it's James Vick, Johnny Case, Thomas Almeida, Mirsad Bektic -- these guys don't scream "American crossover superstar." I think it's going to take a special fighter like Bektic, who is able to get himself out there in such a way promotionally to make the masses really pay attention. I think Rose Namajunas is an interesting name. She's in a wide-open division and just appeals to a wide array of people. I would also say Nate Diaz. I feel like he has been underappreciated as a mixed martial artist, but now you have to paint him with an elite brush after seeing what he did to McGregor. And he could fight for a title next. He's set up for a big 2016.
Okamoto: I don't see anyone upcoming right now with a Ronda Rousey-Conor McGregor type of star power. That's not a doom-and-gloom forecast; it speaks to how popular those two have been. Rousey's and McGregor's success in the past year has been in a lot of ways unprecedented. To say the sport doesn't have many obvious prospects capable of duplicating that is just stating reality. Those two are rare. Anik kind of stole my thunder here . . . I do think Diaz could take this McGregor push and run with it.
The problem is that I still think Diaz is susceptible to a certain kind of opponent. The same has held true of his older brother, Nick. Action-packed fighting styles, unique personalities, star potential -- but they've run into some tough style matchups that have resulted in blowout losses. If either Diaz could capture a UFC title and defend it a handful of times? Their star power would skyrocket. Luke Rockhold could elevate his profile quite a bit before the end of the year. And I still think Anthony Pettis has star potential if he can address that gap in his defensive wrestling.
4. What is the most surprising betting line at this weekend's UFC Fight Night in Australia?
Anik: I was a little surprised to see Antonio Carlos Jr. a near 6-to-1 favorite. Obviously, he's a guy who has all the tools and comes from a great camp in American Top Team. He has had success at as high as heavyweight. But Daniel Kelly, as ugly as it may be at times, finds a way to win. He has only one pro loss, and as an Australian, you're getting him at home north of plus-425. I'm licking my wounds after the Diaz tattoo situation, but I think anybody who is still a developing fighter, like Carlos in the UFC, who is closing in on minus-600, seems a little inflated. When I first saw that line, I was off by a couple dollars.
Okamoto: Completely agree with Anik here, but not because I'm a big believer in Kelly. His 10-1 record is rather misleading. But Carlos is a long way from being a polished martial artist and probably shouldn't be a 6-to-1 favorite against anyone in the UFC. I see him as likely to win, yes, but the current betting lines carry implied odds of 85 percent, and I'm not willing to go that high on the 26-year-old.
5. What's the best venue you've ever gone to for a live fight?
Anik: The loudest crowd was UFC 113 at Bell Centre in Montreal. I was there with ESPN on the desk that night and never heard an MMA crowd as loud as that. As far as calling fights, Manila [Mall of Asia Arena] was special. In terms of the Asian markets, Philippines was the loudest. They were so excited to have a UFC fight there. I've been to Brazil 18 times now and no matter which city you talk about, whether it's Fortaleza, Goiania, Natal -- the fans have shown up every step of the way.
I think a lot of fighters and commentators really hope they get to experience a live UFC show in Brazil. There's just nothing quite like it. It's electric. It's angry. When Edson Barboza knocked out Terry Etim [at UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro], which for my money is still the greatest knockout in UFC history, I thought the arena was going to collapse. There were people backstage running for cover because they didn't know what happened in the arena. Then we saw the replay a few seconds later. That moment always sticks out to me.
Okamoto: One crowd that sticks out was UFC 102 at the Rose Garden in Portland. Main event was Randy Couture vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Legend vs. legend fight. The action picked up in the second round and the pro-Couture crowd appreciated it quite a bit. My favorite venues to cover a fight have been MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (classic), Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas (also classic), Arco (Sleep Train Arena) in Sacramento, Rogers Arena in Vancouver and, of course, Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo. The stadium shows I've covered have certainly been memorable -- UFC 193 at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, UFC 129 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, lump in Manny Pacquiao vs. Joshua Clottey at Dallas Cowboys Stadium -- but I think I prefer the feel of smaller arenas versus large. Looking forward to Madison Square Garden at some point.