Each week, ESPN.com MMA writer Brett Okamoto, ESPN Insider senior editor Mike Huang and a special guest panelist tackle five questions that are buzzing in the world of mixed martial arts.
This week, perennial contender Benson Henderson joins the panel.
1. Was cutting Jason High from the UFC for shoving a referee too harsh a punishment?
Benson Henderson: Was it harsh? Yeah. But is that life? Yeah, that's life. Sometimes you do things in the moment; you're excited, big stage for you. You have to be careful of how you act. You have to be careful of what you say. Shoving a referee? That's not good. The NFL, NBA, MLB -- they all have very strict guidelines for interacting with referees and umpires. Was it harsh? Yes. Is the UFC allowed to make harsh rules, though? Yeah.
Brett Okamoto: Cutting High was 1,000 percent too harsh. He is facing disciplinary action from the New Mexico Athletic Commission (possibly a fine and suspension). If the UFC wanted to enforce its own fine or suspension, cool. It should have. But to straight-up fire the guy? This was nothing like the Paul Daley incident of years back (when he sucker-punched Josh Koscheck at UFC 113). High committed a light shove in a split second of frustration. Cutting him was ridiculous.
Mike Huang: No, absolutely not. Few things keep any sport sacred, and one of them is the integrity and respect of its officials. Even baseball, which for so long allowed vehement and ugly arguments with its umpires, never let players touch the umps. And when they do, players are dealt a harsh punishment. If you don't agree with the ref's call, be professional -- you can show your displeasure, but don't be an immature punk and push him. I mentioned it in the UFC Fight Night 42 roundup because I thought something would come of it. And something rightly did.
2. What can the UFC do to curb hometown decisions?
Henderson: To be honest, I don't think it's a problem. It's not an epidemic. A lot of times, UFC judges are not from either fighter's hometown. Sometimes they are, but a lot of times the UFC will bring them in from somewhere else. Judges are swayed by the crowd reaction, that sort of thing -- but I don't think it's a problem. Has it happened a few times? Yeah. At the same time, I fought Gilbert Melendez in his backyard (San Jose, California), and I won the decision.
Okamoto: The UFC could launch a campaign to try to improve judging in general, but I don't see that happening, and guys, it's not a huge problem. The Diego Sanchez-Ross Pearson fight was a travesty, for sure, but in the big picture, judging errors are not killing mixed martial arts. Are there some aspects of scoring that can be improved? Sure. And over time, I do think the UFC will make changes. But don't expect the UFC to attack "hometown decisions" anytime soon. There are bigger plans on its agenda.
Huang: Get better judges. But does it happen a lot? Not really. Bad decisions happen regardless of hometowns or regions. I'd like to see more former/retired MMA fighters get into judging. I'm not talking big, celebrity fighters but perhaps guys who made it only so far and love the sport. That's one way to develop the most informed and insightful officials for any sport. Judging can be the same. Not sure what the requirements are to be a judge, but better knowledge of the sport would be a start. I miss (Olympic wrestler) Jeff Blatnick.
3. How will Chael Sonnen, who retired after failing a recent drug test, be remembered?
Henderson: I honestly think Sonnen will be most remembered not for his Octagon accolades but for the way he changed the game outside of MMA. Mixed martial arts is such a strong anti-WWE sport. We're not into things like fake personalities and creating rivalries for the sake of selling fights. Sonnen went the opposite direction of that, which is not a bad thing. He made fighters aware: You can have a midlevel UFC career, but you can make a ton of money if you sell yourself right.
Okamoto: Sonnen will be remembered for mostly two things: talking and fighting Anderson Silva. Was his overall effect on the sport positive or negative? I would say it was overwhelmingly positive. He was not the most honest character in the sport, but he helped take it further mainstream with his ability to promote. He also made it look a little like amateur hour here and there, but he connected with a new fan base for the sport and competed hard when he was in the cage. His issues with failed drug tests will be part of his legacy, but my guess is the talking and Silva fights will far overshadow them.
Huang: I hope he's remembered as a solid title contender but also a superior showman. When he was in the WEC, I always thought he was somewhat quiet, but he ramped that up with a bombast act with in the UFC. He was at times equal parts eloquent and ignorant. Of course he had the near victory over Silva, and I thought it was apropos that Sonnen tipped his cap to Silva at his retirement news conference. Silva made his career, and a pretty good career it was.
4. Does Demetrious Johnson have a claim as the best P4P fighter in the world?
Henderson: I think Johnson is probably, with him being the champ and defending the belt as many times as he has, in the top five. I would say he's No. 5 or No. 6 ... around there. Jon Jones is definitely, for me, a guy who is up there. Silva, even though he doesn't have a UFC belt anymore, is still up there. Johnson is on the list, but he's not top-two or top-three, anything like that.
Okamoto: Yes. Johnson has one hand on the imaginary pound-for-pound belt. So do Jon Jones and Jose Aldo. On my list, those are the top three. Ever so slightly behind them are guys like Chris Weidman and Cain Velasquez. As I always say when it comes to pound-for-pound rankings, all the top guys are fairly interchangeable, but I do consider Johnson to be in the top three.
Huang: Absolutely. I think he has more than a claim. I think what's stuck to him is his relatively low number of finishes. This week's guest panelist, Bendo, might know what this feels like. But after his past two wins -- both finishes -- that has subsided a bit. What lingers is a general apathy to the flyweights. For them, size does make a difference. In the public eye, the flyweight division gets less respect because most feel it's not a deep division and features a bunch of little guys. The average-bro fan sees a guy like Mighty Mouse and says, "I can take that guy. How can he be the best P4P fighter?" Because he's 125 pounds and can kick your butt, that's how.
5. Who will be the first UFC champion from Russia?
Henderson: I guess you have to go with Ali Bagautinov because he's fighting for the belt next (at UFC 174 on Saturday). He's on a win streak. I would say the best Russian fighters are Bagautinov, then Khabib Nurmagomedov, then Rustam Khabilov -- but they're all pretty darn tough.
Okamoto: I don't think Bagautinov will get it done this weekend. Khabilov just lost. The most talented of the three right now is Nurmagomedov, but that lightweight division is so stacked. I have to say Nurmagomedov, though. He's capable of beating anybody in that division when he brings his best stuff. Huang: As much as I like Bagautinov, Nurmagomedov is downright destructive. And I would love to see how he matches up with Bendo. That would be a fabulous fight. If he actually gets through someone like Bendo, he might very well march his way through Melendez and Anthony Pettis, too. But one thing the Russian fighters have to improve if they want to lift a belt is their striking. The sambo base is terrific and Nurmagomedov's suplexes and tosses are fun to watch, but his striking needs work.