Fitch's Return to Form Makes Welterweight Division Most Competitve in UFC

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor IOctober 14, 2012

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro, the spotlight was locked on the main event between the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time, Anderson Silva, and his long-shot opponent, Stephan Bonnar. It was a fight created by circumstance, guaranteed to be a spectacle, and in the unique fashion only he can provide, Silva once again proved he is capable of doing things other fighters can't.

While the main event captured the majority of attention, it was a bout from earlier on the pay-per-view ticket which carried the most weight.

The matchup between perennial contender Jon Fitch and rising prospect Erik Silva drew a clear line between the divisional elite in the 170-pound weight class. The former Purdue standout wrestler was looking to break out of a tough-luck slump and regain his upper tier status, while the young Brazilian fully intended on certifying himself with a victory of the gritty veteran.

Going into the bout, Fitch seemed to be a forgotten commodity, but once the action got under way, the American Kickboxing Academy staple reminded the MMA world why he has been considered one of the world's best welterweights for the past five years. Over the course of 15 minutes, Fitch imposed his classic grinding style on Silva as he repeatedly drug him to the canvas and battered the younger fighter.

Silva looked to capitalize on the small windows of opportunity that arose, but the bout ultimately ended with Fitch in total control, punishing Silva with a barrage of ground and pound. The result was a huge victory at a crucial time for the 34-year-old and its immediate impact in the welterweight division should be interesting.


The King of the Grind Returns

A year and a half ago, the 170-pound division appeared all but cleaned out. Dominant champion Georges St-Pierre had run through all of the top contenders and was in the process of recycling his way back through previously defeated opponents. Misfortune would fall on the champion in the form of injury, and while St. Pierre went to the sidelines to recover, a handful of fighters set about making their climb to the top.

Much like St-Pierre, Fitch was also recovering from injury and forced to watch the next wave crash through. For years he had worked to regain another title shot, but now with names like Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks and Martin Kampmann rapidly ascending, Fitch found himself being pushed further and further away from his goal.

After being on the shelf for the majority of 2011, he attempted to break the rising tide in a bout with Hendricks but suffered a 12-second knockout at UFC 141. Fitch would later reveal he rushed his return to the Octagon due to financial reasons, but nevertheless the loss appeared to mark a changing of the guard in the division's upper tier and left questions swirling about the future of the former contender.

Fitch's showing at UFC 153 served to erase many of those doubts as he earned a dominant victory. While defeating Silva certainly won't launch Fitch back to contention, it showed he still has what it takes to mix it up with the best.

Although he has been heavily criticized in the past for his fighting style, the truth remains clear: When he is on top of his game, the weapons Fitch brings to the table are extremely difficult to stop. He is going to grind you down, test your heart and pummel you in the process.

Should you be able to stop him from imposing his will on you, there is a good chance you will get your hand raised when it is all said and done. But as we have seen over the course of the past seven years, when Fitch is healthy and motivated to do what Jon Fitch does, the margins of victory are slim.

The victory in Brazil puts Fitch back in the title chase, and with plenty of options available in the welterweight division, he has put himself back on track for the caliber of fights that will allow him to once again climb the ladder at 170 pounds.


Champion vs. Champion, and a No. 1 Contender Will Emerge

In just a little more than a month, UFC 154 will hit Montreal. There is no card bigger for welterweights as the event's premier matchup features the long-awaited return of GSP, facing current interim champion Carlos Condit.

The fight occurs at a crucial time for both fighters as St. Pierre will look to re-establish himself as the world's best while Condit is out to prove St. Pierre's reign is over and the time for a new champion has come.

Since his arrival in the UFC, "The Natural Born Killer" has been on a tear to the top of the division. Outside of a split-decision loss to Kampmann in his debut, Condit has wrecked the opposition in punishing fashion. He earned the opportunity after defeating Nick Diaz at UFC 143 and following the victory, he decided to wait for St. Pierre's return rather than defend the interim strap.

The Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter poses the biggest threat to date to the returning champion due to his knockout power and ability to remain dangerous at any point in the fight.

The largest question looming over St. Pierre's head will be how he adjusts to a lengthy lay-off.

"Rush" has become one of the sport's pound-for-pound greats by working a methodical approach as he systematically breaks down the opposition.

St. Pierre has stated in recent weeks that there is a newfound motivation to his career, and he will be looking at this fight with Condit as a chance to regain his title. Strength and athleticism are both in his favor, but Condit's spontaneous and unpredictable style will be difficult for St. Pierre to break, especially if ring rust plays a factor.

In the night's co-main event, another pair of welterweights will determine who is next in line for a title shot as Johny Hendricks squares off with Martin Kampmann. Both fighters have taken turns dispatching some of the division's best as they have worked their way into this title eliminator.

While Hendricks is the fresher face in the divisional elite, he has certainly earned his stripes. The former two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion has put together four in a row, with his two most recent victories coming over Fitch and Josh Kocheck.

Following his victory over "Kos" at at UFC on Fox 3 back in May, Hendricks appeared poised for a shot at Condit's interim title. But when Condit made the choice to wait for St. Pierre, "Bigg Rigg" was pushed aside and will finally get his opportunity at UFC 154.

With one-punch knockout power and a strong wrestling background, Hendricks will present interesting problems for Kampmann to solve.

But if there is anyone in the division who likes to mix it up, it is "The Hitman." The Danish striker has made a career of throwing caution to the wind and settling things in the middle of the Octagon.

Following back-to-back losses that included a controversial defeat to Diego Sanchez, Kampmann has put together three consecutive wins. With those victories coming over the likes of Rick Story, Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger, Kampmann positioned himself firmly in the upper tier at 170 pounds.

While Hendricks brings a strong skill set into their meeting at UFC 154, it would be difficult to find another welterweight more well-rounded than Kampmann. The Xtreme Couture product comes forward at all costs, bringing heavy strikes with both hands and feet. He also possess incredible takedown defense, but should the action hit the canvas, Kampmann has one of the slickest submission games in the sport.


Just Beyond the Gate

As the action plays out next month at UFC 154, there is a batch of hungry welterweights eagerly awaiting their opportunity to rise. They are a collection of veterans who have earned their way to elite status but suffered setbacks on their road to title contention.

With names like Ellenberger, Koscheck, Fitch, Diaz, Rory MacDonald and newly minted welterweight Demian Maia in the mix, the competition is guaranteed to become fierce.

After amassing an impressive win streak, Ellenberger was knocking on the door of a title shot when he faced Kampmann at The Ultimate Fighter 15 finale.

Despite a first round which saw "The Juggernaut" put Kampmann on the deck with power shots, Ellenberger couldn't finish the fight and was ultimately KO'd in the second round. The loss didn't sit well with the former Marine and he bounced back into the win column with a solid showing against Jay Hieron in Minneapolis.

Ellenberger's power and wrestling are enough to give any of his peers fits, and his next showing will come against a fellow top contender. Previously scheduled bouts with Fitch and Koscheck were scrapped in the past, but it is a good possibility those matchups come back around for the Omaha native.

Another rising star looking to break into contention is Rory MacDonald. The 23 year-old has been making steady progress since his UFC debut in 2010 and has collected three consecutive victories with the most recent coming over Che Mills at UFC 145. He has publicly voiced his intention to reach the divisional throne and will face his toughest test to date when he meets B.J. Penn at UFC on Fox 5 in December. Should MacDonald have an impressive showing against "The Prodigy" he could find himself within striking distance of a title opportunity.

You can't discuss top welterweights without mentioning Nick Diaz. The Caesar Gracie-trained fighter may be a lightning rod of controversy, but there is no disputing the fact he brings the ruckus each and every time he steps into the cage.

Stockton's finest battered Penn in his debut, but his momentum was halted in his next showing against Condit in Las Vegas at UFC 143.

Some found the decision controversial, and insult was added to injury when Diaz tested positive for marijuana following the fight. He was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic commission but with that sentence set to expire in early 2013, Diaz will be looking to come storming back into title contention.

The most pleasant surprise to show up in this mixture of contenders is Demian Maia. After failing to win a title at middleweight, the submission ace decided to try his hand in a lighter weight class. His debut against Dong Hyun Kim ended in strange circumstance as the South Korean suffered a freak rib injury 47 seconds into their bout. Maia walked away with the victory but truly hadn't shown anything in the process.

Any questions surrounding his talent as a welterweight vanished this weekend in Rio as Maia brutally submitted Rick Story in the first round of their bout. The Brazilian wasted no time getting back to his roots as he set about wrapping Story up, taking him to the ground and locking in a fight ending submission.

Story attempted to fight off the choke as long as he could, but when Maia adjusted the hold to a neck crank, the young wrestler quickly tapped. A change of grip, some spouting blood from the nose, and Maia launched himself into the mix in the welterweight division.

With St. Pierre returning and a host of fighters looking to become the next champion, the UFC's welterweight division has emerged as the organization's most competitive weight class. The next 12 months have the potential to shift the long-standing power balance and bring a new wave of talent into the picture.

The great thing is that MMA fans will not have to wait long to see this story play. The welterweight show is about to take center stage, and it will be exciting to see who rises and falls in the process.


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