There is no getting around the "big fight" feel looming over the main event of UFC 158. The long-awaited showdown between welterweight king Georges St-Pierre and Stockton bad boy Nick Diaz will finally become a reality, and fans are eager to see this action get underway.
The fight between GSP and the former Strikeforce welterweight champion has been somewhat of an endurance trial as missed media obligations, injuries, cancellations and trash-talking of various intensities have built the 170-pound clash of champions into a must see tilt.
The UFC PR machine has done its best to make you understand there is no love lost between the two men, but their respective personalities alone have constructed the match-up into a classic "hero versus villian" affair. Sure St-Pierre can talk about how dark his mind can get from time to time in the promotional build up, but it's difficult to imagine Diaz's middle finger waving, camera slapping, solid gold press conference sound bites are going to be out "black hatted" by St-Pierre in any regard.
While the promotional storm has drawn attention to the two fighters atop the event's billing, it's easy to lose track of the other crucial 170-pound bouts on the card. A collection of potential contenders (Johny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger and Nate Marquardt) are all stepping inside the Octagon to hash out this "title picture business" and once the smoke clears in Montreal's Bell Centre on March 16, the upper tier of the welterweight division will look much different.
Here's a look at why the unofficial welterweight tournament carries huge implications
Hendricks vs. Condit Is the Riskiest Fight on the Card
When the bout between St-Pierre and Diaz was announced, there was no one more frustrated than Johny Hendricks. "Bigg Rigg" had just come off a rapid-fire starching of Martin Kampmann at UFC 154, and believed it was the caliber of statement which would lock down a title shot against St-Pierre. The knockout over "The Hitman" was the former two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion's fifth consecutive inside the Octagon and the opportunity to compete for UFC gold appeared to be a given.
As it would turn out, St-Pierre had the idea of settling old grudges on his mind, and Diaz was selected for the next title shot. In the aftermath of the decision, Hendricks took to social media and interviews to voice his disdain towards the matter, calling GSP out at every turn. While the Oklahoma native originally contemplated taking to the sidelines until his title opportunity materialized, Hendricks ultimately decided to keep grinding away towards the top of the ladder and accepted a bout with Jake Ellenberger at UFC 158.
This of course would change several weeks out from the card when Carlos Condit's original opponent Rory MacDonald, suffered a neck injury in training and was forced off the card. Hendricks saw a bout with Condit as an undeniable title eliminator fight, and stepped up to fill the void left by the talented young Canadian.
In an interview with Bleacher Report, Hendricks explained his reason behind the decision as an opportunity to cancel any possibility he would be passed over on the next turn. Condit is fresh off a title fight against St-Pierre, and in Hendricks's mind, defeating the former interim champion would leave him standing alone as the true number one contender to the welterweight crown. That being said, a loss to the former WEC welterweight champion would put his run at the title on ice for the time being.
While Hendricks may have the spotlight as the ready-made contender in waiting, the bout also provides a tremendous opportunity for Condit. "The Natural Born Killer" may have come up short in his bid to take St-Pierre's title, but the 28-year-old had moments of success during their title unification tilt.
A win over Hendricks next weekend could earn Condit another turn at the welterweight championship, an opportunity and a shot at redemption he surely wouldn't pass up. On the other hand, a loss in the co-main event of UFC 158 could push the Albuquerque native out of the picture for some time. With the divisional depth in the UFC welterweight division, back-to-back losses in high profile fights can do a fair amount of damage to a fighter's stock.
There is no doubt the bout between Hendricks and Condit is a high-risk, high-reward affair, where the winner will be on the doorstep of a title shot. Then again, pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva could swoop in for the "super fight" with St-Pierre he's been looking for and everyone could be left waiting.
Sounds crazy I know—but it certainly could happen.
Ellenbeger vs. Marquardt: Winner Stays, Loser Goes
With all the chaos at the top of the division, Jake Ellenberger's place in the mix has been somewhat overlooked. "The Juggernatut" has won seven of his last eight outings, with his only setback coming against Kampmann last June. The former Marine bounced back with a victory over Jay Hieron at UFC on FX 5 in October, and a bout with Hendricks would have provided him the platform to make a great case for a title shot.
Unfortunately for the 27-year-old, the bout with Hendricks was scratched in the wake of the MacDonald injury, and the UFC tapped former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nate Marquardt to step in. While the bout with Marquardt may not carry the amount of reward his previously scheduled scrap with Hendricks would have provided, it definitely comes with a fair share of risk.
In the grand equation of the welterweight title picture, Ellenberger is currently standing in a strange position. While a win over Marquardt will not earn him a title shot, a loss has the potential to reshuffle him back into the deck. This makes his performance in Montreal all the more critical, and if Ellenberger hopes to stay on the road to a title shot, a victory next weekend is a must.
Whatever pressure is hovering above Ellenberger going into the fight is tripled where Marquardt is concerned. After making an impressive welterweight debut last year against Tyron Woodley under the Strikeforce banner, it looked as if the 33-year-old was ready to make some traction in his new weight class. Unfortunately, Marquardt followed up his knockout over "T-Wood" with a lackluster showing against Tarec Saffiedine where he came out on the business end of a unanimous decision.
The loss brought Marquardt's momentum to a screeching halt. Heading into the bout there was talk of a champion vs. champion match against GSP being a possibility, but after the loss at Strikeforce's final show, the heat surrounding the Denver native all but vanished.
But things have a strange way of working out in the mixed martial arts game, and when Ellenberger was left without an opponent for UFC 158, Marquardt jumped at the opportunity. Either he will make a big statement in his return to the UFC, or the former number one contender to the middleweight crown will be pushed to the outer regions of the divisional elite.
With Rory MacDonald coming back from injury this summer, and names like Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley waiting to hear what comes next, the pressure is on for contenders in the welterweight division.
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