Mapping the UFC Welterweight Division Without Georges St-Pierre
Newsflash: Georges St-Pierre is gone, you guys.
In stark opposition to one of professional fighting’s most clichéd rallying cries, the champ is not here. At least not at the moment.
As St-Pierre’s indefinite sabbatical nears the end of its second month, it’s starting to feel more and more like the greatest welterweight of all time might not be coming back.
Last week’s outburst about the UFC’s laissez-faire drug testing policies (and the company’s rote response) revealed the gulf between GSP and his former employers might be even wider than we first thought. He’s not just tired, hurt and sorting through personal issues, he’s angry.
And if St. Pierre is waiting for a change in policy from the notoriously stubborn fight company, he could be waiting a long time.
Perhaps for the first time, we must seriously consider the reality of the UFC's 170-pound division without him. As unpleasant as it sounds, it’s time we tried to find our bearings in these turbulent, uncharted waters.
Here’s a look at who the major players might be and how the immediate future of the welterweight class could play out…
The on-Deck Circle
One of the few things we can say for certain about the future of the welterweight division is that Johny Hendricks will fight Robbie Lawler for the vacant title at UFC 171 on March 15.
You know, barring injury.
(Oh God, did I just jinx it?)
Hendricks fought St-Pierre to a razor-close decision in November, and many observers thought the judges' verdict rightly should’ve gone to the former Oklahoma State wrestler. Lawler, meanwhile, returned from Strikeforce during 2013 (after more than eight years away) and immediately won three fights in a row.
With any luck, we’ll skirt around the distant possibility of a draw and one of these guys will actually become the first man not named St-Pierre to be UFC 170-pound champion since Matt Serra in 2007-08.
Between GSP, Matt Hughes and Pat Miletich, this division has a fairly well-established history of dominant champions. It remains to be see if either of these guys has what it takes to carry on that tradition, or if they’ll fall into the group of also-rans with Serra, Carlos Newton and B.J. Penn.
The likely outcome: The most probable result is that this fight becomes the first 170-pound title bout to finish with a stoppage since Penn failed to come out of his corner for the fifth round at UFC 93.
As for the winner? Lawler is currently a bit more than a 3-to-1 underdog and as good as he was at resurrecting his UFC career last year, it’s hard to imagine him beating Hendricks. In all likelihood, the Bigg Rigg finally reaches the mountain top, setting the stage for his first title defense around the Fourth of July.
Leaders of the Pack
The UFC 171 fight card is as finely tuned a piece of matchmaking as you will ever see. One can almost imagine Joe Silva in safety goggles and smock, honing and sanding this bad boy until it reached the high shine of artisanal perfection.
See, while the show's main event will crown a new welterweight champion, its co-main should also determine the next No. 1 contender. That is, if everything goes according to plan during Carlos Condit’s scheduled battle with Tyron Woodley.
You may recall Condit as the man who ruled as interim champion for much of 2012, while St-Pierre was out rehabbing a serious knee injury. He has since lost back-to-back bouts to GSP and Hendricks but got off the schneid with a win over Martin Kampmann in August. He’d make fairly compelling opponent for either Hendricks or Lawler next summer.
By contrast, Woodley is a bit of an upstart. Another Strikeforce convert, he lost to Jake Shields at UFC 161 via controversial split decision but crafted impressive first-round KO victories in his other two UFC appearances last year. After Matt Brown fell out as Condit’s scheduled foe at UFC on Fox 9 in December, Woodley badgered Dana White via text message until he got the fight.
Score one for the wonders of modern communication.
If something goes amiss in Condit vs. Woodley, the UFC can always fall back on the winner of Rory MacDonald’s February fight against Demian Maia to find a top contender. That one is scheduled for UFC 170, where oddsmakers see MacDonald as a 2-to-1 favorite.
A victory would make the 24-year-old Canadian—St-Pierre’s training partner at Montreal’s TriStar Gym—7-2 in UFC career. The catch for MacDonald might be that his most recent appearance at UFC 167 ended in a split-decision loss to Lawler. In a perfect word he’d need at least one more win to qualify as anything resembling a No. 1 contender.
Maia is in a similar boat. After dropping to welterweight in 2012, he ran off three straight wins before he too lost a split decision to Shields, in October. A victory over MacDonald would do a lot to set him back on the right path, but No. 1 contender could be a bit lofty without another win or two.
The likely outcome: Condit holds serve by out-scrapping Woodley and Maia bucks the odds by grappling MacDonald into oblivion. So long as everybody emerges healthy, we can probably expect a rematch between Condit and Hendricks to highlight the UFC's summer schedule.
Maia will have to wait for another top opponent to become available. He’ll likely need to put together another win streak to convince UFC brass he’s championship material. At 36 years old, he doesn’t have an unlimited window in which to do it, either.
The Wild Cards
Now see, here's where things get interesting.
It’s impossible to look too far into the future of the welterweight class without considering the prospects of one Nicholas Robert Diaz.
Currently retired and out of action since his March loss to St-Pierre at UFC 158, Diaz is one of the few fighters in the world who could probably interrupt months of the UFC’s careful planning on a whim. Dana White says he’s done trying to coax the cantankerous scrapper back into action, but if Diaz ever got a wild hair and decided to return, it’d take all of one phone call.
Despite the fact he’d come in off two straight losses and 10 months (and counting) of downtime, you can bet your bottom dollar Diaz could insert himself into the championship picture with a quickness. Especially during a year when every pay-per-view buy will count for the UFC.
The other unabashed wild card of the welterweight division is Hector Lombard. The former Bellator middleweight champion got a shaky start to his UFC career but dropped to 170 pounds in late 2013 and promptly crushed Nate Marquardt via first-round knockout.
If Lombard continues putting fools to sleep--starting with Jake Shields in UFC 171's third welterweight jewel--there’s a very good chance he’ll cut the line of170-pound contenders sometime next year.
Honorable mention at wild card: Ben Askren. Conventional wisdom says Askren is the one that got away now that he’s signed a multifight deal with OneFC. If we’ve learned anything in the fight game, though, it’s never say never. A couple wins overseas and Askren might grow bored of Twitter beefing with Phil Baroni about the same time the UFC really starts looking for marketable welterweight contenders.
The likely outcome: Probably nothing involving Askren, unfortunately. Likewise, Lombard likely isn’t consistent enough to maintain his momentum. Smart money says Diaz rears his indecipherable head this year, though, and unless I miss my guess, we’ll see him fight for UFC gold before 2014 is over.
The Cheap Seats
Though the lightweight ranks get most of the consideration as MMA’s deepest and most treacherous, welterweight ain’t no wading pool. Every dark corner of this weight class has a crowd of tough dudes waiting in it, throwing elbows and jockeying for position.
Matt Brown still has to be considered at the head of this class. This despite the fact he was injured on the cusp of his fight with Carlos Condit late last year and then squandered his remaining political capital saying dumb stuff on his podcast.
Neither of those occurrences change the fact that Brown has won six straight fights in the Octagon. If he can get himself off the I.R. early in 2014, the shortest distance between the B-list and contender status can still be his.
Hot on Brown’s heels is Tarec Saffiedine, who entered the UFC as the final Strikeforce welterweight champion after defeating Nate Marquardt at the organization’s last event in January of 2013.
Saffiedine was denied the opportunity to make a bigger splash in his promotional debut when Jake Ellenberger pulled out of their scheduled bout last month. Instead, Saffiedine traveled to Singapore and defeated Hyun Gyu Lim on the first event to air exclusively on UFC Fight Pass.
As soon as Saffiedine is afforded the right to fight at events people will actually watch, he could be a player.
Other usual suspects who seem to constantly lurk on the edge of title contention include Ellenberger, Jake Shields, Rick Story, Jon Hathaway and Mike Pyle. Any one of them could be a candidate as 2014’s breakout fighter of the year.
The likely outcome: It’s hard to believe Brown ever reclaims the heights he reached last year. Saffiedine, on the other hand, could make a nice little home for himself in the middle of the welterweight pack, if he’s able to a show a bit more urgency than we saw from him in his promotional debut vs. Lim.
Arguably more than any other point, St-Pierre’s retirement underscores the need for the UFC to cultivate the next crop of welterweight stars. Luckily, the promotion has a well-populated list to choose from.
Chief on the hot prospect list heading into 2014 is likely Brandon Thatch, the 28-year-old Grudge Training Center product who is out to a 2-0 start in the Octagon. Thatch is riding a 10-fight win streak overall, with each of those victories coming by first-round stoppage.
His two-minute and 10-second victory over Paulo Thiago in November came via the sort of rib-rattling body shots that had people at home clutching their sides. Call that win Thatch’s coming-out party. If he can keep it up, he’ll be a force this year.
The MMA world also anxiously awaits the return of Gunnar Nelson, out of action nearly a year since defeating Jorge Santiago last February. He was scheduled to meet Mike Pyle at UFC 160 but pulled out due to injury.
Nelson's next bout could turn out to be a stiff test against talented newcomer Omari Akhmedov, who won his first UFC fight at middleweight before announcing a move down to 170 pounds.
With a fleet of other prospects that includes the likes of Ryan LaFlare, Adlan Amagov and former The Ultimate Fighter winner Kelvin Gastelum, the welterweight division could potentially see an influx of new contenders during the coming year.
The likely outcome: Impossible to say. MMA can be a fickle and cruel mistress, but so far it’s easy to project big things for most of the guys above. Thatch may well be set up for the rocket ride to stardom, but guys like Nelson, LaFlare and Amagov also need only a couple more wins each to be considered among the division fastest risers.