Of the nine weight classes currently under the UFC banner, the welterweight division has arguably been the deepest and most competitive for years. Despite having a dominant champion in pound-for-pound great Georges St-Pierre—who has ruled the weight class since 2008—the 170-pound division has produced a steady stream of title contenders and kept the battle for positioning in the upper tier of the class an ongoing situation.
In addition to the action taking place atop the division, the 170-pound weight class has also been able to produce prospects who have battled their way into the title picture.
Current No. 1 contender Johny Hendricks shed his prospect label as he tore through the divisional rankings on his way to a title opportunity. And while "Bigg Rigg" may currently be sitting at the front of the pack, Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald have played roles in ushering "new blood" into the race for title contention as well.
While this process may seem to be the natural order of how a weight class should operate, few other divisions have experienced this rhythm. In fact, even with St-Pierre being sidelined due to an injury and the UFC implementing an interim title, the welterweight division continued to move despite GSP's absence.
Carlos Condit defeated Nick Diaz to become the interim welterweight champion at UFC 143, and perennial contenders such as Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and BJ Penn were all pushed out of the title picture during St-Pierre's time on the sidelines.
With St-Pierre back at the helm and the unofficial welterweight tournament that was UFC 158 in the books, the weight class is once again operating at full steam. The best fighters in the division are within striking distance of a potential title opportunity, and a new wave of up-and-coming talent look to take the next step in their development.
The current batch of welterweight prospects have crucial bouts on the horizon. If they are able to find success in their next outings, they will break through into the next tier of the division.
Let's take a look at some of those matchups.
Jordan Mein vs. Matt Brown
It would be difficult to find a better word to describe Jordan Mein's Octagon debut than "impressive."
The 23-year-old put on a light's out performance at UFC 158, when he scored a first-round TKO over gritty veteran Dan Miller in Montreal. While it was the "Young Gun's" first victory under the UFC banner, the victory over the New Jersey native was Mein's third consecutive win, making him successful in nine of his last 10 outings.
The talented young Canadian's showing at UFC 158 garnered well-deserved attention and solidified him as a fighter to watch in the division, but a strange turn of events has presented an opportunity for Mein to ascend the 170-pound rankings more rapidly.
When heavy-handed slugger Dan Hardy was forced out of his bout with Matt Brown at UFC on Fox 7 due to a heart condition, Mein stepped up to fill the void left by the former No. 1 contender.
Brown turned his career around in 2012, when the TUF alum racked up four consecutive victories. The Ohio-based fighter scored a blistering knockout over veteran Mike Swick in his most recent outing at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle and is on the cusp of solidifying Top 10 status in the division.
If Mein can derail "The Immortal's" momentum and earn the victory in San Jose, his status as a prospect will be short lived.
Tyron Woodley vs. Jake Shields
If Jordan Mein's UFC debut sent a message to the welterweight division, Tyron Woodley's inaugural showing kicked down the doors. The former Missouri University wrestling standout marked his arrival to the sport's biggest stage with a 36-second starching of veteran Jay Hieron at UFC 156. The 30-year-old demolished the Xtreme Couture product with a monstrous right hand.
Following the victory, Woodley used his post-fight mic time to inform UFC president Dana White that he would be ready to go if one of the top-ranked welterweights competing at UFC 158 were to fall out with an injury.
While Rory MacDonald was forced to withdraw from his bout with Carlos Condit and the organization tapped Nate Marquardt to step into the vacancy, Woodley didn't have to wait long before an opportunity was brought his way.
The former All-American wrestler will face former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields at UFC 161 in June. The bout against the former No. 1 contender is the perfect opportunity for Woodley to prove he belongs with the best in the division, and a victory over the Cesar Gracie Team fighter would carve that notion in stone.
"T-Wood" has won 10 of his 11 outings as a professional mixed martial artist, with his only setback coming against Nate Marquardt when they squared off for the Strikeforce welterweight title last July. While Woodley is at the far end of the prospect spectrum, his role as a UFC title contender is yet to be defined. A victory over Shields would clear up the issue in quick fashion.
The St. Louis-based fighter will welcome Shields back to the 170-pound weight class after he had a brief stint as a middleweight. Shields will be looking to gain some traction under the UFC banner, as he's gone 1-2-1 since coming over from Strikeforce.
Gunnar Nelson vs. Mike Pyle
The prospect label comes with a certain amount of hype, and submission ace Gunnar Nelson entered the UFC carrying his fair share. The Icelandic grappling wizard made his Octagon debut in impressive fashion when he submitted veteran DaMarques Johnson in the first round of their tilt at UFC on Fuel TV 5 in September of last year.
"Gunni" was able to build more momentum when he bested journeyman Jorge Santiago in his next outing in London at UFC on Fuel TV 7. While his initial showing under the UFC banner saw the Renzo Gracie-trained fighter waste no time taking the action to the canvas, Nelson showcased his unorthodox striking style against Santiago, picking up the unanimous-decision victory.
The competition level will take another step up in his next bout, as Nelson will mix it up with Mike Pyle at UFC 160 in May. The Xtreme Couture staple has been on a hot streak lately, as Pyle has positioned himself to break into the next tier of the division with a win over Nelson.
The 37-year-old's most recent victory came at the expense of James Head at The Ultimate Fighter 16 finale. The Las Vegas-based fighter collected his third consecutive win, making him successful in six of his last seven showings.
While Pyle cannot match the grappling resume Nelson possesses, the veteran fighter has a slick ground game and an ever-improving stand-up attack.
The matchup at UFC 160 will be a solid test for both fighters. Should Nelson defeat Pyle on May 25, the victory would put him one step closer to shedding the prospect label. On the other hand, if Pyle is successful, a four-fight win streak would put him close to breaking into the divisional Top 10.
It is also worth noting that Pyle has faced a surging prospect before. While Pyle derailed the John Hathaway hype train when the two welterweights locked up at UFC 120 in 2010, he came out on the business end of a showdown with Rory MacDonald at UFC 133.