This weekend in Seattle, two of the UFC's top welterweights will throw down when talented young Canadian Rory MacDonald squares off with surging contender Jake Ellenberger in the co-main event at UFC on Fox 8.
Both fighters have established solid momentum in their respective climbs toward a title shot.
The 28-year-old Nebraska native Ellenberger has found victory in eight of his last nine showings, with his only setback coming against fellow top welterweight Martin Kampmann at The Ultimate Fighter 15 finale in June 2012.
Since his loss to "The Hitman," the Team Reign staple has collected back-to-back wins with his most recent coming by way of first-round destruction over former Strikeforce champion Nate Marquardt.
Things have been equally as impressive on MacDonald's side of the table. The 24-year-old Tri-Star product has been a wrecking machine in the welterweight ranks, as he's found victory in five of his last six outings, including a current four-fight winning streak.
His most recent showing resulted in a lopsided victory over former two-divisional champion B.J. Penn at UFC on Fox 5 last December. MacDonald issued the MMA legend one of the worst beatings of his storied career and solidified himself as a legitimate contender to the welterweight throne in the process.
But while the winner of Saturday night's tilt appears poised to step into the immediate title picture, there will be a few hurdles to overcome to establish the position of next in line.
Timing Means Everything
In order for either Ellenberger or MacDonald to claim the No. 1 contender handle in the welterweight division, the current No. 1 contender role will have to be vacant. At the present time, that position belongs to heavy-handed knockout artist Johny Hendricks, who is slated to face long reigning welterweight king Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 in November.
With the title fight between St-Pierre and Hendricks still four months away, there is a good chance the winner of the bout between Ellenberger and MacDonald will likely have to take another fight before a championship opportunity materializes. And that is basing the timing upon St-Pierre being successful in the tilt.
If Hendricks is able to dethrone the longstanding 170-pound champion, an immediate rematch between the two fighters would seem the most likely option. GSP has ruled the weight class for the past six years, and if he suffers a setback at the hands of "Bigg Rigg," an immediate opportunity to regain the title would be all but a given.
If this scenario were to happen, the winner of Ellenberger vs. MacDonald would absolutely be forced back into action. But in an effort to stay out of the hypothetical, regardless of what happens at UFC 167 in November, there is still a good chance the winner of Saturday night's contender dust-up in Seattle will face a high probability of having to take another fight before earning a title shot.
Other Contenders Emerging
While the winner of Ellenberger vs. MacDonald will be in a good position to earn a future title shot, they are not alone in that realm.
Ohio-based grind machine Matt Brown has been quietly building his own case toward title contention and has done so by amassing a five-fight winning streak. In what has been one of the most impressive about faces in recent history, Brown endured a stretch where the TUF alum dropped four out of five showings, to beasting his way up the divisional ladder.
During Brown's most recent run, four of his five victories have come by way of brutal stoppage. To put it simply: Brown has never looked better. His confidence is on point, and his hard charging attack has proved difficult to stop.
His next bout will come against Mike Pyle at UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen in August, and if Brown can tack on another victory in impressive fashion, he will certainly put himself on the title radar as well.
The same can be said for Pyle. The mullet-wearing 37-year-old has also been quietly climbing toward the upper tier of the welterweight division on the strength of a four-fight winning streak. The Las Vegas native has been victorious in seven of his last eight showings, with his only setback during this run coming to MacDonald at UFC 133 back in August 2011.
Since his loss to "Ares," Pyle has collected four straight wins with all but one of those victories coming by way of stoppage. If he can manage to derail the red-hot Brown in Boston, his stock in the divisional picture will certainly jump up a few notches.
In addition to Brown vs. Pyle, there is another fight in August that will have an immediate impact on the title picture in the welterweight division when Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann step in for their rematch in Indianapolis.
While "The Natural Born Killer" is coming off back-to-back losses, those setbacks have come against current champion St-Pierre and Hendricks, respectively. While the loss to Hendricks at UFC 158 back in March was a unanimous decision on the judge's score cards, the fight was much closer than the scores indicated with Condit surging back in the second half of the fight.
If the former interim champion is able to defeat Kampmann in impressive fashion at UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2 on Aug. 28, the Jackson's MMA-trained fighter will, once again, find himself in the title picture.
Perhaps, one of the most interesting scenarios would come if both MacDonald and Condit are successful in their upcoming fights. The young Canadian has been vocal about wanting to avenge the only loss of his career and has publicly asked to face Condit.
The two welterweights were originally supposed to have their rematch at UFC 158, but MacDonald suffered a neck injury in training and was forced to withdraw from the fight.
If this scenario were to materialize, a bout against Condit would most likely become the most attractive option for MacDonald. He's made it clear he will not fight for the title while his training partner and teammate St-Pierre holds the crown, and a rematch with Condit would keep that conversation off the table for the time being.
While the upper tier of the welterweight division is crowded at the current time, one fighter who can squeeze his way in with another victory is Robbie Lawler.
The former Elite XC champion had been teetering on the verge of obscurity for the past few years in Strikeforce, but his first-round knockout over perennial contender Josh Koscheck in his UFC return instantly put him in the conversation of top welterweights.
"Ruthless" was originally slated to face the last man to hold the Strikeforce welterweight strap in Tarec Saffiedine this weekend at UFC on Fox 8, but an injury to the former champion as well as his scheduled replacement Siyar Bahadurzada, opened the door for 11th-hour replacement Bobby Voelker to step in.
While Voelker doesn't carry the same name recognition as his two previously scheduled opponents, the fight still presents a solid opportunity for Lawler to take a step toward a title shot.
Another fighter making solid ground moving up the divisional ladder is former middleweight title challenger Demian Maia. The Brazilian submission ace has been a monster since dropping down into welterweight waters as he's collected three consecutive victories at 170 pounds.
The 35-year-old earned a lopsided win over former top welterweight Jon Fitch in his most recent showing and was set to face another stiff challenge in Josh Koscheck at UFC 163 before the former title challenger was forced to withdraw due to injury.
Without a current opponent on the schedule, it will be difficult for Maia to jump to the head of the pack in the welterweight division, but another strong showing against a top-ranked welterweight would go a long way in proving he deserves a title opportunity in his new weight class.