Plenty at Stake for the Major Players at UFC 167

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Plenty at Stake for the Major Players at UFC 167
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There is a lot of hype, buzz or any number of adjectives for excitement surrounding this weekend's card for UFC 167.

Anytime a title fight features one of the pound-for-pound greats on the bill, there is sure to be a high level of anticipation. When you take the main event between welterweight king Georges St-Pierre and brick-handed No. 1 contender Johny Hendricks and mix it in with the celebration of the UFC's 20th anniversary, it's safe to say the mood has been working toward a fever pitch that will finally break when the action gets under way at the MGM Grand on Saturday night.

In addition to the welterweight ruckus atop the card, other high profile and crucial tilts line UFC 167.

Light heavyweight contenders Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen will square off to determine who keeps his place in the hunt for the 205-pound strap. Both have battled their way out of recent rough patches, and the fight will come at a crucial juncture in their careers.

Another bout carrying heavy implications will take place in the 170-pound weight class, as rising young talent Rory MacDonald locks up with resurgent knockout artist Robbie Lawler. The 24-year-old Canadian is considered to be the heir apparent to St-Pierre's crown. Meanwhile, "Ruthless" has been forking out the violence in recent showings as if he went back in time to the 2003 version of himself. The winner will stay on the title radar, while the loser will get reshuffled back into the welterweight deck.

Two fighters who know just how stacked things are at 170 pounds and are in jeopardy of being rolled over by the rising tide are Josh Koscheck and Tyron Woodley. "Kos" has been a perennial contender in the welterweight division for the past five years, but a recent stretch of back-to-back losses have him in danger of losing his elite-level status. While Woodley may not have the footing that Koscheck has enjoyed, a setback against Jake Shields at UFC 161 in June has him needing a victory if he hopes to keep his title dreams alive.

While those fighters carry the bulk of the risk, plenty of others on the card have a lot on the line come Saturday night.

Let's take a look at what is at stake for the major players at UFC 167.

 

Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks

For the past six years, St-Pierre has ruled the welterweight division with an iron fist. While his ability to finish fights has been the loudest—and let's be honest, only—criticism that "Rush" has endured during his reign, there is no taking away from his dominance as the 170-pound titleholder.

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After coming out on the business end of the biggest upset in MMA history against Matt Serra at UFC 69 in 2007, the Montreal native has rolled off 11 consecutive victories inside the Octagon, eight of which have been title defenses. The Tristar product has faced and dispatched every worthy contender in such a lopsided manner that simply stealing a round from him is a noteworthy accomplishment.

The 32-year-old already holds court as the most dominant champion in welterweight history, and a victory over Hendricks at UFC 167 will put him one shy of tying fellow pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva's record of 10.

So what is at stake when St-Pierre steps into the cage on Saturday night?

Honestly, outside of the current chapter in his legacy, not much. For the past two years, he's hinted at a possible retirement, and a victory would go a long way to widen the gap between St-Pierre and the rest of the challengers in the division. A win would add further legitimacy to his place as the best 170-pound fighter to ever step into the cage, while a loss would imply a lack of motivation after such a lengthy run atop the division.

St-Pierre has said he will have a big announcement following the fight against Hendricks, and I have a feeling it either has do with retirement or an exodus from the division. Either way, I suspect he won't be hanging around the welterweight ranks for much longer.

The bigger share of risk falls on the shoulders of Hendricks. "Bigg Rigg" worked like a beast to earn his long-awaited title shot, winning six consecutive bouts in a two-year stretch. The former two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler put himself in the title conversation by starching perennial contender Jon Fitch at UFC 141 in 2011 and then leveling Martin Kampmann in similar fashion at UFC 154 in Montreal.

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Following his victory over "The Hitman," Hendricks seemed to be in prime position for a title shot but had to watch the opportunity go to Nick Diaz instead. While he could have rested on his laurels and waited for a title bid to materialize, he jumped back into the mix and faced Jake Ellenberger at UFC 158.

When Rory MacDonald was forced out of his rematch with Carlos Condit on the same card, Hendricks jumped at the opportunity to face "The Natural Born Killer," who was just coming off a title shot of his own. The Oklahoma native scored a unanimous-decision victory over Condit and earned his chance to face St-Pierre in the process.

The reason that the risk for Hendricks is so high has everything to do with the state of the division. The 170-pound collective has always been one of the deepest talent pools in the UFC. If he comes up short in his bid to dethrone St-Pierre on Saturday night, he will be forced to the back of the pack, and it could be a good amount of time before he returns to the top again.

That said, winning the belt is one thing, but defeating St-Pierre is a trophy of an entirely different measure. Hendricks wants to be the man who finally knocks off the welterweight king, and with St-Pierre's time in the division seemingly ticking to an end, this may be his one and only shot to do it.

 

Rashad Evans vs. Chael Sonnen

Such is the dominance and beautiful violence of Jon Jones' reign atop the light heavyweight division that it's easy to forget the champions who came before him. Yet following the epic fall of MMA legend Chuck Liddell, the 205-pound strap went on a merry-go-round of sorts and could not be held for any substantial length of time.

From 2007 to 2011, five different fighters held the position of light heavyweight champion with none of them making more than one successful title defense. In 2008, Rashad Evans pounded out Forrest Griffin to become champion, and it appeared he might retain the belt for a good while.

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Unfortunately for him, his time as champion collided with "The Machida Era," as "The Dragon" slaughtered the former Michigan State University wrestling standout at UFC 98 in 2009. Following that loss, Evans appeared a bit shaky but nevertheless rolled out four consecutive victories to earn another shot at the strap in a highly anticipated grudge match against former friend and training partner Jon Jones.

His bid to derail the young champion would go south as would his next showing against underdog Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156 this past February. Evans was figured to steamroll "Lil Nog" in Las Vegas, but a listless performance resulted in a unanimous-decision defeat. The 34-year-old would bounce back in his next fight by edging out MMA legend Dan Henderson at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, and the win helped "Suga" re-establish his footing in the division.

Coming into his bout with Sonnen at UFC 167, Evans has everything on the line. He's heralded as one of the elite fighters in the division, and a victory over the former multi-divisional title challenger would go a long way in showing his game is back on track. Defeating Sonnen would keep him in the thick of the title hunt in the 205-pound weight class and put him within striking distance of another shot at championship gold.

On the other hand, a loss would be devastating and give him setbacks in three of his last four showings. With the state of the division and the title picture becoming crowded with potential contenders, Evans cannot afford a defeat on Saturday night.

As for Sonnen, he doesn't carry near the risk as his opponent in this matchup. While his recent record looks similar to Evans in that he lost back-to-back outings and then fought his way back into the win column, those defeats came in title tilts against two of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet in Anderson Silva and Jon Jones.

While a victory over Evans would be a huge feather in Sonnen's cap, it isn't a necessity for "The Gangster from West Linn" to keep his career moving forward. In the lead-up to his co-main event date with Evans, the UFC announced Sonnen would be assuming coaching duties opposite longtime nemesis Wanderlei Silva for the next installment of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. That means his schedule is booked well into 2014, and a win or a loss appears to be neither here nor there.

Granted, a victory would build a strong case for him to remain in the title hunt, but with the Silva showdown looming in the near future, he already has a detour on the road ahead. 

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If Sonnen comes up short against Evans at UFC 167, he will jump into the fight with Silva and carry on. There is very little risk on Sonnen's side of the table, which puts all the urgency on Evans.

 

Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler

Few things are more exciting in mixed martial arts than seeing a prospect make good on his bid to become a full-fledged contender. That is what is happening with MacDonald, and his upcoming bout with Lawler will go a long way to solidifying his place in the welterweight title picture.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Granted, he has the major obstacle of friend, teammate and training partner Georges St-Pierre currently holding the title, but that doesn't take away from how impressive MacDonald's rise has been. Since joining the UFC in 2010, "Ares" has won six out of his seven showings inside the Octagon. His only loss as a professional came against former interim titleholder Carlos Condit in a fight that the Tristar product was on his way to winning before the Albuquerque native turned the tide in the final moments.

Save for his lone setback against Condit, the 24-year-old has been lights out inside the cage. He's collected five consecutive victories over a mixture of top talent including Nate Diaz, Mike Pyle and former two-divisional champion BJ Penn. While his most recent victory over Jake Ellenberger at UFC on Fox 8 in July was lackluster, the British Columbia native is on track to earn a shot at the welterweight crown.

That said, he will experience pressure to keep his momentum rolling when he faces Lawler at UFC 167. The heavy-handed knockout artist presents a unique challenge, and his aggression will be something the young Canadian has never encountered before. Should MacDonald have the answer to what Lawler brings to the table, his place at the welterweight table will be difficult to deny.

On the other hand, if MacDonald falls victim to Lawler's power on Saturday night, he will be sent back into the pack at 170 pounds. Several other would-be contenders have fights on the docket and are all looking to make their climb toward the top, so a MacDonald loss would clear the path for them.

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One of those contenders who will have a firsthand say in the matter is Lawler. The former Elite XC champion blitzed his way back onto the sport's biggest stage in 2013 and has left a path of wreckage in his wake. The 31-year-old snuffed out Josh Koscheck in his official return at UFC 157 in February and then dismantled journeyman Bobby Voelker at UFC on Fox 8 four months later.

Those performances and the level of brutality he's shown in earning back-to-back knockout victories have him riding a resurgence in the UFC. A victory over MacDonald would cement his place on the divisional hierarchy and make a strong case that he should get the next shot at the welterweight crown.

That said, a loss would have the exact opposite effect. While Lawler's age doesn't appear to be a huge factor, he's been trading leather inside the cage for more than 12 years. His reinvigorated run in 2013 has been a great story, but with a pack of hungry contenders scrapping their way up the ladder at 170 pounds, a defeat would knock him to the back of the line. 

For Lawler to keep his title hopes alive, he needs a victory. The alternative would extinguish those chances for the foreseeable future.

 

Other Fighters with a Lot on the Line

While the biggest bouts of UFC 167 feature a lot of risk and reward, several other fighters absolutely need to find victory on Saturday night.

For the past seven years, Josh Koscheck has been a staple in the upper tier of the welterweight division. Love him or hate him, he has been one of the premier fighters competing at 170 pounds. His success has kept him at the forefront of the sport despite being in the UFC for the better part of a decade.

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That said, the 35-year-old has experienced a rough spell as of late with back-to-back losses in his two most recent outings. He lost a razor-thin split decision to Johny Hendricks at UFC on Fox 3 in 2012 and then suffered a knockout at the hands of Robbie Lawler at UFC 157 in February. Those losses have him in jeopardy of being pushed out of the upper tier of a division where he's been a resident since the post-The Ultimate Fighter boom of 2005.

This scenario puts a lot of urgency into his upcoming fight with Tyron Woodley on Saturday night. The former Strikeforce title challenger represents the next wave of fighters who are looking to breakthrough into the next level of the welterweight division. For Koscheck to keep his place at the table, he must turn Woodley back. Otherwise, a loss would make it three straight and could lead to him parting ways with the organization.

One fighter whose name you won't find on the main card at UFC 167 is Donald Cerrone. While "Cowboy" possesses all the skills to be one of the best fighters in the lightweight division, losses in two of his three most recent showings have him on the verge of irrelevancy at 155 pounds.

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The 30-year-old rebounded from a smashing at the hands and feet of Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago by drubbing former Elite XC champion K.J. Noons at UFC 160 in May. His victory over "King Karl" had Cerrone once again riding high in the division until a loss to Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 27 put the brakes on any momentum he had built.

Coming into his bout with Evan Dunham, Cerrone is facing the possibility of being pushed out of the elite level of the lightweight division. While he has hinted at a possible drop to featherweight following this fight, the fact remains that he has every tool necessary to be one of the best fighters at 155 pounds. A victory over Dunham would keep him in that conversation, but a loss would bolster talk that his time as a top lightweight has come and gone.

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