There is an art to matchmaking in combat sports.
While some fights come together with natural ease, most bouts are formed through a hectic process of evaluation. Several aspects need to be graded on each side of the table before committing to the matchup.
Whether or not a fight makes sense in the divisional scheme, timing and making sure both fighters stand to gain similar rewards are the most pressing issues that come to mind. Then, of course, there is the most important aspect of a potential fight: Will both competitors be willing to mix it up and put on a show?
The unfortunate part of the process comes when all of these criteria are met and the fight fails to deliver. That said, the UFC showcases far more exciting tilts than flat fights these days, which goes to show just how good Joe Silva and Sean Shelby are at their jobs.
For the better part of the past decade, the UFC's welterweight division has remained one of the most consistently stacked collectives under the organization's banner. Long-time king Georges St-Pierre methodically steamrolled contender after contender during his record-setting seven-year run as the champion of the weight class. But as Bob Dylan once wrote, "Times they are a changing," and the 170-pound is fitting to erupt into a shoot-out of Ok Coral proportions.
Recent title challenger Johny Hendricks will be looking to make good on his second attempt at championship gold when he squares off with Robbie Lawler at UFC 171 to determine who will lay claim to the vacant welterweight title. The co-main event of the March 15 card will feature another crucial tilt in the divisional title race as former interim champion Carlos Condit is set to step in against surging powerhouse Tyron Woodley.
The high-profile tilts in Dallas will kick things off in proper fashion, but they are just the tip of the iceberg of what could play out and potentially make 2014 one of the most interesting years yet. With that in mind, I've picked two possible matchups from that weight class to highlight in this month's installment in addition to one top-shelf flyweight collision that could have a solid impact on the 125-pound title hunt.
Let's kick things off in the welterweight division.
Rory MacDonald vs. Dong Hyun Kim
On the current landscape of the welterweight fold, every fighter in the upper tier is calling for the next title shot.
While the "next" position is certainly up for grabs, a few things need to play out before anyone takes a definitive lead in the race for a title opportunity. Two fighters who have made public bids for title contention as of late are Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim. Both are coming off stellar showings and what better way to thin out the current picture than to match them up together?
The 24-year-old MacDonald rebounded from the second loss of his professional career by taking the action directly to Demian Maia in his most recent showing. Their bout at UFC 170 last month was a high-stakes affair with neither fighter being in a position to take a back step. While the Brazilian grappling ace took the opening frame by putting MacDonald on the mat, "Ares" stormed back with a vengeance to close out the final two frames and take the unanimous decision victory.
In the aftermath of his victory in Las Vegas, MacDonald made a play to get the winner of Hendricks vs. Lawler later in the year. While his ambition is certainly encouraging, the Tri-Star fighter is realistically at least one more solid win away from a shot at welterweight gold. And that is why a bout with the "Stun Gun" makes sense.
The South Korean has been on a tear as of late as he's apparently switched gears in his offense inside the Octagon. Where the 32-year-old has drawn criticism in the past for a wrestling-heavy approach, his two most recent outings have been absolute game changers where Kim is concerned. He put down highly touted striker Erick Silva when the two met in October of last year, then became the talk of the MMA community when he slept John Hathaway with a beautifully vicious spinning elbow last week in Macao.
Those two finishes have Kim looking like a different monster and MacDonald swears the fire to compete is burning hotter than ever. Not only would the matchup be an interesting test for both men, but the winner of the proposed meeting would be in great position to earn a title shot.
Stephen Thompson vs. Brandon Thatch
There are plenty of high-profile bouts to keep the welterweight title picture moving for the foreseeable future. That said, there is also a need to put the spotlight on the next wave of talent looking to breakthrough.
While pitting two promising talents against one another in the early goings is typically a move to be avoided because it has the potential to knock the losing fighter off their trajectory, one potential collision that could be the exception is a bout between Stephen Thompson and Brandon Thatch. Both have put on the type of performances that have people excited to see them work, and putting them in the Octagon together could not only produce a fire fight, but the type of memorable scrap fans never forget.
"Wonderboy" has only been competing under the UFC banner for a short time, but he has certainly experienced the roller coaster ride that comes with expectation. The South Carolina native came to MMA with a world-class kickboxing resume and a flawless 57-0 record, and he exceeded the hype by leveling Dan Stittgen in the first round of his debut at UFC 143 back in 2012. Yet, while his KO pushed the buzz to a new level, a loss to Matt Brown in his next outing cooled things down considerably.
Thompson rebounded from the setback to collect victories in his next three outings, the most recent of which came at the expense of Robert Whittaker as he stopped The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes winner in the opening round of their fight at UFC 170. His win last month in Las Vegas has the Simpsonville-based fighter poised for bigger things, and a showdown with Thatch would be a perfect situation for both men.
Where Thompson garnered acclaim in his first showing under the UFC banner, Thatch certainly did the same. "Rukus" lived up to his nickname by storming Justin Edwards and finishing "Fast Eddie" with the quickness in Indianapolis. The Grudge-trained fighter was figured to have a much bigger test in his next outing against Paulo Thiago, but once again, Thatch settled the hard-nosed veteran in brutal fashion.
Steamrolling a guy like Thiago sent a loud message to the rest of the welterweight division that Thatch isn't stepping into the Octagon for face time. He's there to do as much damage as he can in the quickest manner possible, and he's been successful on both fronts thus far. While a bout with Thompson wouldn't serve to launch him up the divisional ladder, it has the potential for both men to put a huge stamp on their careers.
Styles make fights and with the caliber of weapons both Thompson and Thatch bring to the cage, it could make for an absolutely crazy tussle. That said, the Colorado native is currently on the mend, but a date with Thompson upon his return could create something for fans of welterweight action something to look forward to outside of the current title picture.
John Dodson vs. Zach Makovsky
No division needs title contenders at the current time like the flyweight collective. Champion Demeterious Johnson has run through the list of viable options and is waiting for his next challenge to be announced.
One fighter who would be high on that list is John Dodson, but "The Magician" is working his way back from a knee injury he suffered last November. Nevertheless, the former title challenger is eyeing a May return and is eager to resume his hunt for another shot at championship gold. Dodson recently told Bleacher Report he doesn't care where he returns in the division, but would like at least one fight before stepping back in with "Mighty Mouse" for the 125-pound strap.
With that in mind, Zach Makovsky would make for the perfect opponent to welcome him back to the fold. "Fun Size" has looked great in the two showings he's had under the banner as he stepped on short notice to dispatch Scott Jorgensen in his debut at UFC on Fox 9 in December, then defeated Josh Sampo two months later at UFC 170.
The former Bellator champion is quickly making a case for title consideration in the UFC, but he'll have to defeat a top-ranked guy to get there. Dodson would be a crucial fit in that regard and likewise going the other way as well. While the Albuquerque native is positioned closer to a title opportunity on the current divisional hierarchy, he will need to face a solid name coming off an extended stay on the sidelines, and Makovsky should be that opponent.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report.
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