A Post-GSP Welterweight Division Is Anyone's Game

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A Post-GSP Welterweight Division Is Anyone's Game
USA Today

After a razor-thin split decision and monumental announcement, Georges St-Pierre—the long-reigning king of the UFC's welterweight division—vacated his throne atop the 170-pound mountain.

After barely slipping past heavy-handed title challenger Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in November, the pound-for-pound great decided to step away from the rigors and stresses of being champion and removed himself from the picture. For six years, GSP dominated the talent-rich fold, and 2013 came to a close just as that historic chapter in welterweight history did the same.

While the French-Canadian's absence would shorten the already thin list of proven pay-per-view draws, it also opened the doors for what could prove to be a dynamic race to re-establish dominance on the 170-pound divisional hierarchy in 2014.

A pair of top-ranked welterweights in Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim have already made bids for future title opportunities to kick off the year, but the action will ramp up this weekend at UFC 171 in Dallas, where a barrage of elite welterweights will step into the Octagon and jockey for position.

In addition to the main event showdown between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler to determine the new champion, two more tilts carry heavy implications as to how the title picture will develop going forward.

Former WEC and UFC interim champion Carlos Condit will look to make good on the promise of him getting the next shot when he squares off with surging upstart Tyron Woodley in the co-main event. Meanwhile, Jake Shields and Hector Lombard will meet to see which of them will remain a major player in the title race.

Yet, while the action on Saturday night in Texas will put the spotlight on the upper tier of the division, plenty of recent and future action will play a part in how the division takes shape in a post-St-Pierre world. 

Let's take a look at the current state of the welterweight division and the interesting turns that may arise as 2014 plays out.

 

Things Are About to Get Rowdy in Dallas

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While a few notable welterweights won't compete at UFC 171, a collection of heavy hitters will be in Dallas on Saturday to settle the major issues at 170 pounds.

Recent title challenger Johny Hendricks will look to capitalize on his second attempt at championship gold against Robbie Lawler—a savvy veteran who is in the midst of a red-hot resurgence.

Whereas "Bigg Rigg" is excited to get the opportunity in his adopted backyard of Texas, the former two-time NCAA Division I national champion will be coming into the fight with a chip on his shoulder. The Team Takedown fighter—and many in the MMA community—believes he did enough to dethrone St-Pierre back in November, but the scorecards ultimately favored the standing champion.

Hendricks has vowed not to let UFC gold slip through his fingers again.

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The only thing standing in his way is one of the most feared knockout artists in MMA. While the former Oklahoma State University wrestling standout has one-shot power of his own, Lawler has been settling opponents in brutal fashion for more than a decade.

The American Top Team fighter has looked reinvigorated since returning to the UFC. He ripped through Josh Koscheck and Bobby Voelker and then battered Rory MacDonald to earn a shot at the title. 

When the cage door closes on Saturday, the odds will be strong of someone going to sleep on the canvas and the winner going to sleep with the belt in his room. And before MMA fans find out which fighter will fill which role in that equation, they might already know who the new champion will face in his first title defense.

The co-main event between Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley will be a heavy-stakes affair, as "The Natural Born Killer" will be looking to validate the lingering promise of the next title shot.

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The Albuquerque native has been one of the most prolific finishers in the welterweight ranks for the better part of the past decade. After being edged out by Martin Kampmann in his promotional debut in 2009, Condit has since won win six of his eight showings, with his only two losses in that stretch coming against St-Pierre and Hendricks, respectively.

He found redemption in brutal fashion in his most recent outing, starching Kampmann in the fourth round of their rematch at UFC Fight Night 27 in August.

UFC president Dana White has declared Condit will get the next title shot with a victory over Woodley, and with Condit's killer instinct, that's exactly what he'll be hunting for on Saturday night.

Things look a bit different on Woodley's side of the table.

Eric Jamison/Associated Press

While a victory over Condit would boost his stock, he hasn't been promised a title shot with a win. "The Chosen One" has picked up a couple of solid victories since coming over from Strikeforce, but he's yet to compile a list of top-ranked victims.

Condit will be his first elite UFC opponent, and if Woodley passes that test, the former Missouri University wrestling standout will find himself on a short list of future contenders. That is the reward dangling at the end of this fight and one he is hungry to claim.

With both the main and co-main events carrying heavy action, it's hard to imagine another fight could impact the title picture, but the bout between Jake Shields and Hector Lombard meets the criteria. 

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

The former Strikeforce champion and welterweight title contender has been picking up steam since he's returned to 170 pounds, edging out Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia in recent bouts. Both fights were closely contested affairs with the Cesar Gracie representative pulling out back-to-back split-decision victories.

While those close decisions haven't made Shields a front-runner for title contention, a victory over the Cuban knockout artist on Saturday would put some serious heat to that particular cause. 

While Shields' style of fighting is often criticized, there is no denying the veteran's effectiveness inside the cage. The 35-year-old has only lost two fights in eight years and has claimed victory over a cast of high-profile fighters.

Despite the unique challenge that Lombard will present, Shields has a great record against power punchers, as he's defeated Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler and Paul Daley over the course of his career. If he adds Lombard to that list, he would be within striking distance of a title shot.

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Although Lombard is relatively new to the division, he has already achieved top-shelf status. The former Bellator middleweight champion had a rocky start to his UFC run at 185 pounds, managing only one win in three showings. The former Olympian heeded the call from UFC brass and decided to drop down to welterweight. The decision immediately proved fruitful, as he destroyed Nate Marquardt in the first round of their tilt at UFC 166 last October. 

The American Top Team product made short work out of the former Strikeforce champion and will now face another former titleholder on Saturday night. Shields has proved to be one of the toughest outs in the game, and if Lombard can do what he is known to do once the cage door closes, it could send a shock wave through the welterweight title picture.

 

A Batch of Potential Contenders in Waiting

In order for the title race to remain exciting, there needs to be an extended line of potential contenders who are working to make a run at the gold. At this time, the welterweight throne room is crowded, but there is no shortage of would-be challengers.

Sitting just beyond the gates is talented upstart Rory MacDonald. Since his emergence on the UFC scene four years ago, the British Columbia native has been pegged as the heir apparent to his friend and training partner St-Pierre.

"Ares" provided a solid amount of validation to that notion by winning six of his first seven showings inside the Octagon. Over this run, he put on the types of performances that raised his status from prospect to contender and placed him in position to make some major moves in the division.

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Nevertheless, something changed in the young fighter in 2013, as he had back-to-back lackluster showings in major fights. While he was able to get a unanimous-decision victory over Jake Ellenberger despite a listless performance, he wasn't as fortunate in his next outing. He took the second loss of his career via split decision against Robbie Lawler four months later.

In the aftermath of his loss in Las Vegas, MacDonald cited a lack of fire and motivation over his recent run but ensured the setback had reignited those flames of competition. And he backed up his words against Demian Maia in his most recent outing. While the Brazilian submission ace was able to control the action on the canvas in the opening round, MacDonald raged back and hammered the former middleweight title challenger for the final two rounds.

Following the victory over Maia, he made a play for a title shot, but it looks like he'll need at least another win or two before that happens.

Another fighter who recently made a play of his own is Dong Hyun Kim. The "Stun Gun" is experiencing one of the most prolific turnarounds of any fighter in recent memory where style is concerned.

Whereas the South Korean had always been an effective grappler who used his top pressure to control the opposition, the 32-year-old has shifted gears and started knocking people out. His stoppage of surging prospect Erick Silva was impressive, but his spinning back elbow obliteration of John Hathaway in Macao turned the MMA world sideways for days following the bout.

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While landing a Knockout of the Year-worthy finish is great for Kim's stock, it isn't enough to warrant him leapfrogging some of the bigger names in the division. That said, he does have a four-fight winning streak and is on one of the strongest runs in the weight class. Yet, he will need at least one more impressive victory over a top-ranked opponent to enter serious title consideration.

Two fighters who not only share similar air space in the division but an upcoming dance card as well are Jake Ellenberger and Tarec Saffiedine.

"The Juggernaut" and the Belgian striker were originally slated to tangle earlier in the year, but an injury forced Ellenberger out of the fight. Saffiedine—the last man to hold the Strikeforce welterweight title—went on to defeat his replacement Hyun Gyu Lim, and the matchup between the two has been rescheduled for UFC 172 on April 26.

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While "Sponge" has a five-fight winning streak and Ellenberger is coming off a loss, their spots in the division make their pairing worthwhile. Although the former Marine lost to MacDonald in his most recent outing, he has claimed victory in eight of his last 10 outings, and that is an impressive feat in such a talent-rich division.

When the two fighters collide in Baltimore next month, the winner will remain in the hunt, while the loser will get reshuffled into the deck.

The final fighter who is hovering in this realm of contention is Ohio native Matt Brown. "The Immortal" has proved to be one of the most resilient fighters, bouncing back from a rough patch where he dropped four out of five showings and rebounding with six consecutive victories. The strength of that run brought him to the doorstep of the top tier of the division, but an injury forced him out of a scheduled bout with Condit at UFC on Fox 9 in December.

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Despite Brown's recent run of success, the biggest knock on the hard-nosed veteran is the lack of a marquee win over an elite welterweight. Although he's bounced some talented fighters, without a victory over a high-profile opponent, he won't be considered for title contention.

He is set to make his return to action against Erick Silva when the UFC returns to Cincinnati in May. A victory would ensure that his next opponent will come from the divisional elite.

Nick Diaz could also be a factor, but that depends on Nick Diaz, and when it comes to Nick Diaz, there is no way to tell what is going to happen.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.

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