Arguably the most interesting thing about Saturday's fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler is that it doesn’t really matter who wins.
Either way—and barring something unforeseen—the UFC 171 main event will usher in a new era for the welterweight division. No matter who hangs the no-vacancy sign on the 170-pound title, one of the fight company’s most reliable weight classes will be unequivocally changed.
For the first time since 2008, the welterweight class will have an undisputed champion not named Georges St-Pierre. Regardless of this weekend’s result, every man in the division will enjoy new life, and each of them will have a new target upon which to heap his most sinister desires.
Welterweight will be scruffier and a little rougher around the edges come Monday, with either Hendricks or Lawler at the helm. We’ll trade custom suits and polite sound bites for ball caps and straight talk, careful game-planning for bad intentions, and a half-decade of French-Canadian dominance for a wide-open division where it feels like anybody has a shot to wear the belt.
And really, that makes this the best kind of fight.
Matt Hughes just told me the other UFC welterweights are probably "ecstatic" that Georges St-Pierre has stepped away.— Marc Raimondi (@marc_raimondi) March 13, 2014
Hendricks comes in as a 4-1 favorite, according to BestFightOdds.com, and by all rights the title should be his for the taking. His pedigree as a two-time NCAA national champion wrestler at Oklahoma State suggests he’ll be able to decide where things are contested. If he wants to take Lawler off his feet and finish him on the ground or grind out a decision, he should be able to do it.
A Hendricks victory is also likely the best path to a smooth transition of power. Many observers thought he defeated St-Pierre in their razor-close battle at UFC 167 four months ago, and a win over Lawler would cauterize the wound of that fight’s controversial decision. Some people might even read it as the de facto first defense of a title he had already won.
Certainly, Hendricks also has a better chance to hang onto the belt longer than Lawler might. Nobody wants to see a welterweight repeat of the instability that plagued the light heavyweight championship after Chuck Liddell lost it back in 2007. In addition, to the extent the UFC can mitigate the notion that the new champ is just keeping GSP’s belt warm for him until he returns, a Hendricks victory also plays better.
The wild card, obviously, is both men’s shared proclivity for boxing. Any number of factors—pride, ego, a willingness to please—could sucker Hendricks into a stand-up battle against Lawler, and if that happens, all our careful prognosticating and sober pre-fight analysis will prove moot.
Likewise, a Lawler championship in the UFC in 2014 would be one of the sport’s most unexpected feel-good stories. It might not last long, but it would be hard not to smile at the notion of the 31-year-old finally cashing in on the potential we first heard about when he began his UFC career on a three-fight tear back in 2002.
Either way, the storyline will be new. There will also probably be some growing pains.
Nobody expects either of these guys to be St-Pierre, after all. That would be unfair.
You don’t replace the best 170-pound fighter in MMA history just by handing somebody else his belt. Neither contender will likely ever match his drawing power, crossover appeal or streak of 10 consecutive title defenses. In order to even have the chance, one of these two gents would still have to be champion circa 2020, and no one imagines that will happen, either.
But no matter what, it will be fresh.
It will be lively.
It will be a whole new world for the welterweight division, and that's something we haven't seen in a long time.