Game of Thrones: Who Is the UFC's True No. 1 Welterweight Contender?
As one of his first official moves as UFC welterweight champion, Johny Hendricks told MMA Junkie Radio he's going to lock his new title in a safety deposit box.
Can’t say I blame him, as his 170-pound championship belt figures to be one of the fight company’s most sought-after items during the coming months.
His victory over Robbie Lawler at UFC 171 gave the division a titlist for the first time since Georges St-Pierre vacated the championship in December, but the rest of Saturday night's action did little to clarify the pecking order among a crowded and confusing crop of challengers.
As it stands, there are no fewer than five men who can make a compelling case to be Hendricks' next opponent, and that doesn’t even include the injured Carlos Condit or the streaking Matt Brown (who is out of the No. 1 contender discussion pending results of his May 10 bout against Erick Silva).
Here’s a quick look at the pros and cons of each fighter's bid to be Hendricks' first challenger as the welterweight division attempts to answer one of MMA’s most persistent questions: Who's next?
Two weeks ago, Nick Diaz was just another Northern California retiree who was living quietly on a fixed income. Today, most everywhere you look, he’s leading the popular vote to be the first challenger for Hendricks’' title.
But can his popularity outweigh reason, common sense and a 0-2 record since 2011?
Pros: With him, the needle doth move. Without him, maybe not so much. Diaz is far and away the most marketable of the men on this list, and a fight with Hendricks would certainly be a bestseller. The lead-up would be fun, and the bout might be a crackerjack, as Diaz would look to test Hendricks' "amateur" striking with his own brand of high-octane offense. If, that is, he could manage to stave off the two-time NCAA national wrestling champion’s takedowns.
Cons: As of this writing, he’s been retired for a year and two days. There’s also the small matter of those back-to-back losses to Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre and his 1-3 overall record in the Octagon since returning to the UFC three years ago. From a competitive standpoint, there’s simply no way to justify immediately injecting a returning Diaz into a title shot. Not if we want to preserve the notion that the reason we have all these fights is to figure out who is the best in the world.
Considering the logjam at the top of the welterweight division, Tyron Woodley’s back-to-back stoppages over Carlos Condit and Josh Koscheck make his resume as good as anyone’s. But does the freakish nature of Condit’s injury at UFC 171 mean he needs one more win to solidify his case?
Pros: Woodley’s victory over Condit was no flukier than Chris Weidman’s second win over Anderson Silva in December, so it doesn’t seem right to celebrate one and denigrate the other. Woodley had thoroughly dominated the first seven minutes of the fight before the former interim champion’s knee exploded. Accident or no, it made him the first man ever to "finish" Condit in the UFC.
In addition, if not for a controversial split-decision loss to Jake Shields at UFC 161, Woodley would be 4-0 in the Octagon right now. If he comes out of this mess as No. 1 contender, there won’t be much of a logical argument against it.
Cons: Woodley hasn’t exactly done himself any favors in the aftermath of UFC 171, essentially opting for the full I-totally-meant-to-do-that defense of the Condit win. The whole thing would be a little more palatable if he just sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nobody wants to win like that, but there’s a title shot on the line here and so I’ll take it.”
Besides, there’s just something that’s keeping us from fully investing in Woodley as a legitimate UFC title threat. Maybe it’s the fact that his victory over Koscheck was the 36-year-old veteran’s third loss in a row. Maybe it's that the Shields bout was such a stinker.
Or maybe we can’t shake the relatively fresh memory of Woodley getting knocked out by Nate Marquardt in their Strikeforce title fight in July, 2012.
Whatever the reason, it would be nice to see him hang one more W (a convincing one) to prove he really is who we all want him to be.
Hector Lombard wrecked Jake Shields on Saturday at UFC 171, but after a stellar first round, he appeared content with riding his way to a dominant decision victory. Did we need to see more urgency from the former Bellator middleweight champ to justify a title shot?
Pros: Lombard is a maniac. He’s a terrifying, bloodthirsty fiend who throws murderball knockout punches and rods grown men into the ground like children with his Olympic-level judo. It seems like the UFC production team could use that combination to make sweet, sweet music during the promotion of a potential fight against Hendricks. Lombard is 2-0 since dropping to welterweight, and his victories over Shields and Nate Marquardt are nothing to sneeze at.
Cons: Lombard has taken a raft of criticism for failing to finish Shields, especially after his auspicious start. After landing 38 of 54 total strikes during the first round, according to FightMetric stats, his output slowed considerably over the final 10 minutes. He attempted just 21 strikes in the second round and 23 in the third, landing a total of 29 (nine fewer than his total from Round 1 alone).
It was as if Lombard aced the first part of an audition for a role he really wanted and then skipped out on the rest. That’s not the way to convince anyone you’re ready for prime time.
The UFC was quick to advance Rory MacDonald as a possible No. 1 contender after Carlos Condit’s knee went kaput at UFC 171, and we know he was Georges St-Pierre’s pick as heir apparent. But is one win over Demian Maia enough to wash away the bad taste of his UFC 167 loss to Robbie Lawler?
Pros: He’s 9-2 since coming to the Octagon, which gives the 24-year-old seniority and a far longer track record of success in the UFC welterweight division than any of the other men who are vying for top contender status.
When he’s on, he seems like the prototype for the next generation of 170-pounders. Plus, MacDonald would likely bring with him a fair percentage of the rabid Canadian fanbase that made training partner GSP the sport’s biggest draw for so many years.
Cons: When he’s off, he’s a walking, talking bathroom break for fans. MacDonald claims he’s over the uber-conservative streak that garnered him such poor reviews after the Lawler fight, but the memories still linger. Plus, if we’re going to go on ballyhooing the sudden depth and wide-open nature of the welterweight division, are we really going to give a title shot to a guy whose biggest win is arguably Jake Ellenberger? A guy just 1-1 in his most recent appearances? Doubt it.
Seriously, why not? His bout against Hendricks might go on to win Fight of the Year honors, and "The Ruthless One" was on his way to winning it before a sudden collapse during the final minutes of the fifth round. Perhaps with a title picture as fractured as the one we have right now at 170 pounds, the proper move is to book a rematch and hope for the best
Pros: It's safe to say Lawler would bring it, especially since it’s easy to imagine he probably hasn’t yet stopped kicking himself for letting Hendricks off the hook in the third round at UFC 171. Even after coughing up the fifth, some people thought he still deserved to win the title. After making such a stink on behalf of Hendricks after his own razor-close decision loss to St-Pierre at UFC 167, how could we deny Lawler the same courtesy?
Cons: Nobody wants to see the welterweight title descend into the seemingly endless loop of rematches that plagued the lightweight belt during the Frankie Edgar administration. One of the most exciting aspects of St-Pierre vacating the championship and going on indefinite spring break is the notion that we’ll get to see fresh matchups and new challenges for the 170-pound belt. If there really are exciting contenders who are circling Hendricks, there's no reason to begin his reign with a rematch, now is there?
The Big Reveal
Lombard is the rightful No. 1 contender.
I know that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. You’re sitting there in your 209 T-shirt twirling your pot-leaf keychain on one finger, and you really, really wanted me to say the UFC should just chuck all traces of matchmaking for a professional competitive sport and book Diaz vs. Hendricks.
But I just can’t do it. Because that would be silly.
The more I think about it, the more it seems like Lombard has the best argument, and the more our gripes about his performance against Shields seem petty and trite. Shields, after all, has only been finished twice during his entire 38-fight career, so it feels unfair to hang Lombard out to dry for failing to grab a brass ring that has eluded almost all of Shields' other opponents.
It’s almost as though—as my Co-Main Event Podcast co-host Ben Fowlkes suggested this week—we’re punishing Lombard for looking too good in the first round. He raised the bar of our expectations and then failed to meet them during the final 10 minutes.
But he did win. He put a thorough beatdown on the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, and on the heels of his knockout of Marquardt, that gives him the best case of any of our five finalists.
Not to mention, I think exciting things would happen if you got men with the punching power of Lombard and Hendricks in the cage together. Personality-wise, they seem like perfect foils, and pitting Hendricks' wrestling against Lombard's judo seems like a recipe for a great fight.