Even if it ends up being a temporary sabbatical, Georges St-Pierre’s decision to walk away from the UFC was the best thing to ever happen to the welterweight division.
St-Pierre was a dominant champion. So dominant, in fact, that watching him defend his championship felt like an exercise in repetitive futility. There was a time, back before Matt Serra came along, when St-Pierre took risks. But Serra changed everything for St-Pierre on April 7, 2007. St-Pierre never again wanted to experience the feeling of losing, so he changed his style. His wrestling skill gave him the ability to nullify the offense of nearly every opponent he faced. It gave him an edge, and he embraced it; after the loss to Serra, St-Pierre only finished three opponents. He went to the decision nine times.
St-Pierre wanted to win at all costs, and he didn’t care if the fans enjoyed watching the process. He was dominant for so long that the welterweight division began to feel hopeless. Challengers made their way up the ranks, only to be sent tumbling back down the ladder by St-Pierre’s wrestling.
But then Johny Hendricks came along and gave St-Pierre all he could handle. The judges awarded St-Pierre a split decision at UFC 167, but the majority of those who saw the fight believed Hendricks won. Media outlets unanimously gave the fight to Hendricks. And then St-Pierre walked away, leaving the division without a champion.
But his departure also gave the division an air of mystery for the first time in years.
Hendricks is now the champion, having claimed the belt in March with a win over Robbie Lawler. There is no shortage of contenders for his championship. Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley meet in June, with the winner inching ever closer to the top of the heap. Hector Lombard and Dong Hyun Kim, winner of four in a row, will square off in July. Carlos Condit, sidelined with an injury, is surely plotting his way into a rematch with Hendricks.
And then there is Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown, who will face off in the main event of UFC on Fox 12 on July 26. UFC President Dana White made the announcement via Twitter on Tuesday.
White also confirmed that the winner will receive the next shot at the title.
My initial reaction to the announcement was one of surprise. Lawler is fresh off a shellacking of Jake Ellenberger last weekend; Brown competed just over two weeks ago. That gives both fighters less than two months of turnaround time, which doesn’t seem like a lot of time for a professional fighter to get ready for a bout that could vault him into a title fight.
The surprise quickly faded, however, and was replaced by one thought: Man, this fight is going to be awesome.
Lawler and Brown are tough fighters. They are durable. They hit hard. Most importantly, they both have a penchant for being involved in exciting fights. Brown and Lawler are finishers; Brown has finished six of his last seven fights, and Lawler has finished three of five fights since returning to the UFC from Strikeforce.
Yes, it will be exciting, and it will likely be violent. But it’s also an important fight for both men. Lawler will be attempting to get the Hendricks rematch after coming so very close to defeating him the last time around. Brown wants to complete one of the UFC’s more interesting Cinderella stories in many years; his rise from the brink of losing his job all the way to the top of the welterweight division just begs for a storybook ending.
It’s a fight with big implications, and it has the potential to be absolutely thrilling from beginning to end. It is also a perfect example of where the welterweight division stands without St-Pierre in 2014: a new champion with new challengers. Veteran competitors are getting a second chance at glory. The title picture no longer feels like a foregone conclusion, and fans can look forward to great fights that are not heavily dependent on wrestling.
July 26 can’t get here soon enough.