Georges St-Pierre's decision to walk away from the Ultimate Fighting Championship may have been met with groans from fans and from the halls of the UFC's office. But for the rest of the fighters inhabiting the division, it has been a blessing.
No longer are they faced with the prospect of slowly rising up the divisional ladder, only to be smothered and sent packing by St-Pierre's win-at-all-costs wrestling style.
Now, there's a new champion, and the division is interesting once again. More importantly, there are opportunities aplenty for new challengers to rise through the ranks.
Today, we take a look at the state of the welterweights, from the top of the heap to a prospect that could make some noise over the next 24 months.
THE TITLE PICTURE
The UFC's welterweight kingpin surely benefited from the vacation-semi-retirement from St-Pierre. But considering how many people believed Hendricks actually defeated St-Pierre last November, I doubt the new champion is losing much sleep over the fact that he didn't beat St-Pierre to capture the belt.
Hendricks is likely on the shelf until the leaves begin turning all the beautiful colors of autumn. And when he returns, he'll face the winner of next month's highly anticipated bout between Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown. After that, it's Rory MacDonald and then perhaps Hector Lombard or Carlos Condit. Needless to say, Hendricks has a long list of challengers waiting on him, and that isn't even including St-Pierre's almost inevitable return to the Octagon.
MacDonald's dominant win over the surging Tyron Woodley at UFC 174 cemented him as a future title challenger. It was the best performance of MacDonald's career, and one of the most one-sided and dominant bouts you'll ever see between two fighters ranked as highly as MacDonald and Condit.
MacDonald's next fight could be for UFC gold, but he'll have to wait on the shelf for awhile. Brown or Lawler will be next, and MacDonald will have to sit around while they figure out who the top contender is. It may not happen in 2014, but MacDonald will be fighting for the championship belt so long held by his teammate before you know it.
Matt Brown, Robbie Lawler
I've paired Brown and Lawler up because it reflects their real-life situation. They'll main event UFC on Fox next month, with the winner earning the next shot at Hendricks this fall. Lawler and Brown have each traveled very different roads to get where they are, but they currently occupy the same lofty space. In a few short weeks, one will knock the other off their perch.
ON THE VERGE
The former Bellator middleweight champion will face Dong Hyun Kim at UFC Fight Night 48 in August, and a win will put him within shouting distance of a title fight. But he'll still need a signature win over a top-five opponent; beating Kim is an accomplishment, to be sure, but it is not the kind of accomplishment that earns you title fights.
The former interim welterweight champion is rehabilitating an injured knee. He has lost three of his last four fights, but he's always in the title picture because of his penchant for having exciting fights. Oh, and he's also known for being a very good fighter.
Condit will likely need two wins before he'll find Hendricks standing across the cage from him again.
A WAYS TO GO
Woodley's loss to MacDonald hurt him in more ways than one. The American Top Team product spent more than a year calling for his title shot, only to lay an egg when facing the biggest opportunity of his life against MacDonald. He'll likely need to string three wins together before he's considered as a potential title challenger again.
Dong Hyun Kim
A win over Lombard in their August bout would go a long way toward propelling Kim to the top of the division. He has four consecutive wins over middling welterweight talent; in Lombard, he's finally facing an opponent near the top of the division.
Kim's chances are hurt by his lack of marketability. He's a very good fighter, but his lack of English-speaking skills will always hamper him in the eyes of a promoter looking to reach the largest audience possible.
Gastelum surprised just about everyone by beating the vaunted Uriah Hall to win The Ultimate Fighter, and he's been surprising ever since. He is unassuming and does not look like a fighter, but he's also undefeated with victories over tough opponents like Hall and Rick Story.
Gastelum makes dramatic improvements each time he steps in the Octagon, so it will be interesting to continue following his development as it plays out before us. Don't be surprised if Gastelum is contending for a championship belt in two or three years.
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