GSP never takes his focus off of what matters most, but his slate of challengers for 2011 will test him more than previous years.
With the next UFC welterweight championship pending the completion of season 12 of the Ultimate Fighter, the next round of contenders are emerging to take their shots at one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
The stranglehold of UFC top contenders coming from American Kickboxing Academy has been thinned out, with Koscheck getting his title shot and Mike Swick recovering from illness and possibly moving to middleweight.
This will allow a new stable of fighters to crack the top half of the division, and that starts with Jake Shields. Signed away from Strikeforce and successful in his first UFC welterweight match against Martin Kampmann he immediately will challenge perennial No. 1 contender Jon Fitch for that claim.
There are numerous welterweight fights still remaining over the next two months, with Hughes-Penn, Alves-Howard, Daley-Scott Smith, Hendricks-Story, Almeida-Grant, Parisyan-Hallman and Sadollah-Sobotta that will help to settle who might ascend to contender status next year.
Strongly Rumored: Jake Shields vs. winner of George St-Pierre/Josh Koscheck
As expected when he was signed by the UFC, Shields will become the next fighter in-line to take on the champ in the welterweight division. Two factors could derail that expectation, however.
One, what happens if St. Pierre loses? Would he get an immediate rematch?
Two, Jon Fitch is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge. With one failed attempt to take the title already the UFC and fans aren't exactly clamoring for another, but there is an argument that one must take out Fitch to get a shot at GSP. Since Fitch has been dominant against everyone but GSP that argument fails to deliver any opponents for the champ. If GSP beats Koscheck, as expected, then you can be sure that Jake Shields will be the next title contender, because that will sell more PPV's.
Strongly Rumored: Nick Diaz vs. winner of Paul Daley/Scott Smith
With the inability to sign and keep Jay Hieron, Strikeforce has to dig deep for the next contender to Nick Diaz's crown. The Dec. 4 tilt between Smith and Daley will be a power-packed slug-fest, and as long as none of those blows come after the referee steps in, the winner should be given the next title shot.
Daley is a consensus top-10 fighter in the weight class, while Scott Smith is cutting down from middleweight after failing to close out Cung Le in their rematch. In a puncher's fight, either fighter has a chance. Personally, I would like the promotion to matchup Jacare Souza and Nick Diaz in a middleweight super-fight (Diaz has fought numerous times above 170 pounds).
The lure of being a title holder in two weight classes could be enough to motivate the flaky Diaz, as would the potential for a middleweight defense against "Mayhem" Miller.
Fantasy: Ben Askren vs. Jay Hieron
The newly crowned Bellator title holder looked impressive in defeating Lyman Good. The performance was not top-10 caliber, not a great display of anything but Askren's wrestling, and not one that will generate high viewership numbers for his next fight either.
Of course, Bellator's boss now is calling out perennial top-10 fighter and Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz as a super-fight opponent for his wet-behind-the-cauliflower-ear champion. Not a smart move Mr. Rebney. Aside from the two fighters' having the shared ability to resemble a lionitis victim, they are nowhere near the same class of fighter.
Bellator would be better put to spend their time and energy on signing the newly available Jay Hieron. The former IFL champion owner of a seven-fight win streak. His last loss was to recent Bellator welterweight tournament participant Brad Blackburn (who lost to Dan Hornbuckle) three and a half years ago.
Hieron has a good wrestling base, but certainly does not compare to Askren's credentials in that sport, but is far superior in striking and submissions and his long reach would give him a distinct advantage in those areas. Hieron is on-the-cusp of a top-10 fighter and is certainly a top-20 fighter at 170 pounds; which puts him much closer to Ben Askren's level at this time.
Signed: Jon Fitch vs. Jake Ellenberger
Jon Fitch is about as dominant as a fighter can be without actually being the champion of a division. In any other era or in any other promotion he would surely be a long-reigning welterweight champion. Finding great matchups for him is just as difficult as finding a true challenger to GSP's title.
Enter Jake Ellenberger who has back-to-back wins over John Howard and Mike Pyle after dropping a split-decision to Carlos Condit. Ellenberger is a strong ground-and-pound competitor and ranks on the fringes of the top-10. While I personally, would rather have seen a Condit-Fitch matchup, this contest is no shortcut for Fitch to get back into a title fight.
Fantasy: Carlos Condit vs. John Hathaway
Carlos Condit, the former WEC welterweight kingpin who has ascended the ranks of the UFC capped off with a powerful finish over former top contender Dan Hardy is chomping at the bit to get a UFC title shot. His performance against Ellenberger and loss to Kampmann is weighing heavily on him now, but more performances similar to the one against Hardy will erase those.
The British prospect Hathaway was well on his way to becoming a true contender in the UFC ranks after dispatching Rick Story, Paul Taylor and Diego Sanchez. But a decision loss to Mike Pyle halted that momentum. He is still a very talented, young, and well-rounded fighter; much like Condit.
Fantasy: Dan Hardy vs. Martin Kampmann
Both of these top-10 fighters have recently come off disappointing losses to other top-10 fighters, but are still hungry to get back into the contender conversation. The style differences between the two would also create an interesting fight, while the respect gained in this matchup would re-establish their chances at a marquee matchup going forward.
Fantasy: winner of Thiago Alves/John Howard vs, winner of Johny Hendricks/Rick Story
Thiago Alves has at least one more chance to make weight and reassert himself into the UFC welterweight mix after losing again to Jon Fitch and the scale. John Howard is coming off a loss to Ellenberger, but still has a bright future if he can capitalize against Alves.
Hendricks has had a perfect record in his road to stardom in the welterweight division, but that road is about to get rough as Story has dispatched some great fighters in his own rise up the ranks. That matchup is truly an "eliminator" fight but it won't vault them into the top-10 conversation, thus making the winners fight for a top contender spot would solve some of the logjam.
Having the loser of the Hendricks-Story contest take on Paulo Thiago would be another good match.
Fantasy: Tyron Woodley vs. Tarec Saffiedine
Strikeforce has limited number of true contenders for the welterweight division, but they do have several hot prospects under development. The two elite prospects are Woodley and Saffiedine. Woodley will have at least one fight left on his Strikeforce contract and is coming off an eye-opening first-round TKO over a very talented Andre Galvao.
Due to the single remaining fight left on his contract, Woodley might be thrown in immediately against Nick Diaz for a title fight. In my opinion, one more matchup against top competition would be needed. The best prospect most MMA fans have never heard of could be Tarec Saffiedine.
The 24-year-old Belgian has a 4-1 record in major MMA competition with a recent decisive decision over the tough Brock Larson. His lone loss came as a last-minute replacement at a higher weight class, and was a split decision.
Having these two up-and-coming welterweights fight for the top contender spot for the promotion would be a more responsible option then throwing one of them into a title shot before they are ready. Putting this fight on a CBS card would also help Strikeforce's lack of exposure for contenders.
Fantasy: Evangelista Santos vs. Joe Riggs
Two cagey veterans of the cage with cool nicknames would be a good place to start for Strikeforce's immediate future in the welterweight division. Cyborg vs. Diesel evokes some great imagery and should promise a good battle as well.
Santos is coming off a win over recent title challenger Marius Zaromskis, while Riggs lost a controversial fight to Jay Hieron but followed it up with a submission victory over Louis Taylor. Riggs has title fights in the WEC and UFC and has bounced between several weight classes over his career, but always puts on an entertaining fight, rarely going to a decision.
Signed: Nate Diaz vs Dong-Hyun Kim
Nate Diaz has made a solid a good impression in his move up in weight classes, after dropping three of his last four fights at 155 pounds, by defeating Rory Markham (at 177) and Marcus Davis. Kim has been effective, if not impressive, in his five UFC fights to this point, with only a no-contest to Karo Parisyan interrupting his winning streak. If he can get past Diaz he could elevate himself into the contender ranks, while Diaz would need the victory to have any hope of challenging in the future.
Fantasy: Bobby Voelker vs. loser of Paul Daley/Scott Smith
Normally this wouldn't be an "Eliminator" fight, but with Strikeforce the depth is thin enough that everyone is two fights away from a title shot. Voelker is a well-traveled veteran who has performed well since signing with Strikeforce. Jumping up his competition by matching him against the loser of the Daley-Smith fight would give each participant a solid contest to build on going forward.
Just for Fun Fights
Fantasy: Mike Swick vs. Anthony Johnson
This fight might very well need to be a catchweight fight closer to middleweight with these two fighters both leaning towards a future in that division. "Rumble" Johnson has expressed more and more difficulty in cutting weight down to 170 pounds and it might be affecting his ability to go deep into fights.
His explosive striking is crowd-pleasing and his wrestling base makes him a tough contest. He is recovering from a knee injury that has plagued him over his last few fights and training camps, but hasn't fought since losing to Koscheck one year ago.
Swick has likewise been sidelined for a long period of time as he is undergoing treatment for severe esophageal spasms, but expects to be back in action at the start of 2011. Swick has lost his last two fights (Paulo Thiago and Dan Hardy), but is still considered a near-top-10 talent.
With his medical condition treated, he feels that he can return to fighting in the middleweight division again. A contest between these two exciting fighters that are "tweeners" between 170 and 185 pounds would be a fantastic event that I wouldn't miss.
Fantasy: Mike Pyle vs. Chris Lytle
This fight could fall into my "Eliminator" category after Lytle defeated Matt Serra and Pyle ended John Hathaway's rise, but there is still more "fun" than contender implications in this bout. This matchup of mid-30s fighting veterans would deliver a great show and an unlikely contender into the welterweight mix for the UFC.
Fantasy: winner of Nate Diaz/Dong Hyun Kim vs. loser of Thiago Alves/John Howard
Whoever loses the Alves-Howard match will still be considered a top fighter in the weight class and will deserve a solid fight to rebound with. Whoever wins the Diaz-Kim fight will move up a notch in the weight class and deserve an "eliminator" bout against a quality contender as well. Stylistically, no matter who ends up in the above scenarios, it would still be a fun fight to watch.
Fantasy: Diego Sanchez vs. winner of Karo Parisyan/Dennis Hallman
The Nightmare is back in the welterweight division and made his presence known in his overpowering victory over Paula Thiago. He still has much more to prove in his quest for being a contender, however, and that could start in a matchup against either Parisyan or Hallman. Both of those two grappling fighters could very well be fighting for their UFC employment, but whoever wins the matchup will be a solid contest for Diego.
Fantasy: winner of Hughes/Penn vs. Josh Koscheck (if he loses to GSP)
There isn't much left to prove for either Matt Hughes or B.J. Penn. They are both great former champions who aren't necessarily "out of the picture" from a title shot, but might have past their time in commanding a No. 1 eliminator fight.
Regardless, they will still draw a crowd and put on a great fight, and if Josh Koscheck loses, as expected, to Georges St-Pierre then his stock will drop into the range of Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn (if B.J. stays at 170 pounds). The potential for a Koscheck-Hughes fight would be outstanding, as would a B.J. Penn vs. Koscheck fight. If Koscheck defeats GSP, then of course this matchup wouldn't happen as GSP would rightly be in line for a rematch.
Fantasy: Andre Galvao vs. Marius Zaromskis
Wasted potential, or over-hype? Either of those descriptions could apply to either of these fighters. Zaromskis' zoom into the zenith of his MMA fame after head-kicking his way through the Dream Welterweight Grand Prix tournament championship in the summer of 2009.
After signing with Strikeforce, he was immediately thrust into a title fight with Nick Diaz which he lost via first-round TKO, followed by another first-round TKO against Cyborg Santos (the male one). On the other side of this fantasy card is BJJ expert Andre Galvao, who was a semifinalist in the same Dream Welterweight GP, but lost to Jason High who went on to become one of Zaromskis' head-kick victims.
Subsequently he signed with Strikeforce and won his first two bouts before suffering a first-round TKO to super-prospect Ty Woodley. So, Galvao and Zaromskis are basically in the same boat at this point, and both need a solid victory to get back on track. Throwing them into separate fights isn't a great option in the thin Strikeforce division, therefore having them go toe-to-toe will solve many issues (except for the loser).
Fantasy: Lyman Good vs. Tamdan McCrory
Lyman wasn't able to withstand Ben Askren's aggressive take-downs, but didn't allow Askren to finish him off either. While it wasn't a greatly entertaining fight, the chess match exposed holes in Lyman's game that he would like to improve on. McCrory is a free agent who was snubbed by Bellator when building their tournament, after getting dropped from the UFC for his 3-3 record.
Both of these fighters need a redemptive bout, and both need to prove they can fight "out of their element" in order to have any hopes of future elevation in the sport. McCrory is an extremely gifted jiu-jitsu artist, while Lyman is a good stand-up striker; making this contest an interesting mix of styles.
The fact that both of these fighters hail from New York, and that rumors of sanctioned MMA in the Empire State close to a possibility makes it even more intriguing for Bellator to consider.
This article was edited, as hours after publishing the original, the Fitch-Elenberger fight was announced.
Please check back over the next few days for the rest of the series, as well as those previously published!