After UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre throttled No. 1 contender Josh Koscheck in the main event of UFC 124, the most common question on fight fans' minds was an obvious one: What's next for the undisputed ruler of the 170-pound division?
The query isn't so much about who his next opponent will be, that much is known.
Barring injury, the former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields will be the next to run the French-Canadian gauntlet because that's what he was brought over from the UFC's rival to do. Only the date remains to be determined.
Nope, the question goes more to the heart of the matter, more in the vein of "who's left to challenge the champ?"
The thinking was that Kos was the perfect hybrid of wrestler and striker to pull the rug out from underneath Rush. Turns out, that was wrong. Very wrong.
St-Pierre jabbed Blondie in the right eye until the latter couldn't see out of it and then it was just a matter of whether Georges would be able to stop the talkative challenger (he could not).
And while Shields has proven to have a superlative ground game, he'll be a sizable dog heading into the tilt because of his perceived inferiority in the stand-up.
So the issue remains, who is left to push arguably the greatest welterweight champion the sport has ever seen?
Here's a list of the top 10 warriors who might still threaten Georges St-Pierre's nearly unprecedented run atop his division.
Let's be conservative and say the Hitman is 23 years old.
That's still extremely young for a competitor with 15 professional fights, including five in the UFC's bluest waters. While the Brit doesn't have the resume to hang with Georges St-Pierre at this stage in his career, keep an eye on the talented kid.
He just suffered his first career loss to Mike Pyle in front of the hometown fans at UFC 120 in London, but you knew that first 'L' was gonna happen sooner or later. Better to get it out of the way now and learn from it moving forward.
Especially when Hathaway already boasts unanimous decision victories over Diego Sanchez and Rick Story (both good wrestlers).
The Hitman needs more polish to close the holes in the different facets of his combat game, but he's got plenty of time and talent to do just that.
Semtex has his sights set on non-UFC targets at the moment. UFC President Dana White seems reluctant to ever welcome Daley back into the organization after the latter's infamous post-fight cheap shot leveled at Josh Koscheck.
But don't ignore the explosive Englishman—he just shattered Scott Smith's consciousness at Strikeforce: St. Louis last weekend and that made three wins since catching the boot.
Granted, this fight will never happen unless Daley starts rampaging through the welterweight division outside the UFC and Georges St-Pierre continues to clean out the internal competition.
Otherwise, GSP has no reason to go looking for Semtex and Daley (by all accounts) won't be re-joining the UFC ranks any time soon.
Nevertheless, the matchup is worth mentioning because (A) Paul Daley has perhaps the most nuclear hands at 170 pounds and is quite adept at using his other limbs as weapons; and (B) he has to be working on his wrestling after Koscheck essentially neutralized him with the discipline.
If it ever came to this pairing, the sight would be one to behold.
The Horror Story has already been mentioned once on the countdown, but that was in defeat to John Hathaway.
This slide is all about the good side of the, ahem, Story.
Since that loss to the Hitman, Rick has rattled off a string of five consecutive victories. What's more, they've come against a group of significantly dangerous men boasting a variety of specialties.
The former collegiate wrestler at Southern Oregon University dispatched Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Dustin Hazelett by TKO, eked out a split decision over dangerous striker Nick Osipczak and won a clear unanimous decision over fellow wrestler Johny Hendricks.
The 26-year-old is still managing to fly under the radar at 170 pounds, but that won't last if he keeps posting such impressive victories. Story, like most of the fighters on this list, still needs to tighten up both his striking and ground game if he wants to be The Man Who Beats GSP.
But like Hathaway, the Horror has time and ability on his side.
Where the hell has Rumble Johnson been all this time?
The last time we saw the volatile welterweight, it was over a year ago and Josh Koscheck was eye-poking his way to an eventual submission victory over Anthony. Since then, Johnson hurt his knee training for a grudge match against John Howard and hasn't been seen subsequent to pulling out of that bout.
Well, not in the Octagon at least.
Rumor had it that Rumble was considering a permanent move up to middleweight due to the strain of cutting weight to make 170, but that turned out to be nothing more than idle speculation.
The man, himself, is on the public record as saying he intends to stay at welterweight even if he might take a scrap or two at the heavier poundage.
It's tough to handicap a gladiator when he's been away from the cage for so long, but Johnson is one of those physical freaks who wouldn't surprise anyone with the ability to shed ring-rust with ease.
Koscheck showed that Rumble might have an issue with top-tier wrestlers, and that would obviously be a problem if he were to face Georges St-Pierre.
Nevertheless, here's a beast with one-punch power in both hands and the sort of athleticism that eases all learning curves.
Once he gets back in the Octagon, you might see him move forward by leaps and bounds.
And that would line him up for a title shot quite nicely.
Poor Jon Fitch.
The guy is only 32 so he's got some good years left, he's already had an incredible career, he's only lost once in the last eight years and yet it's impossible to take him that seriously as a contender so long as Georges St-Pierre lounges atop the division.
That's because the one defeat since December 2002 came at the hands of GSP and it wasn't pretty.
Though Fitch endured the full five rounds of mistreatment, you can file the unanimous decision under Rush's "Never in Doubt" section. Furthermore, Jon basically is what he is at this point—it's not impossible for him to change his stripes at 32, but it's highly unlikely.
Which means he'll be a superlative wrestler with good-not-great striking until the day he retires.
And we've already seen neither is nearly good enough to trip up GSP.
Having said that, Jon Fitch's body of work demands placement on any list of welterweight contenders if only as a show of respect.
The Natural Born Killer is another 170-pounder who's keeping a low radar profile, but shouldn't enjoy that luxury for much longer.
A Knockout of the Night tends to raise a little ruckus amongst the masses, especially when it comes at the expense of a notorious striker (Dan Hardy) and on the heels of Fight of the Night honors.
Not only is Condit beginning to flash substantial power inside the UFC, but he is also a former champion of the WEC welterweight division and he defended his belt three times.
That sort of experience can't be dismissed, nor can the American's youth—he's still only 26 despite all those bouts.
As you can see from his submission record, the dude is a filthy practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu with stoppages of Brock Larson and Frank Trigg to his credit.
Though his UFC career got off to a rough start in a loss to Martin Kampmann, things have smoothed out considerably and the future sailing looks even better with his striking prowess rounding into form.
Only Condit's relative struggles with wrestlers keep him this low on the ladder.
Call me an eternal optimist because two of the Prodigy's seven career defeats (or 29 percent of them) have come courtesy of Georges St-Pierre.
However, the first was a razor-thin split decision in favor of the now-champion at 170 pounds while the second bout didn't end up being as close, but—in the earlier rounds of the title bout—Baby J was the only challenger to do any substantial damage to GSP since Matt Serra caught him with that big right hand.
Additionally, those two bouts might not be entirely relevant if Penn decides to remain at welterweight for the foreseeable future. Instead of flitting between 155 and 170 pounds to take on one of the best pound-for-pound fighters at the latter's natural weight, the Hawaiian legend would be able to really get comfortable at 170.
That might be just the elixir to solve B.J.'s main bugaboo in the rematch—his gas tank.
None of the above is reason to think B.J. Penn would be successful in a third attempt where he has twice failed before, but the Prodigy is one of those athletes who it's best not to doubt.
And with his 32nd birthday on Monday, he's still got plenty of prime left.
Yet another contender who's already been beaten by Georges St-Pierre, I don't think I'll run into any resistance to the Pitbull's lofty placement after his showing against John Howard at UFC 124.
That Thiago Alves was a monstrosity we've never seen before, which is saying something because we've already seen a pretty lethal version in the Octagon.
Buoyed by a new partnership with trainer/nutritionist extraordinaire Mike Dolce, the Brazilian striker found a new gear against Doomsday and it was several orders of magnitude faster.
Alves has always buttered his bread with savagely technical striking, but the weight cut down to 170 seemed to sap him of his maximum output. Against Howard, there seemed to be no such troubles.
Granted, that wasn't necessarily the problem in his original tete-a-tete with Rush, but it certainly couldn't have helped the smaller man repel takedown after takedown from the champ (or get back to his preferred milieu).
It should also be noted that it's always possible the tremendous showing from the Pitbull was merely the product of a favorable matchup and St-Pierre is most definitely NOT that for Thiago. Doomsday is, after all, a warrior who prefers to stand and bang, and is more brawler than polished pugilist.
Regardless, Alves' performance at UFC 124 was too good to ignore.
Nick Diaz' skeptics will tell you he is utterly helpless against elite wrestlers; they are partially right.
The Stockton Bad Boy is, indeed, most vulnerable when facing the cream of the wrestling crop. but those struggles are overstated and possibly antiquated. Though the 27-year-old will always prefer to stand and trade on the feet, he possesses a startlingly excellent arsenal on the ground.
True, the ammunition is of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu caliber rather than the wrestling one, but that's hardly a disadvantage considering how dangerous Diaz is off his back (the gogoplata to submit Takanori Gomi jumps to mind).
More importantly, the California native is one of the few welterweights who can claim to be almost as well-rounded as Georges St-Pierre.
Physically, he is a big 170-pounder at 6'1", he's one of those athletes who can go at a frenetic pace without breaking a sweat and he's got a chin that—if not granite—is made from a close approximation.
As far as in-cage credentials are concerned, Diaz has a submission over Hayato Sakurai to validate his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Cesar Gracie as well as cruel striking exhibitions against K.J. Noons, Scott Smith, Frank Shamrock, Robbie Lawler and Chris Lytle.
He'd have to spend a lot of time concentrating on neutralizing St-Pierre's wrestling (not to mention work his way back into the UFC), but Nick Diaz is the most interesting challenge for the UFC Welterweight Champion on the current landscape of MMA if you ask me.
As already mentioned, Jake Shields is the No. 1 contender to Georges St-Pierre's welterweight perch whether you like it or not.
I'm actually excited to see what happens when these two clash because they are essentially carbon copies of each other. The notable exceptions are that GSP is a better wrestler than he is jiu-jitsu practitioner while Shields leans more toward BJJ, and Rush is a clearly better striker than the native of California.
This last point deserves some additional attention, though, because the discrepancy isn't as enormous as it might seem on paper.
While Georges has landed some highlight reel atomic bombs, the most impressive ones came against guys who were considerably smaller than the champ (Sean Sherk, Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn) and they were several moons ago.
Shields ruled over Strikeforce's middleweight division, so he clearly won't have a size issue against GSP. As long as the weight cut doesn't rob him of his stamina and efficacy as it did in his debut against Martin Kampmann, Jake shouldn't be physically overwhelmed by his adversary.
And it's not like he's at a loss on his feet—he survived the considerable standing threats posed by Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler, Paul Daley, Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami.
Of course, the summit might've become that much more elusive now that Georges St-Pierre seems to have discovered a shiny new toy in that left jab, but nobody said the climb was gonna be easy.
For Jake Shields or anyone else.