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Stephanie R. Sylvanie/USA Today

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.

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Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today

Demetrious Johnson was pretty close to flawless on Saturday in his destruction of Ali Bagautinov.

The champ swept Bagautinov on all three scorecards at UFC 174, looking so dominant in his fourth consecutive flyweight title defense that saying he pitched a shutout doesn’t quite do it justice. It was more like a no-hitter and closer to a perfect game.

So why did it feel like something was missing?

Johnson was partly a victim of circumstance. His unanimous-decision win (50-45 x 3) came at the tail end of an uninspired night of fights in Vancouver, Canada. The last four bouts on the pay-per-view main card went the distance, and despite a split verdict in the evening’s halfhearted heavyweight fight, none was competitive.

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USA Today

A year ago, Tyron Woodley sat at a table across from me at a hotel in freezing Montreal.

One month prior, Woodley had made his UFC debut. It was an emphatic one. Woodley demolished the veteran fighter Jay Hieron, blitzing him in just 36 seconds and forcing referee Herb Dean to step in and save Hieron from further damage.

It was a career-defining moment for Woodley, who had developed something of a reputation in Strikeforce as a wrestling-first fighter. Which is to say, Woodley was boring. But those were the old days, and they were long gone. Gone, too, was Woodley's penchant for staying quiet. Taking a sip of water, Woodley told me he would no longer be the guy who was seen and not heard. Now, he intended to be seen AND heard.

Woodley lost his next fight to Jake Shields but rebounded by sending Josh Koscheck into at least a temporary retirement and putting Carlos Condit on the shelf with a leg injury. He has been vocal in his desires, calling for a title shot whenever a microphone is placed in front of him. His plan, calculated from the beginning, has worked. Mostly.

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Getty Images

If there’s one thing about Chael Sonnen’s 17-year MMA career that everyone can agree on, it’s that he got results.

The rest? That’s kind of a gray area.

Even Sonnen’s retirement announcement left room for speculation. Its proximity to his latest failed drug test and the revelation there were two different versions—one that aired live on Wednesday’s UFC Tonight and an apparent do-over that showed up online the next day—raised valid questions about his motivations.

It’s possible this whole thing is just another artful dodge.

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USA Today

Demetrious Johnson is an avid gamer, and so it is a little upsetting for him that the Electronic Entertainment Expo—or E3, in the parlance of those who follow such things—is taking place in Los Angeles the same week he is scheduled to fight Ali Bagautinov up north in Vancouver, Canada.

He is not that upset, though. He has kept up with the news that comes out of E3, first as a trickle and then as a flood. He is exclusively an Xbox gamer, by virtue of his sponsorship with Microsoft, and is especially looking forward to the two new Halo games coming out later this year and 2015, respectively.

He played the new UFC game from Electronic Arts for the first time earlier this week, and noticed how the new next-generation graphics systems created a nearly perfect digital rendition of his physical form.

"They got me tattoos, my five o'clock shadow, everything," Johnson says. "It's good."

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Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Chael Sonnen went on Fox Sports 1 on Tuesday afternoon and talked.

Boy, did he talk. Just talked and talked.

Sonnen spent nearly 15 minutes on the network—where he works in the awkward dual role of paid analyst and active fighter—trying in vain to explain away the failed drug test that will likely knock him out of UFC 175.

This part was not a shock. We expect as much from the man universally regarded as MMA’s best orator. During the latter years of his long, curious fighting career, Sonnen has likely come to believe he can talk his way out of almost anything.

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AP Images

Somewhere, PT Barnum must be smiling.

The saga of Vitor Belfort reached the circus-sideshow stratosphere last week, with the embattled fighter finally releasing the results of his February drug test, after months of claiming the outcome was “irrelevant.”

Surprise! He failed.

Things stand to get even weirder, when Belfort appears in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission attempting to secure a license to fight Chael Sonnen at UFC 175. Nobody knows exactly how that bit of regulatory origami will unfold, but it feels like a fork in the road for MMA’s sometimes-complicated handling of fighters caught using performance enhancers.

If Belfort is able to roll out of that hearing, license in hand, with time served or no punishment at all—well—it’ll seem like anything’s possible.

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USA Today

It has been three years, nearly to the day, since the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its one-Octagon circus last rolled into Vancouver. The sport of mixed martial arts has long been plagued with issues in British Columbia, and the issues were great enough that the UFC avoided the area altogether.

Those issues are mostly resolved now, and the promotion is headed back to town with a world championship fight and an intriguing main card that features the return of one of its more popular former heavyweight champions. And, as always, the entire card is available for viewer consumption in one form or another.

So kick back, prepare your mouse-clicking finger and get ready to check out the entire UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov fight card.

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David Banks/USA Today

Benson Henderson was wise to handle all his own business on Saturday against Rustam Khabilov.

This was the wrong night to leave anything to chance.

The UFC’s first trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, turned out to be an altogether weird one, full of fouls, questionable stoppages and a judges’ verdict in the co-main event that may go down as one of the worst in MMA history. It was just one of those off-kilter evenings, when the unexpected starts early and seems to permeate all aspects of the card.

Henderson’s fourth-round submission victory over Khabilov was one of UFC Fight Night 42’s least peculiar turns. It was notable primarily for its lack for controversy and for being the former lightweight champion’s first stoppage victory in the Octagon and the first time Khabilov had been finished in his professional career.

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Joe Camporeale/USA Today

There is something in the air in Albuquerque, or perhaps it is in the water. Or perhaps it is nowhere at all.

The popularity of the AMC show "Breaking Bad" led to scores of jokes about the Albuquerque desert. Some are warranted, but most are spun from the same type of fictional arcs Walter White and Jesse Pinkman played out on a weekly basis for a devoted audience.

Albuquerque is really just a city. It is non-descript, and the nicest thing that you might say about it is that it has high elevation and the mountains on the edge of town are pretty. It is not a destination, unless you are a world-class fighter. If that is the case, then there's every chance you will find yourself in Albuquerque because Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn once found themselves in Albuquerque.

Much of our Albuquerque knowledge comes from television. There is a good chance all of it is wrong. But there is zero doubt something weird was in the air on Saturday night, when the UFC paid their first visit to the Land of Jackson and Winklejohn.