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USA Today

The post-Georges St-Pierre era begins in earnest on Saturday night, when Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler scrap for the vacant welterweight title at UFC 171.

In addition to learning who will shepherd the 170-pound championship into this uncertain future, MMA fans stand a good chance of discovering the identity of the new No. 1 contender as well.

The winner of Carlos Condit vs. Tyron Woodley has the inside track to face the winner of Hendricks vs. Lawler sometime this summer, but Hector Lombard vs. Jake Shields could also produce a legitimate title challenger.

If ever there was a time to be bold in the welterweight division, it’s now.

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today

Robbie Lawler, circa 2001, was a fight promoter's dream. Raw-boned, corn-fed and lily white, the 19-year-old Iowan prodigy appeared to be cut from granite as he laid waste to Saburo Kawakatsu at a long-forgotten extravaganza in Hawaii. 

The world wasn't watching Shogun Fights, but that wasn't important, at least not for Lawler. One man who mattered was in the front row watching the laser light show and world-class fighters—Dana White, in his first year as UFC president and looking to reinvent the fight game.

White, on his way toward becoming one of America's most iconic fight promoters, knew what he wanted. And he wanted Lawler, going so far as to compare a kid in his fourth professional fight to the fearsome boxer Mike Tyson, signing him to a UFC contract in what he called "a Christmas present to myself."

At the time fans had a bit of fun with that piece of hyperbole. Though not yet bald and bombastic, White was already developing a reputation as an emotional and compelling interview. This, it was thought, was just an early example of Dana being Dana.  

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USA Today

Arguably the most interesting thing about Saturday's fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler is that it doesn’t really matter who wins.

Either way—and barring something unforeseen—the UFC 171 main event will usher in a new era for the welterweight division. No matter who hangs the no-vacancy sign on the 170-pound title, one of the fight company’s most reliable weight classes will be unequivocally changed.

For the first time since 2008, the welterweight class will have an undisputed champion not named Georges St-Pierre. Regardless of this weekend’s result, every man in the division will enjoy new life, and each of them will have a new target upon which to heap his most sinister desires.

Welterweight will be scruffier and a little rougher around the edges come Monday, with either Hendricks or Lawler at the helm. We’ll trade custom suits and polite sound bites for ball caps and straight talk, careful game-planning for bad intentions, and a half-decade of French-Canadian dominance for a wide-open division where it feels like anybody has a shot to wear the belt.

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Credit: AXS TV

Eldarhan Machukaev, nicknamed "Sniper 95," attempted to build speed as he scrambled across a series of obstacles, with his flight-or-fight instinct on overload. The young Russian mixed martial arts fighter, sporting three wins to a single loss so far in his professional career, hasn't likely taken too many backward steps in his life. 

But this was no ordinary fight. This was the Hip Show, a wacky combination of extreme game-show hijinks in the American Gladiators mold and reality combat a la The Ultimate Fighter.

With his partner eliminated, Machukaev had to survive for one minute against the tag team known as Sparta. Rinat Fakhretdinov (aka Gladiator) and Shamsudin Kurbanov (aka Agul) are two skilled fighters who had one goal at that moment—to finish Sniper 95.

Within 10 seconds, they had him on the ground. Then it happened. As Gladiator secured an ankle lock, Agul locked up an armbar. Sniper 95, helpless and alone, had to survive two submission attempts at once.

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USA Today

Diego Sanchez is perhaps the UFC’s pound-for-pound most likable fighter.

At least in interview settings, the first-ever The Ultimate Fighter winner comes across as one of MMA’s true nice guys. He’s thoughtful and honest—forthcoming to a fault—with a gentle demeanor that belies the ferocious, swing-from-the-heels style that has made him one of the company’s most popular and dependably exciting attractions.

When he takes on undefeated up-and-comer Myles Jury on Saturday at UFC 171, it’ll be his 20th appearance in the Octagon and fight No. 31 of his career overall.

He’ll do it as one of just three members of that original TUF cast who remain active. Even as fellow TUF 1 alumnus Chris Leben hung up his gloves in January and TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig called it quits last week, Sanchez appears to have no intention of slowing down.

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USA Today

For many of the UFC's formative years, light heavyweight was the company's undisputed glamor division.

The 205-pound class became comfortably ensconced as the UFC’s marquee attraction from roughly 2000-07, when stars like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz carried the torch. In more recent years, light heavyweight lost a step; first as a series of lesser champions passed the belt around like a hot potato, then after Jon Jones turned the title picture into a one-man show.

The 26-year-old champion’s ascendance has itself been a thing of unmistakable beauty, but to the extent there was much drama in it, Jones snuffed it out with one lopsided victory after another. 

In the wake last weekend’s UFC London event, however, it appears 205 pounds might be poised for a return to greatness, with a robust crop of contenders suddenly hot on Bones’ heels.

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USA Today

Alexander Gustafsson, the recently minted Swedish superstar, doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. Six months after he took champion Jon Jones to the limit in 2013's best fight, Gustafsson dismantled British slugger Jimi Manuwa in compelling fashion.

Showing no mercy in Manuwa's own backyard, Gustafsson managed to knee his opponent in the face while simultaneously propping up the UFC's new Fight Pass streaming system.

No small feat, that.

After the fight, he took to the microphone. There, the usually soft-spoken Gustafsson minced no words, straight ganking the microphone from UFC analyst Dan Hardy to let his soul flow out.

"Jon Jones, I want my title shot again," a passionate Gustafsson said. "I'm right here. Whenever you want, man. Whenever you want."

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USA Today

There was legitimate tension the last time we saw Alexander Gustafsson in the UFC Octagon. A single question lingered in the air. 

Had the young Swede—blond beard glistening with sweat, piercing blue eyes radiating hope—won the UFC light heavyweight title from the great Jon Jones?

The fact we were even asking said volumes about Gustafsson's performance that night. No one else had come close to testing Jones, not even former champions like Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans or Quinton Jackson.

Gustafsson had made him work for it.

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AP Images

Let’s make one thing clear from the start: UFC Fight Pass is an amazing idea.

Perhaps no single entity has as much potential to chart the future of MMA as the UFC’s new digital subscription service. Its invention signals our sport’s first baby steps toward a glorious, a la carte future in which fans and promoters alike are less beholden to pay-per-view providers and television networks.

Indeed, Fight Pass may someday be all things to all people.

Unfortunately, in the present, we’re not quite there yet.

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AP Images

UFC President Dana White has invested significant time and energy into defending Vitor Belfort.

Even as his overall opinion of testosterone replacement therapy began to sour in recent months, White steadfastly supported his No. 1 middleweight contender. The UFC was closely monitoring Belfort’s TRT use, White assured us again and again, as he railed against the notion that the 36-year-old fighter would have trouble getting licensed to fight in Nevada.

“Vitor Belfort has not been abusing TRT,” White said in November, via MMAFighting.com. “In a million f-----g years I would never let that happen."

After the circus of the last five days, however, it’s clear Belfort is beyond any further help. In the wake of the Nevada Athletic Commission banning TRT, Belfort’s removal from UFC 173 and his camp’s obvious rope-a-dope regarding the results of his Feb. 7 drug test, the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.