Back in the day when the UFC was rising to the mainstream, there were three welterweights who captured the spotlight.
First there was Matt Hughes, the longtime reigning, defending champion. He was a hard hitting wrestler who did a great job of finishing fights and making things exciting.
Then there was BJ Penn. A small welterweight, Penn moved to 170 when the UFC disbanded its lightweight division before Penn could snag the belt (his momentum-filled hype train was derailed in a decision loss to then-champion Jens Pulver. Shortly after, the UFC dissolved its 155 lb division (don’t worry; they brought it back) and “The Prodigy” went up to 170 lbs. He did very well for a while, and even as a small welterweight he enjoyed a robust speed advantage.
And then GSP showed up.
Georges St.-Pierre came down from Quebec and dominated. He didn’t make it in his first title shot against Matt Hughes, but came back for more, beat both BJ and Hughes, and has reigned at the top of 170 for the last 5 years. He had a brief lapse where Matt Serra TKO’ed him in the stunner of the century, but again he came back with a vengeance and has ruled the division with an iron fist.
With all that said, let’s take a look at the top of the heap in one of the UFC’s most storied divisions.
The Champ: Georges St.-Pierre (22-2)
GSP is the best there is at 170. Not a natural wrestler, he’s phenomenal at takedowns. He has great jiu-jitsu. His boxing has become much more crisp over the past few years; his jab has become one of his primary weapons. On paper, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the division.
The one valid criticism of GSP is that he fights boring. 5 of his last 6 have been decision victories, and some of those fighters (Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck) were simply not in his class and he just could not finish them.
He’s also gotten a lot of injuries recently, and it’s served as something of a revitalization of the division. His layoff has given the UFC time to work out its roster a little bit and develop the talent rather than just rush the top “contender” for the next title shot. But this November, expect him to be back in the saddle and ready to take some names.
The #1 Contender: Carlos Condit (28-5)
Carlos Condit is 5-1 in the UFC. His only loss was a split decision that very easily could have gone the other way. He’s got cardio for days, he looks to finish fights, he’s very technically sound, and he’s part of the best team in MMA (Greg Jackson/Mike Winklejohn’s camp out of ABQ). He beat Nick Diaz to get the title shot, and he’s got a large, dangerous arsenal to threaten GSP with. He’s dangerous on the feet, he’s really dangerous on the ground, and his great footwork and movement (as showcased in that fight with Diaz) proved that GSP’s recent plan of out-jabbing the other guy might not have legs against The Natural Born Killer.
In the Mix:
Nick Diaz (26-8)
Nick Diaz might be the most interesting man in MMA. It’s very possible. He’s incredibly popular because his strategy is something kind of like this:
Anyway, Diaz has an incredibly interesting personality. He’s a brutal killer in the cage. He also has borderline autism. He can’t handle interviews well. He doesn’t talk to people and can’t rock the mic like some others (Chael Sonnen comes to mind). He goes on diatribes about fighters not getting paid enough and then bails on his responsibilities to promote the fights. Nick Diaz will never tire. He will not falter. You won’t knock him out. You almost certainly won’t submit him. If it wasn’t for the fact that he loves weed WAY more than he loves fighting, he’d be fighting this weekend (there’s no actual fight this weekend, but he wouldn’t be suspended). Diaz will fight again, and the world better watch out when he does.
Rory MacDonald (13-1)
Meet the newest terror at 170. He’s GSP’s protégé. Trains at the same gym. Is 5-1 in the UFC with his only loss coming from getting a little sloppy against Carlos Condit. He looks to be the next big thing, and goes in there and backs up his fights. He couldn’t finish Nate Diaz, but he made the younger Diaz brother go back to 155 by utterly controlling him. Other than that, he’s finished all his guys. He is a monster, and he will soon get his chance to vault into the big time with a fight against the legendary BJ Penn. Look out for this kid. At only 23 years old, he’s a phenom and in a prime spot to shoot for the top before too much longer.
Johnny Hendricks (13-1)
Hendricks is 8-1 in the UFC and is just coming off of back-to-back wins over two of the greatest welterweights ever, teammates Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. Against Fitch he showed that he has knockout power, KO-ing the durable Fitch in just 12 seconds, and against Koscheck he showed that his wrestling is not to be trifled with and earned a pretty straightforward decision victory. With his next shot against Martin Kampmann, we’ll get the chance to see if Hendricks is really ready for the elite, or whether he’s merely just better than a lot of other guys at 170.
Martin Kampmann (20-5)
In his last five fights, Kampmann is just 3-2. But he could easily be 5-0. A split decision loss to Jake Shields in Shields’ UFC debut (that this author thinks Kampmann won) and a decision loss to Diego Sanchez in a phenomenal war (that this author KNOWS Kampmann should have won but was more bloodied up by a long shot) have been unfortunate blemishes that could have gone the other way with a bit more luck. I’ve heard it said that a true mark of a champion is that “clutch” factor; that when necessary one can snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. If that’s the case, Martin Kampmann is definitely a champion. His win over Thiago Alves was awesome, absorbing a lot of punishment in a fight Alves was suddenly winning when Alves shot in for a takedown for some reason and Hitman pounced with a guillotine choke that allowed him to finish the fight. And his war against Jake Ellenberger was likewise awesome, enduring a blistering first round beatdown before coming back and later finishing with savage knees. Kampmann is always on his game, he is very well rounded, and he never fails to provide a good show.
Jon Fitch (23-4-1)
Jon Fitch is better than you. He can probably outbox you, he can submit you, and most importantly Fitch can control the shit out of you with his wrestling. He has a phenomenal record in the UFC, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s just a slightly worse version of GSP, he might even be the champion. But Jon Fitch has to work for his shot back at the top. Why, you might ask? It’s a valid question given what I’ve just outlined. The answer, dear reader, is that Fitch is boring. Remarkably boring. Of Fitch’s last 7 wins (dating back to the middle of 2007), ALL OF THEM were decisions. All of them. That is ridiculous, and although it is a mark of his dominance, it is not something that fans want to pay to see. Jon Fitch, you are a great fighter. But you are not an exciting fighter, and that unfortunately has consequences.
BJ Penn (16-8-2)
BJ Penn’s nickname “The Prodigy” is incredibly apt. He is one of the most phenomenal natural talents to make it into the octagon and when he’s on his game he is a sight to behold. But for Mr. Penn, it’s also a double-edged sword. Penn’s biggest criticism is his lack of work ethic, his lack of getting in shape and being in incredible condition and getting his A-game everytime. There have been many fights where BJ brings the NOISE…for a little bit. And then he gets tired, and then the wheels kind of fall off. Make no mistake, Penn is a legend. He earned titles in two different divisions in the UFC, something that only one other man has done (Randy Couture) and when BJ was on his game he was an absolutely incredible fighter. If you ever get the chance to see him vs Diego Sanchez, or Sean Sherk, or Kenny Florian, or Joe Stevenson (all at Lightweight), go check them out. That was a motivated and hungry BJ Penn who licked blood off his gloves between rounds. Let’s hope that the BJ Penn that fights Rory MacDonald later this year has that same craziness.
I hope to have a few more posts this week, so stay tuned! And, as always, feedback welcome.