I am going to take a look at all of the champions and contenders in all of the UFC divisions; I’ll give you my take on the champion, the top contenders, who I think will be wearing the belt at the end of the year, and a few possible future champions. Let’s kick things off with the welterweights.
The welterweights have long been one of my favorite divisions. It is that right blend of speed and power to create some exciting and memorable fights. Just recently, Robbie Lawler has been a part of two of the greatest title fights in the UFC’s history.
Right now is one of the most exciting periods for the division with an exciting champion and a bevy of contenders. There are currently five fighters who are in the mix as true title contenders with several more looming.
We start at the top with the champion Robbie Lawler. When he first entered the UFC way back in May of 2002 he was viewed as a future champion. At the time, he was fighting out Miletich Fighting Systems and a teammate of then UFC champion Matt Hughes.
Lawler was a 19-year old phenom with a wrestling background and devastating knockout power. Training at a legendary gym with so many champions it was inevitable that Lawler would someday wear the UFC gold. And, he would eventually. It would happen about 10 years later than people thought.
After starting out 3-0 in the UFC, he went 1-3 in his next four. That resulted in him being let go by the UFC; over the next eight years he would go 6-5-1 fighting for other organizations.
If the UFC did not buy Strikeforce, Lawler might not even be in the UFC. After going 1-3 to let go by the UFC, he re-entered the UFC after having gone 1-3 in his last four fights for Strikeforce. When he faced Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 no one was thinking that a title shot was in Lawler’s future.
A finish of Koscheck followed by a finish of Bobby Voelker and a win over Rory MacDonald. Suddenly, Lawler was facing Johny Hendricks for the vacated title. He would drop a close decision to Hendricks at UFC 171 but would finally wear the gold after defeating him in the rematch at UFC 181.
Since then Lawler has defeated MacDonald in one of the greatest title fights in the UFC’s history at UFC 189. Then at UFC 195 he would defend the belt against Carlos Condit in another instant classic.
At 33-years old with 37 professional fights over a 15-year career there is a lot of miles on Lawler’s body. When you factor in some of the legendary sparring sessions during his career with Miletich it is hard to expect too long of a run from Lawler, especially with so many contenders.
But, then again, Robbie was not expected to be champion when he returned to the UFC.
Lawler did it by evolving beyond a tough, powerful striker with decent grappling. He is still a devastatingly powerful striker as evidenced by his finishes of Koscheck, Bobby Voelker, and Jake Ellenberger.
However, he has a much better understanding of distance, timing and movement. It was his jab that did much of the damage against MacDonald in their title fight.
It was in that fight that we saw how much his grappling had continued to improve. In their first fight, MacDonald landed four takedowns in six attempts. In the rematch, he went 0 for 4.
An important element of Lawler’s takedown defense is his ability to punish fighters for their attempts. By moving beyond just sprawling to stop a takedown and to doing damage to the fighter attempting the takedown Lawler has become a much more formidable opponent. Especially when you mix in his patience, timing, footwork, and his badass toughness.
If Lawler were a couple of years younger with fewer miles on his body you could possibly envision a long run for him as champion. Possibly, because the division is just so deep with true title contenders and by title contenders I do not mean fighters who deserve a title shot or could earn one someday.
No, I mean fighters that actually have a realistic chance to win the title. The welterweight division has more of these fighters than most divisions in the UFC.
Rory “The Red King” MacDonald
I propose that Rory MacDonald should be known as Rory “Fuckin” MacDonald but if he wants to be called “The Red King” that is fine with me. His title fight with Lawler was his third FOTN in his time in the UFC. That fight was a rare masterpiece that just gets better everytime you watch it.
In that fight, we saw two fighters push each other deeper than most people are capable of going. They reached down into each other’s souls, staring into the abyss beyond their eyes and seeing a version of themselves looking back.
It is easy to forget that MacDonald was winning that fight going into the fifth round. Ahead on the judges scorecards at the time all he had to do was survive the last round of the fight and he would have been the champ. There are many fighters who would have tried to run around the octagon during that round avoiding the dangerous Lawler. But, MacDonald is not one of those fighters. The Red King does not run away.
Even if he had tried to run, Lawler was determined to walk him down in that round. The fact that MacDonald was willing to meet him in the middle speaks to his fighter’s mentality and heart. At only 26-years old MacDonald is entering his prime. He has displayed the traits of a champion and it is easy to see him wearing the UFC belt at some point.
Carlos “The Natural Born Killer” Condit
After Carlos Condit’s classic battle with Lawler to kick off the year that resulted in a controversial split decision loss for Condit many were calling for a rematch.
It is a fight I would like to see but doubt it happens soon. It will certainly not be Lawler’s next fight but could be Condit’s. He has indicated that retirement is a possibility for him but would be excited by a rematch with Lawler for the title.
It would be easy to see Condit taking time off and fighting Lawler sometime late fall or at the end of the year if Lawler has the title. If Condit is just looking for challenging and interesting fights then there are several to made for him.
One of the more interesting elements of the fight with Lawler was how Condit was able to push the pace in the last three rounds. Many think he won that fight because he outstruck Lawler in those rounds 131 to 70.
You cannot judge a fight on numbers alone and in this case, it shows that Condit was his best and strongest at the end of the fight. We will await Condit’s decision which could be based on what the UFC offers him in regards to opponents.
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson
Right now Stephen Thompson is coming off an impressive first round knockout of Johny Hendricks. His second straight finish and fifth overall out his seven wins in the UFC. With a six-fight win streak, Thompson is peaking at the right time in the right way.
The UFC loves finishers and will continue to reward them with title shots. Thompson is a finisher and an exciting one. It is easy to see the UFC giving him the next shot at Lawler. It would have striking fans salivating at the idea of that fight.
Since coming into the UFC as a striker, Thompson has worked very hard to improve his grappling and is now ready for any challenge in the octagon. He is peaking as a fighter and seems poised to take the title if he gets his chance.
The guy who should get the shot, the guy who deserves it is Tyron Woodley. At least, that is the rhetoric that is put out there by Woodley and others but is it really the case?
If you look at it his is really the hardest case to make. His winning streak is only two and the last one was an unimpressive decision over Kelvin Gastelum. Woodley’s UFC record is 5-2 with his biggest win coming over Condit. His loss to Jake Shields does not look good either.
When you factor in that he has not fought anyone in over a year it is hard to say that he deserves the next shot. Sure if he had fought Hendricks when they were supposed to and finished him that would have been the win that could have propelled him into the title shot.
It was not Woodley’s fault that they did not fight and unfortunately, he may have fallen victim to the UFC indicating he would get the next shot. It his highly unlikely that Woodley fights Lawler next. He will need at least one more win over another top contender I think to get a shot.
The Wild Cards
While it is likely that one of the above fighters gets the next shot at Lawler but there are two fighters who could change everything. If Georges St-Pierre decides to return then he jumps to the front. The other joker in this situation is Conor McGregor.
It is easy to see why the UFC would put St-Pierre right back into a title shot. He was one of their biggest stars and his return to the octagon would be exciting to many fans. A fight with Lawler would be an intriguing matchup. It would be easy to see it as the main event of UFC 200.
A few years ago when Lawler first re-entered the UFC this fight would not have generated much excitement. In fact, it was not on anyone’s mind but now it is a fight that the UFC would love to make if they could.
Right now it is up to St-Pierre and he has not given an indication of when or even if he is going to return to the octagon. A fight with Lawler in the main event of UFC 200 might just be a big enough fight on a big enough stage to get his interest.
There have been rumblings from McGregor’s camp about him moving up to welterweight to challenge Lawler. First he has to beat Rafael Dos Anjos which is a task in itself. But, if he can pull off that feat then look for him to get that shot.
Whether you love him or hate him you will have to give him some props if he can defeat Dos Anjos. That would create such a buzz around him, even more than there is now. The UFC would love to capitalize on that buzz and would look to make that fight the main event of UFC 200.
On The Fringe, Demian Maia
Demian Maia is currently riding a four-fight win streak and faces Matt Brown in May. If he can get a finish or a dominant win similar to his more recent one over Gunnar Nelson than he could get his shot before the end of the year.
Maia brings a different element to the division with his insane grappling skills. He is a difficult matchup for anyone and has continued to evolve throughout his career. If Lawler still has the belt this fall or winter a fight between him and Maia would be an interesting one between two veterans.
Albert Tumenov dropped his first fight in the UFC but has gone on to win five in a row since that loss. At only 24 years old with an overall record of 17-2 he has many excited about his future. If he can continue to grow and evolve during the next couple of years he could become a contender. However, it is a tough path ahead of him one that is filled with difficult challenges in a deep division.
That is the problem with identifying future contenders amongst the welterweights. As soon as a fighter starts to look like he is going to break through they suffer a setback or two. The best recent example of this is Brandon Thatch.
Thatch burst into the UFC with two impressive wins only to stumble in his next two fights. If he can make the right changes and adapt he could find himself back on the path towards a future title shot. But, he is going to need to put together an impressive win streak before that talk starts back up.
Similarly Gunnar Nelson finds himself struggling a little after starting out hot in the UFC. After winning his first four fights for them he has gone 1-2 in his last three UFC fights. He lost his last fight by sheer domination to Demian Maia. If he can regain the momentum he had to start his UFC career then he too could be back in the title contender discussion.
For any fighter who has stumbled in the division they only have to look at the champ, Robbie Lawler for inspiration. People wrote him off several times in his career only to see him rise to the top of the division.
Who is Champ to Start 2017
There are several different fighters who could be wearing the welterweight belt to start 2017. Lawler has proven to be resilient and durable. His technique has sharpened and he could successfully defend the belt but it is unlikely.
My gut is telling me that 2016 is the year for Wonderboy. I like him to get his shot at the title and to capture the belt. This will of course start up a new karate revolution in the UFC.
image credits – UFC
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