The UFC’s New-Look Welterweight Division

Josh Koscheck (James Law/HeavyMMA)

Weight class of pre-GSP injury will be much different when he returns

Heading into 2012, the UFC announced the year was going to be the busiest in the company’s history. The organization’s network deal with Fox was going to produce an increased amount of shows on top of an already hectic pay-per-view schedule, and with fight agreements and events dropping at a fast and furious rate, there was one announcement the UFC forgot to issue – the new-look 2012 edition of the welterweight division.

For the past three years, the 170-pound weight class has been a dependable and stable model. While champion Georges St-Pierre has remained the crown jewel of the division, the action amongst competitors and would-be contenders remained exciting and consistent.

A seemingly fixed collection of fighters filled out the upper tier, and after getting their chance at St-Pierre’s title, they would fall back in line and work their way back toward another shot. After perennial contender Josh Koscheck was battered in his attempt and Jake Shields came up short, it finally appeared as if St-Pierre had cleaned out the division once and for all.

Talk began to circulate regarding a possible super fight with middleweight king Anderson Silva, and if a matchup with “The Spider” wasn’t to be, the push for St-Pierre to move up into 185-pound waters increased. What was left for St-Pierre at 170? How could he strengthen his legacy by recycling opponents he’d already disposed of in convincing fashion?

Enter 2012 – with a pack of hungry lions stalking in the tall grasses, waiting for their chance at the division’s ultimate prize and one of the sport’s greatest champions.

In the past two months alone, MMA fans have witnessed the next wave of contenders in the making. Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz battled for the division’s interim title and powerhouses Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger turned in star-making performances as they placed themselves on the contention radar.

As things suddenly begin to look crowded at the top of the weight class, there are still high-profile matchups between Thiago Alves and Martin Kampmann, in addition to Rory MacDonald and Che Mills, to further shape the upper tier’s new look. Where six months ago it appeared there were no challenges left for GSP, now there are more options than the UFC knows what to do with.

Minus the current uncertainty surrounding Diaz’s impending suspension, any one of the new breed of contenders would pose an interesting threat to St-Pierre. Both Ellenberger and Hendricks possess the wrestling and knockout power to present unique stylistic issues for the champion, while Condit, Kampmann and MacDonald bring a brand of versatility and tenacity that makes GSP’s typical steamrolling of his opponents difficult to imagine. Based on his impressive track record, it would be tough to envision anyone of these potential matchups resulting in a loss for St-Pierre. But the idea he would walk through his opposition is no longer a given.

Typically, when a division’s champion is sidelined due to injury, the action slows and things begin to back up. The title picture of potential contenders becomes hazy. But this isn’t the case in the UFC welterweight division. Regardless of if current interim champion Condit decides to wait for St-Pierre’s return or decides to take a fight with Ellenberger, the race for the top will continue. Kampmann and Alves will throw down in Australia, MacDonald and Mills in Atlanta, and the UFC wasted zero time in booking Hendricks to fight Koscheck after they both logged victories in their latest bouts. These scheduled bouts will create a clear picture at 170 pounds and if Shields, Jon Fitch and young gun Rick Story can all get back on track and grab wins in their next outings, the weight class will only become that much deeper.

Where the weight class was once filled with decision-heavy performances based on wrestling and control, this next wave of contenders are finishing their fights – sometimes in brutal fashion. And this is bringing a much-needed jolt of electricity into a division that had fallen somewhat stagnant due to its champion’s dominance.

Here is a quick look at the new wave and the work its members have put in:

Carolos Condit: Has finished three out of his last four opponents.

Jake Ellenberger: Has claimed two out of his last four by way of stoppage.

Johny Hendricks: Three of his last four have come by way of knockout or TKO.

Rory MacDonald: While he suffered a TKO loss in his debut to Condit, a manhandling of Nate Diaz and a TKO of veteran Mike Pyle were both impressive performances.

Martin Kampmann, Thiago Alves and Josh Koscheck each bounced back from losses and have solid track records of putting their opponents away.

In short, the division St-Pierre reigned over before suffering his knee injury will look nothing like the one he returns to. And this, in my opinion, is a beautiful thing.