Breaking down UFC Welterweights
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March was a busy month for the UFC 170-pound division, with five of the top ten welterweights seeing action in Montreal at historic UFC 158. Headlined by the welterweight championship fight between the polarizing Nick Diaz and longtime division kingpin Georges St. Pierre, pay-per-view buys were reportedly over 1 million, easily surpassing GSP’s previous best of 800,000 for UFC 129 in 2011 and landing 158 in the top five most watched PPV’s in company history. Plus, more than 215,000 people watched the weigh-ins on FUEL TV, making it the sixth most-watched show in network history, crushing the previous record of 132,000. (UFC on Fox 2, January 2012) It was an historic day for the UFC and 170-pounders in terms of drawing power.
But we’re not here to discuss PPV numbers, so here’s a look at the UFC’s top 10 welterweights.
UFC Welterweight Champion: Georges “Rush” St. Pierre
What hasn’t GSP accomplished in his nine-year UFC career? Since his debut at UFC 54, “Rush” has not only solidified himself as one of the top two fighters for the better part of the last decade but also one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time. His 24-2 record and long list of UFC records, including most wins by decision with eleven, most successful and most consecutive welterweight title defenses with eight and now most wins with 18, (tied w/ former rival Matt Hughes) GSP has emerged as the most popular fighter on the roster. He also has an entire country behind him, as he’s won Canadian Athlete of the Year three consecutive years.
GSP has put on an unparalleled run in the 170-pound division with wins over Hall of Famer Matt Hughes (2x), former UFC champs B.J. Penn (2x), Matt Serra and Sean Sherk, former Strikeforce champs Jake Shields and Nick Diaz. His takedowns are unstoppable, his ground game and stand-up are world-class and his 84 career takedowns, 75 percent takedown accuracy and 2,398 total strikes landed, (1,153 significant) are all UFC records. Combine this with some of the best cardio in the company and you get the greatest welterweight in the history of MMA.
1. Johnny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks
Heading into his UFC 158 fight with former UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, Hendricks had been on a tear with six straight wins, including three first-round knockouts. He had already earned a shot at the title with his 46-second knockout of Martin Kampann at UFC 154, but the UFC brass decided to have GSP fight Diaz in order to settle their bad blood and make some money in the process. Originally scheduled to face fellow top 10 welterweight Jake Ellenberger, Hendricks stepped in and replaced the injured Rory MacDonald against Condit. The outcome was a 15-minute back and forth brawl that saw both men land thunderous strike after thunderous strike on their way to capturing ‘Fight of the Night.’ But Hendricks’ vastly superior wrestling ended up making the difference and the Team Takedown member had his hand raised again, finally solidifying himself as the rightful top contender for GSP’s belt.
A four-time NCAA All-American and two-time national champion wrestler, Hendricks’ top game is obviously on par with the best in the division. But what he has that no one else in the entire company does is that devastating left. It has decimated his opponents, sending Jon Fitch and Kampmann flying across the octagon less than a minute into each fight and nearly KO’ing Condit twice in the 1st round. While GSP’s striking may be more crisp and technical, if Hendricks can land that left, the UFC might be crowing a new champion. Hendricks injured his hand against Condit and GSP suffered another ACL injury before his bout with Diaz, so I see his long awaited championship bout happening by the end of August.
2. Carlos “The Natural Born Killer” Condit
Even though he’s dropped his last two fights, Carlos Condit still finds himself near the top of the division. To be fair, the only two men to defeat the former WEC welterweight champion in his last seven fights have been the only two fighters higher than him on this list. Originally scheduled to face the man who called him out, Rory MacDonald, “The Natural Born Killer” ended up with Hendricks, who I think was a much tougher opponent. He may have lost, but Condit certainly didn’t disappoint with a vintage performance that saw him push Hendricks to the limit with everything from flying knees to snapping head kicks while on the feet and looking for submissions when Hendricks took him down. It was the first time Hendricks appeared beatable in more than three years. Condit even managed to withstand Hendricks’ left more than once. But his inability to defend the takedown ended up being Condit’s downfall.
A rematch against another top-10 welterweight — like Macdonald, Diaz or Jake Ellenberger — is the only fight that makes sense at this point in Condit’s career. If he can improve his wrestling and beat any of those three names, I see another title shot in Condit’s future by the end of 2014.
3. Rory “Ares” MacDonald
At only 23 years old, with a stellar pro record of 14-1 and 12 wins by knockout or submission, MacDonald has emerged as the future of the 170-pound division. The scary thing is, “Ares” has gotten almost 100% better every time he has stepped into the octagon. Having grown up in front of UFC fans, going from a skinny soft-spoken boy to an intimidating and sometimes downright terrifying man, MacDonald is becoming a finely-tuned machine while training alongside GSP at his Montreal gym. He’s become the poster boy for the new generation of fighters who master every facet of the game, and so far he has steamrolled through his opponents. His striking is crisp and accurate, his wrestling continues to improve and his submission game is incredibly underrated because it seems almost impossible to take him down. The only weakness I see is his inability to remain healthy, as injuries have forced him to pull out of four fights in the last three years.
If he can manage to put together a training camp without injuring himself, a rematch against Condit, who handed him his only pro loss in 2010, could finally happen. If he beats Condit like I think he will, MacDonald will have a tough decision ahead of him: back off his stated refusal to fight his friend GSP and become champ, or change weight classes. But money talks in the UFC, so I could see MacDonald relenting and locking horns with GSP. Until then, we’ll have to hope Rory’s body holds up because his best years are in front of him and I’d hate to his career defined by the phrase “what if?”
4. Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger
It seems like Jake Ellenberger has been on the cusp of superstardom for almost two years. Starting at the bottom, “The Juggernaut” toiled in secondary shows like the International Fight League and Bodog Fight for four years, earning over 20 professional wins before finally getting the call from the UFC. Despite a slight hiccup in his UFC debut against Condit, the Team Reign fighter is on an impressive six-fight win streak against names like former Lightweight contender and TUF 1 winner Diego Sanchez and former welterweight contender and former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields. With a stellar wrestling game and dynamite in his hands, Ellenberger is finally getting the attention he deserves. But after decimating former middleweight contender and Strikeforce champ Nate Marquardt at UFC 158, Ellenberger has finally positioned himself near the title shot he’s been chasing for years. One look at Marquardt’s face told the tale of what happened in their three minute fight- swollen and bloody after being planted flat on the mat as he lay unconscious following a barrage of Ellenberger’s heavy fists. It was a statement fight and Ellenberger delivered it to the entire 170-division loud and clear.
The former Marine deserved a big name for his next opponent. If I were him I would push for a rematch with Condit to avenge his loss or a huge name like Diaz. If Ellenberger can put together another impressive win, the only fight to make after that will be a title shot.
5. Demian Maia
Casual fight fans remember Maia for being on the wrong end of his infamous UFC 112 showdown against middleweight champion Anderson Silva in Abu Dhabi in 2010. But hardcore fans will forever remember the Brazilian for his deadly submission game that has garnered respect from fans and fighters all over the world. His grappling attack is so legendary that fellow Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and former heavyweight champ Frank Mir hired him as a coach before his fight against Brock Lesnar. Following his camp, Mir, who has snapped more arms in the UFC than anyone else, said “I thought I was actually good at it until I started rolling with [Mai].” If you need more proof, just look at his track record… 18 wins, nine of them by submission and an Abu Dhabi submission championship. If a fighter ends up on the ground with Maia, he’s either going to sleep or having a limb broken. Just asked Rick Story. Once Maia got ahold of Story’s head all he did was crank once and the blood started flowing out of his opponents nose. He followed up his impressive performance by “out Fitching” Jon Fitch to earn a unanimous decision victory at UFC 156.
Maia has looked like a new man since dropping down from Middleweight. If he can keep winning impressively, a matchup against Ellenberger or Robbie Lawler makes sense for Maia as he will need a few more victories over big names before earning himself a title shot.
6. Nick Diaz
Power MMA Show listeners know of my fascination with the polarizing Diaz. The former Strikeforce welterweight champ is by far one of the most outspoken and socially awkward fighters on the planet. Stick a mic in front of him and you get pure gold. He’s never been one to hold back when asked about a fighter or company he had bad beef with. Before and after 158, Diaz rained down insults and accused GSP of everything from steroids to spying on his camp. Nobody had ever gotten under GSP’s skin like that and it showed as the champ struggled to stay composed during the 158 media call and press conference. Diaz talks a mean game and he backs it up. He has some of the best boxing in the UFC and one of the best BJJ games as well. With the ability to knock an opponent out with punches or strangle them into submission, the Stockton native had long been considered the second best welterweight on the planet until his 25-minute beat-down from GSP. Diaz did land several shots in the fight, but GSP’s overpowering wrestling was just too much for Nick, who suffered his second loss in a row.
Diaz is saying he’s retired again but he’s pulled this before and come back so I’m not reading too much into it. A rematch against Condit or fellow bad boy Josh Koscheck makes sense if Diaz can stay out of trouble. If he does ended up calling it quits, it will be a sad day for the sport because Diaz’s pure guts and polarizing character will be sorely missed.
7. Martin “Hitman” Kampmann
Riding a three-fight win streak heading into his showdown with Hendricks at UFC 154, “Hitman” lasted just 46 seconds before he was sent skidding across the octagon and down the 170-pound rankings by that monster left. Wins over top contenders Ellenberger and Condit still have him near the top, but . The Danish kick boxer has some of the most unique and tenacious striking in the division. His combination of deadly accuracy and solid power, along with his signature combination of jabs, is the perfect compliment for his thunderous leg-kicks and spectacular flying knees. But while his striking is what fans remember, Kampann has managed to pull off seven submission wins over big name strikers like Thiago Alves and high-level wrestlers like Jacob Volkmann. His spectacular submission over Volkmann has been called the “death choke” because Volkmann’s eyes began to roll into the back of his head as Kampann choked the life out him before he tapped out.
A matchup against fellow striker Siyar Bahadurzada makes sense, with both men coming off losses. A win would certainly propel Kampmann back into title contention, while a loss would put his championship dreams in serious jeopardy.
8. Tarec “Sponge” Saffiedine
Saffedine is one of the most unlikely names on this list. The last ever Strikeforce welterweight champ enters the UFC riding a four-fight win streak, his most recent coming against Marquardt back in January. In a fight many considered a simple warm up for Marquardt because he was on his way to a brighter future in the UFC, no one gave Saffediene much of a chance. But “Sponge” proved his doubters wrong, dominating the former middleweight contender for 25 minutes with a decimating barrage of leg kicks that turned Nate’s leg deep purple. Google the pic and you’ll see something that looks more like raw hamburger meat than a human limb.
Maia has already called him out, which makes sense as both need a big name to push them into the upper echelon of the division. But with no official fight lined up for his UFC debut, it will be interesting to see how the Team Quest product will handle his top-level opponents in the UFC.
9. “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler
Lawler needed to make a statement in his first fight in the UFC since being cut from the organization back in 2004, and boy did he ever make one! In his first fight at 170-pounds in more than eight years, Lawler looked better than ever and opened eyes with a first round knockout over longtime vet Josh Koscheck at UFC 157. Hardcore fight fans weren’t shocked by this outcome because of Lawler’s reputation as a vicious brawler with some surprising technique in his wild yet crisp punches. He relentlessly attacks the body to set up shots to the head, so he essentially submits his opponents with strikes. This style of striking was on display against Koscheck and earned him ‘Knockout of the Night’ honors. But most impressive was his ability to defend Kosheck’s takedown attempts. For nearly three and a half minutes, the former All-American wrestler tried to take Lawler down but the American Top Team product held his ground and refused to allow it. Lawler’s wresting looked fantastic that night and if he continues to improve I can see him becoming a 170-pound Chuck Liddell, using his wrestling to fight off takedowns and keeping fights standing.
A matchup against Mike Pierce or Saffiedine could make sense as both are riding win streaks. A win wouldn’t throw Lawler into title contention yet, but it will prove he belongs with the best at 170-pounds.
10. Josh “Kos” Koscheck
It’s been a rough year for former welterweight contender Josh Koscheck. Following an uncharacteristically slow victory over Mike Pierce at UFC 143, “Kos” saw himself on the losing end in consecutive fights against Hendricks and Lawler to close out the year. But as dismal as his last year was, Kosheck has one of the most impressive track records in the organization. Stepping into the octagon against names like St-Pierre (2x), Anthony Johnson, Frank Trigg, Hughes and Sanchez, the former NCAA wrestling All-American has emerged as one of the most consistent- and most hated- fighters in UFC history. His pure athleticism has led to an explosive signature takedown, seemingly slamming his opponents into the mat time after time. Koscheck’s worst enemy is time as he’s tied for the fifth most fights under the UFC banner with 22.
Koscheck has proven to be a box office draw and a bout against Diaz, the only other man at 170-pounds who talks as much as trash as him, makes sense. If these two vets do meet up, expect fireworks both in the cage and on the mic. But with the UFC making drastic roster cuts, including close friend and former teammate Jon Fitch, the former TUF season 1 competitor could find himself on the chopping block if he drops another boring fight.
For all of you who have been following my UFC Rankings Breakdown series, I haven’t forgotten about the lightweights. I’ll be sure to follow up this column with the stacked 155-pound division and get back on track. Thanks for reading!
If you have any comments or questions about this article or about the world of MMA in general you you can reach me on Twitter @JoseYoungs and be sure to Listen to Ryan Bader, Aaron Simpson and Jim Grieshaber on the Power MMA Show, Saturdays from 11am-1pm on Arizona Sports 620 and right here on ArizonaSports.com!