For the past three years, I’ve been covering the sport of MMA on a daily basis. I’ve been a devout fan for about a decade and have been following the sport for even longer. As a result, I’ve become the person that friends and family turn to with questions about the sport. Whenever Anderson Silva’s leg breaks or Conor McGregor fake retires, my phone explodes with an influx of text messages and social media notifications. In other words, whether it’s by choice or circumstance, it’s safe to say that I have my finger on the pulse of MMA.
And even I have no idea what’s happening with the welterweight division.
Now – after selling you on my lack of concrete knowledge – I hope you’ll stick around and listen to my breakdown of the 170 pounders, as it stands.
The Champion – Tyron Woodley
It was the punch heard ’round the world! And if you somehow managed to miss it live, Woodley has almost certainly brought it to your attention in the days and weeks that followed. Always the self-promoter, T-Wood made sure that he got that next shot at the belt after Carlos Condit. He essentially told anyone who would listen. And it was for this reason that he leap-frogged a couple contenders to earn his title fight at UFC 201.
Woodley was largely counted out by fans, media and fellow fighters. This was partially due to his own situation – he had been out of action for a year and a half – and partially due to the recent dominance by the current champion, Robbie Lawler. Lawler had won his last five in a row and eight out of his last nine. More-often-than-not, his performance included some sort of iconic finish or memorable back-and-fourth war. After Ellenberger, Brown, Hendricks, MacDonald and Condit failed to complete the task, who among us thought that Woodley was the guy?
I’ll freely admit that I picked against him. I felt that Lawler’s durability would be enough to survive Woodley’s early onslaught. Alas, Woodley is quite possibly the best sprinter in the division, if not the entire UFC. Sure enough, Woodley landed a bomb that dropped the formerly-unstoppable Lawler and put him in the precarious position to start calling his shots. The result is the position we now find ourselves in… having no idea who is next up. So let’s run through the list of possible contenders.
The Top Contender – Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson
Wonderboy is widely accepted as the most deserving candidate for the next title shot. Even Woodley would have to admit this. Thompson’s only loss as a professional came back in April of 2012. He’s won his last seven in a row with crucial wins over then #2 ranked Johny Hendricks and #1 ranked Rory MacDonald in 2016. He’s also got a crowd-pleasing karate striking style, a flawless kickboxing record, and a fan-favorite persona.
Naturally, the question has to be asked, why are we making this list? It seems as if Wonderboy is the clear choice for the next welterweight title shot, right? Well, when this question was asked to Woodley by the man, himself, he had different plans. He said he wanted “big money” fights.
A strategy made popular by Conor McGregor and Chael Sonnen before him, Woodley called his shot in the form of Georges St. Pierre and Nick Diaz. While both are a bit out-of-practice, Woodley is banking on their name-recognition to pull him pay-per-view numbers that Wonderboy allegedly can’t. And while I personally feel like you need to defend your belt a few times before you can begin hand-picking your opponents, the matchups do raise a few questions. Ultimately, it’s up to the UFC as far as what direction they would like to take it. Honor the significance of the rankings or go for the instant gratification of a “big money” fight. Let’s explore.
The Legend – Georges St. Pierre
Since his ambiguous exit from the sport back in 2013, fans and media members have been wondering if and when GSP will return. Although he’s never given a clear indication of the criteria for his comeback, it seems as if it’s always been a question of the right matchup. If Woodley is that guy, how does the UFC turn that offer down? I mean… if getting GSP back is the goal, and this is the way to get him back, the UFC has to say yes, right?
Now there’s a big “if” involved in this scenario. GSP has hinted at a number of matchups that potentially make sense for his return, and there’s really no telling if Woodley is the one. I mean, for all we know, GSP may not return at all, and even if he does, there’s a good chance it could be some sort of legacy fight. Perhaps a Nick Diaz rematch. That is, of course, assuming Nick Diaz doesn’t get the next shot at the title. Let’s get to that now.
The Big Name – Nick Diaz
Nick Diaz has long-since been one of the biggest names in the sport. His brash relationship with the media and unapologetic rawness both inside and outside the Octagon have made him a fan-favorite since his days in Strikeforce. While Nate has become the bigger name of late, Nick was always the more accomplished and well-known Diaz brother. An unfortunate (and undeserved) suspension has kept him sidelined since January of 2015. But the suspension has been lifted and he’s back on the market, so to speak.
In the fast-moving world of MMA it’s hard to imagine that both GSP and Nick Diaz have each only fought one opponent after their fight against each other. It feels like ages ago. And the organic distaste between both parties make this a rematch that most fans would love to see. It also makes a lot more sense than the Woodley fight for two reasons. One, GSP and Diaz would both need to shake off a little ring rust before getting into the swing of things, and with a fast-starter like Woodley standing as the other option for an opponent, I’d personally rather see them fight each other than go for the title. Plus, on the topic of “big money” fights, this is the one to make. While Nick Diaz and Georges St. Pierre are big names capable of drawing huge numbers, Tyron Woodley is not quite there yet.
Yes, he is champion. No, he is not a big name. The fight to make here is GSP vs. Diaz 2.
The Dark Horse – Demian Maia
Demian Maia is, for my money, the best grappler in MMA. This was perhaps most evident when he took on prolific grappler Gunnar Nelson and made him look like a white belt. This is in no way a condemnation of Gunni. It just shows how far beyond the competition Maia is. Plus, he’s on a six fight win streak of his own, capping things off with a lightning fast finish over top contender Carlos Condit.
He defeated one of the best fighters we’ve ever seen at 170 pounds and it took him less than two minutes to do it. While his overall resume may not be quite as impressive as Wonderboy’s he’s a matchup nightmare for everyone in the division. To be honest, I can’t really picture him losing to anyone. But I feel like he’ll have to wait one more fight. Whether he sits on the sidelines or fights in some sort of #1 contender match, I believe he’s got a title shot waiting for him. But if the UFC is going with the top contender, it’s hard to put Maia above Thompson at this moment in time. So while he’s the dark horse candidate in the current race and brings with him the ever-important Brazilian market, I’ve gotta give the edge to Wonderboy here.
So, enough explanation. Let’s get to the verdict.
- Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson for the UFC Welterweight Championship
- George St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz in a big money, non-title fight at UFC 205
- Demian Maia waits in the wings for a last-minute injury replacement or the next title shot