Over the past two to three years, it has been a universal conclusion in mixed martial arts (MMA) – a rare thing, indeed – that the Lightweight division was the deepest in the sport given its talented ranks and the number of matches among the Top Ten in the 155-pound weight class that would be pick-ems at the betting window.
But, with the ascent of considerable Welterweight talent in recent months, you could make the argument that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 170-pound division is nipping at its heels for sheer depth. And, in no small way, for the explosive nature of potential match ups that lie ahead for the best 170-pound fighters today.
For while champion Georges St. Pierre reigns at the top, he has one hell of a supporting cast with which to produce quality fights and championship challengers. A blind matchmaker could do an outstanding job, given the combustible styles and tantalizing fights available.
The Top Tier:
1. Johny Hendricks
2. Carlos Condit
3. Jake Ellenberger
4. Nick Diaz
5. Rory MacDonald
Slated for a title shot against St. Pierre once his hand heals, Hendricks is a dangerous contender with huge punching power and a well-schooled top game. The challenge against the champ will be how effectively he can fight off takedowns and not get planted on his back.
Condit has beaten Ellenberger, Diaz and MacDonald, all of which were incredibly close, competitive bouts, and rematches against any of them are eminently attractive.
MacDonald, meanwhile, occupies the curious position of being St. Pierre’s training mate and has stated he won’t fight him, and the UFC has kept him on a parallel track, opponents-wise. He was fed the aging B.J. Penn and battered the former two-division champion, then got injured heading into his huge rematch opportunity against Condit for UFC 158.
But, I’m not sure how long the UFC can keep dancing around this problem, as MacDonald’s game improves with every outing, and a win over Condit would be a huge statement. Diaz, assuming he keeps fighting (and let’s hope he does) is going to bring a tough skillset in against every opponent -- you can only hope he gets five-round main events to really force people to dig deep to decision him because he’s as close to stoppage-proof as they come in this game.
Ellenberger’s huge power and intensity make him a legitimate threat against anyone, including St. Pierre. He gave Condit fits in the most impressive Octagon debut you’ll ever see, given the circumstances, and he’d also be a fun match up for a fellow banger like Robbie Lawler.
The Furious Five:
6. Demian Maia
7. Martin Kampmann
8: Robbie Lawler
9: Josh Koscheck
10: Nate Marquardt
Maia’s been brilliant since dropping to 170 pounds, and his submission over Rick Story -- followed by his three-round shutdown clinic against super-tough Jon Fitch -- were impressive as hell. It’s a stark departure from the second half of his Middleweight campaign, where he mostly stood and tried to outstrike people, eschewing his fantastic Brazilian jiu-jitsu to show off his improved striking.
At 170, Maia is virtually unstoppable on the mat.
Kampmann was a win away from a possible title shot prior to getting blitzed by Hendricks, but his zombie-like rallies to take out Thiago Alves and Ellenberger were hugely entertaining, making him a marketable commodity. "The Hitman" guarantees a bloody brawl and fan-friendly action.
While Koscheck and Marquardt have had disappointing performances of late, they still are very capable veterans with the kind of skills and experience to give rising talents a tough test. I thought Koscheck might have done enough to best Hendricks, and Marquardt’s amazing stand against then-unbeaten Tyron Woodley was a hint of how impressive he can be at welterweight even though his last two performances have been sorely disappointing.
A year from now, both could be gone from the Top Ten, but for now, they still rate inclusion on the basis of quality fights and experience.
The fun things about this group is I could see Maia beating any of them, or getting knocked by any of them.
It’s this group that really gets you excited thinking about the division. Silva gave Fitch an amazing bout, and while he lost after gassing in the third round, he took such a terrific beating and simply wouldn’t bend. Give an athletic, capable guy that kind of experience and he’ll be hell on wheels afterward.
Next up for the Brazilian is John Hathaway June 8, which is a good style match up for Silva – Hathaway is a decent but not overpowering wrestler with limited stand up and some decent wins. He’ll pretty much be there for a standup phase of the bout, which means it could end quickly, as Silva is a real blanket killer when it comes to fighting smothering wrestlers.
Mein was fantastic in taking out the durable Dan Miller in one round on the UFC 158 "Prelims" under card, and at a mere 23 years young, has an incredible 35 fights. He’ll go as far as his takedown defense takes him, as his striking and athleticism make him a talent to watch.
Woodley rebounded from his knockout loss to Marquardt with an impressive first-round knockout of Jay Hieron, and is slotted to take on veteran Jake Shields June 15. Woodley’s wrestling and takedown prowess have been the hallmarks of a game that’s often lacked striking or effective ground-and-pound. Against the wily Shields, he may have to switch to a sprawl and brawl-style attack, which could go a long way toward making fans warm to him after some ho-hum outings in Strikeforce.
Wrestlers with confidence in their striking can be especially fun to watch and dreadful without it. Nelson is somewhat undersized for welterweight and will probably drop to 155 pounds in the future, but he’s got an eerie calmness about him and phenomenal grappling. He’s got two huge factors that suggest the UFC will bring him along slower than usual: he’s unbeaten and a foreigner, which is precisely why he’s slotted to take on veteran Mike Pyle May 25 at UFC 160.
It’s a good test for Nelson without presenting inordinate danger. These are big elements that the promotion will look to capitalize on while it aggressively expands into foreign markets. Unbeaten guys from Iceland don’t come along that often, and with Europe a huge financial upside as the UFC continues to struggle with its market-peak status in the United States, with a few wins Nelson could be a kind of Nordic Michael Bisping.
Dong Hyun Kim
All of these guys have the ability to crack into the top fifteen on a given night. Story is the only guy to have bested Hendricks (via decision in 2010) and he decisioned Ellenberger early in both guys’ careers. Injuries have affected some of his recent showings, but at his best, Story is an intense, hard-swinging aggressive type that brings the ruckus. His first-round knockout Saturday against Quinn Mulhern on the UFC 158 under card was a reminder of what he can do at his best.
Pierce is another tough nut, exceptionally durable and throws hard punches while working every minute of the fight. I’d love to see him take on a rising talent like Silva or Nelson, or a grudge match against former Brave Legion stablemate Story, as the two have exchanged harsh words in the press since Pierce left the team.
So how tough is Pierce?
All five of his losses are via decision, and that includes very competitive fights against Koscheck, Hendricks and Fitch, while early in his career he was bested by Mark Munoz at Light Heavyweight. You could basically crack a champagne bottle on Pierce’s head and he’d just keep coming.
Kim is probably the least exciting guy in the division’s top twenty, but his stifling style and power-grappling approach still make him a handful. He’s a pure grappling shutdown artist.
Saffiedine ran up a nice streak of four straight wins in Strikeforce after getting wrestle-smashed by Woodley in a fight for the title Nick Diaz vacated, and I’d love to see him against Alves in his UFC debut. Alves remains one of the most physically gifted guys in the division, and despite hot-and-cold performances, he’s a live wire against virtually anyone at 170 pounds.
So there you go. The division has some great fights coming up in the next few months, and anyone ascending to a title shot has an exceptionally tough road to negotiate, which is the recipe for competitive fights and memorable nights.
For UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, this is definitely one of the easier parts of his job.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst