Lets not kid ourselves. With the retirement of Georges St. Pierre, the welterweight division has been in a mess. It hasn't been a catastrophe as the UFC moved quickly to schedule a title bout as soon as GSP made his intentions clear, but any division without a champion is in bad shape. But it will finally be cleaned up as there will be five welterweight bouts total on the card with three on the main card, including the co-main event and the main event, the latter of which will crown a new champion.
Many (most in fact) feel that Johny Hendricks should be the rightful champion as he came out on the wrong end of a very controversial decision to GSP and he is without a doubt the favorite heading into the fight. Robbie Lawler was an afterthought just over a year ago and has come storming back into the UFC and reminding people why there was so much excitement surrounding him 11 years ago. Yes, you read that right. 11 years ago. He has been around that long. Its easy to count out Lawler... but many did that when he signed up to face Josh Koscheck and then Rory MacDonald. Want to count him out now?
The rest of the card is promising as well. Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley could determine the next contender to the belt, Diego Sanchez doesn't know how to play it safe (translation: expect fireworks), Hector Lombard is as exciting as they come when he is on (though his opponent Jake Shields is as boring as they come when he is on), and a pair of athletic light heavyweights open the main card.
Here's all that is important:
#1 Johny Hendricks (15-2) vs. #3 Robbie Lawler (22-9 1 NC), Welterweight
Please tell me how you can't be excited for a welterweight title fight with two KO artists who love to stand and bang with steel jaws? You're an idiot otherwise.
Hendricks may not have an official crown, but the people have unofficially given him that title. As beloved a champ as GSP was, I can't recall a title decision that left more people up in arms over the declared victor. When you can turn the people against the champ (at least in terms of the decision), that means you are doing pretty damn good.
Lawler has endured a storybook revitalization to his career. Lets be honest: exactly zero of us thought that he would be here at this point in his career when he returned to the UFC to take on Koscheck just over a year ago. Let that be a lesson in perseverance for all of you. Also a lesson in fighting in the right weight class (sorry Robbie, but it is true).
There isn't a true MMA fan alive who doesn't know about Hendrick's left hand. It is akin to Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds. Think I'm joking? Jon Fitch hasn't been the same since it landed and Martin Kampmann has only fought once in the year and a half that has passed since its connection. He may seem to use it too often, but he does so effectively as his opponents fear it and move out of the way when they see it coming. If they don't... you take it from here. He is incredibly strong in the clinch as well and will beat up his opponent with knees and punches from there. He should use more movement in his standup and utilize leg kicks more efficiently as Lawler has done since his days as a headhunter.
Speaking of Lawler, I don't want to oversell his all-around improvement, but that ended up being the massive difference against MacDonald. He threw a lot of leg kicks early and used a lot of angles to prevent Rory from sitting down on his jab. He is still a headhunter at heart and that side of him did manifest itself as he put MacDonald in some precarious positions in the third round. Lawler seems to have wised up and while I certainly expect the brawler in him to come out at some point (especially with someone willing to stand and trade), it'll come out at the appropriate time.
Many will consider the standup to be a wash (I actually give a slight edge to Lawler due to his diversity), no one will debate the fact that Hendricks will own the grappling game. Few in MMA have had a more decorated wrestling career than Hendricks as he was a 4-time All-American and 2-time champion at Oklahoma State. He utilizes the takedown quite intelligently as he knows when he is coming up short in a dog fight and will slow things down with his powerful double or single legs. It was the difference against Condit. Anytime Condit gained momentum, Hendricks landed one of his 12 takedowns in the match.
Lawler has improved his takedown defense greatly over the last few years, but even so he was taken down 4 times by MacDonald. That isn't to say he is lost wrestling, he was actually a decorated high school wrestler. But lets be honest: he can't compete with Hendricks here, but he should be able to survive with the bearded one. Once prone to getting submitted, Lawler has learned what he can and can't do with his opponents. He'll have to be aware of Hendricks' chokes. Sure, he hasn't latched one on in the UFC yet... but I really think yet is the key word.
I'm stoked for this fight and everyone else should be. I love GSP and hope he eventually does come back... but nothing breathes new life into a division than a new champion and we're about to get one. Either one of these guys can end the fight with just one punch. But I think both are wary enough of the other to avoid a quick end to the fight. I think Hendricks will utilize just enough takedowns to control the fight and come out ahead on the scorecards. Hendricks by Decision
#2 Carlos Condit (29-7) vs. #11 Tyron Woodley (12-2), Welterweight
This fight could determine who has next for a shot at the belt after Woodley was able to talk his way into a shot at the former interim champ, Condit. The good thing is neither is considered boring.
Since making his UFC debut, the only losses that Condit has suffered were to arguably the top two welterweights in the world in GSP and Johny Hendricks. And he made those fights very competitive. Anyone else remember when people were calling Condit a points fighter after his victory over Diaz? Me neither.
Woodley's two UFC victories have come by way of vicious and violent KO's of veterans Jay Hieron and Josh Koscheck. Is he the most deserving to be fighting Condit? Probably not, but KO's of that style garner attention and he got the fan support after he called for a shot at Condit. No one is doubting whether he has the tools to take the W here, its whether he can put it all together.
Condit is a joy to watch on the feet. Depending on the skill level of his opponent, he can fight any style of fight. That explains why some people were so upset with his performance against Nick Diaz as he didn't go for the kill against the iron-jawed Diaz. But he can do a slugfest (Dan Hardy), an explosive and dynamic finish (Dong Hyun Kin), or a cold calculated game plan (Diaz). He exposes himself quite often and that explains why Hendricks was able to clock him as often as he did. He has shown a granite chin at this point (never been KO'd) and has shown the ability to recover quickly when he does get rocked. I admit, I have no idea what strategy Condit will bring though.
Woodley is getting the reputation of a KO artist, but he only has 3 KO/TKO victories to his credit. I do believe that he is improving in his standup, but fear he is falling in love with the KO. He needs to strike early if he wants the KO as his muscular frame makes it difficult for him to go 15 minutes without getting gassed. He covers ground quickly though making his explosiveness that much more emphatic. He favors his right hand too much though. Considering Condit and Greg Jackson are great at drawing up a game plan, I expect them to find his holes.
Here is what will really count: Woodley was a Division I wrestling All-American and Condit struggles to stop the takedown. The reason that Condit has been able to survive on the ground is he has a very wily BJJ game and is a threat to pull off a submission from the guard. Throw in the fact that he knows how to squirm his way back to his feet... hmmm. Condit doesn't often go for the takedown himself and don't expect him to with Woodley.
Woodley owns a very explosive shot (weird considering he is an explosive athlete... right?) that can drive opponents down. He just hasn't implemented them into his fights recently. If he completely abandons them here he is making a major mistake. Granted, I don't think he has the MMA wrestling instinct fully figured out yet (such as when to go for a takedown, how to not telegraph them, etc.), but that would be a sorry excuse for cutting that out.
Woodley certainly has what it takes to be the first man to KO Condit, but I don't think he does it. Condit has shown the ability to come from near-death to pulling out a last-second finish (Rory MacDonald). I think Woodley starts strong and Condit finishes stronger. Condit by Decision
After an instant classic with Gilbert Melendez that put him on the losing end, Sanchez looks to right his ship against the unbeaten youngster.
Sanchez will always have a special place in UFC lore as he is one of the original Ultimate Fighter winners and has a tendency to put on a hell of a show. He has accumulated a lot of damage over the years (and maybe more than some do in their entire careers in his one fight with Melendez) and seems to be slowing down. Don't forget that Sanchez loves people to doubt him.
Jury may be officially unbeaten, but he did lose to Al Iaquinta in the TUF 15 house. He came into the UFC in a most impressive manner in his first three fights, but put on a lackluster performance in victory over Mike Ricci. Jury wanted a step up in Sanchez and has it. Now he needs to prove he deserves it cause he looked flat last time around.
Caution is a word that Sanchez doesn't understand. He isn't the best striker (though he should be respected), but will push forward for the entire duration of the fight. Keep in mind that judges often favor the more aggressive fighter and Sanchez has stolen more than one fight with that style. Sanchez likes to swing for the fences and isn't as fluid as he could be with his shots. Expect it to break into a brawl at times as Sanchez has a rock hard chin and fares well in those situations. Flying knees are another one of his favorite techniques.
Jury actually possesses good power in his punches, particularly his right hand (witness his one-punch KO of Ramsey Nijem) and is technically sound. He isn't as dynamic as Sanchez, but that shouldn't be taken as a bad thing. He possess a great stance and doesn't allow a lot of punches to get through. Patience might work against him here as his tendency to wait for an opening is often rewarded as he landed shots against Nijem and Ricci that way, but Sanchez won't let him wait.
The more I watch Sanchez the more I believe it is impossible to submit him. He is rarely in a bad situation and is able to work his way out when that rarity occurs. Though he often drives for a double or single leg, he isn't that great at finishing his takedowns. Thats where his doggedness comes in as he'll come in for it again and again and again. Once on the ground he displays good GNP and is great at getting the back for a RNC.
Jury will likely have the advantage in the wrestling department and employs a very smothering style. According to FightMetric, he limited Michael Johnson to 6 significant strikes over a 15 minute fight. He won't be able to do that to Sanchez as Sanchez has never been smothered that way in a fight except by a BJ Penn at his peak... and Penn did that with his striking. His GNP isn't very strong, but is busy and often scores points with the judges. Still, he is more concerned with position than punches.
Jury wanted this fight as an opportunity to break into the rankings. I anticipate he should be careful what he wishes for. Though no one will label Sanchez a smart fighter, the style he employs is hard to keep up with. Jury wants to make an impression and will get sucked into what Sanchez wants to do with this fight and it will cost him in the end. Sanchez by Decision
#12 Hector Lombard (33-4-1, 1 NC) vs. #6 Jake Shields (29-6-1, 1 NC), Middleweight
A KO artist faces a... should we say lay-and-prey artist? If the fight contains a highlight reel, it means Lombard wins. If the fight soothes the viewer into nap time, Shields wins. Fair enough?
Lombard was one of the most highly anticipated free agents the UFC ever brought on board and while he has certainly disappointed, he has done just enough to keep plenty of fans hopeful that he can still be the difference-maker that they hoped he could be. This will be a massive test for him. At least most people will be rooting for him...
Shields has a very small fan club (if he has one at all) due to his lack of punching power and tendency to grind out unexciting victories. His last stoppage came almost 5 years ago. Then again, GSP's last stoppage was just over 5 years ago. Maybe I'll shut up about that and just admit that he knows his strengths and is very good at what he does. How many others do you know with a 15-fight win streak on their resume?
19 victories is often impressive on a resume... but Lombard owns 19 KO/TKO's. This guys loves to hit and hits hard. He is somewhat of a patient striker as he waits for an opening and then blitzes with combinations. As soon as his opponent is on the run or shows any sign of being hurt, patience is a virtue you can forget about him possessing as he pursues like a teeny-bopper after Bieber. He did allow Tim Boetsch to land a lot more shots as he tried to land the power shot (since that is about all he throws), but seems to have learned to stay more busy since that fight (yes, I'm aware he had injuries).
It would make sense that Shields has a rather jab-happy strategy considering he is part of the Skrap Pack with the Diaz brothers. But good hell! Can you please through some sort of sting in those punches!? Its almost a joke that many of those punches are considered to be significant strikes. Shields knows he isn't going to put anyone out with his punches and strikes more to score points than anything else. See why fans get frustrated with him? He uses leg kicks fairly often as well.
Lombard doesn't get enough credit for being a world-class judo practitioner (he is a former Olympian), but that is largely his own fault as he doesn't utilize it very often (I said he loves to hit!). It has allowed him to prevent from being taken down himself as he possesses great defense, but he looked stiff looking for takedowns himself. The drop in weight helps as he can't carry the same muscle mass he previously did and makes him more fluid. He is solid with his submissions, but he can't compete with Shields.
Speaking of Shields, if he is going to end the fight, this is where he is going to do it. He does have 10 submission victories, but has taken to passing his opponents guard and doing just enough (whether it be advancing position or weak GNP) to prevent a stand up. If he is able to get Lombard's back it is likely over as he is very good at sinking in a RNC... but that'll be a tough task.
I often get too high on Lombard and too low on Shields... so despite my inner-fan screaming at me to pick Lombard, I gotta go with Shields. He always seems to pull out a game plan that allows him to squeak by against favored competition (Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley, Dan Henderson). I expect more of the same here. Shields by Decision
Thiago Silva made sure he wasn't employed anymore by making threats with a gun in public which resulted in Krylov stepping in for him to face St. Preux. This is one of those cases I really wish I wasn't making this up.
St. Preux was a longtime prospect in Strikeforce who fell short when placed against some real competition in the form of Gegard Mousasi. Mousasi is a premier fighter though and there is no shame in falling short to him though, and he hasn't lost since that setback. With the lack of depth in the division (I know I'm constantly harping on that), the UFC really wants to push him.
Krylov could have very well been cut if he had lost his last fight to Walt Harris considering is first UFC fight is memorable for both him and his opponent Soa Palelei gassing. But he KO'd Harris in less than 25 seconds and declared shortly thereafter he would be cutting down to light heavyweight. This will be his debut at 205.
St. Preux is an athletic marvel (played linebacker at Tennessee in college) and his fluidity shows in his strikes. He has some awesome leg kicks and an impressive reach at '79 but he looks awkward when trying to throw combinations fortunately he does have some power behind those shots. He keeps his head high and doesn't offer a lot of movement which scares me as he climbs the rankings.
Krylov looked like a completely different fighter against Harris. He threw his punches like a wild man against Palelei just hoping that they would land. Against Harris, he threw measured and aimed kicks at Harris that brought him down quick. But even his GNP looked a hell of a lot more technical... and it was GNP for hells sake! I expect him to have a similar amount of technical improvement in his standup punches as well.
St. Preux relies heavily on his athleticism on his takedowns as he can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, but he can also telegraph his attempts from a mile away. I was surprised and impressed by his reversal of Cody Donovan mid-takedown giving him the advantage, but it does again point to his athleticism. His GNP is brutal as he knows how to use his reach from mount. He has a long way to go to become a submission threat, so don't be expecting that.
Krylov on the other hand is very efficient with his subs. His game has been established for a long time (as evidenced by his 10 submission W's) and it seems that opponents have been avoiding his grappling as his last four victories have come by way of KO/TKO. His submissions should improve as he no longer has to deal with stronger opponents... but his takedowns. That is where the question comes in as St. Preux has shown a great sprawl and athleticism (there that word is again) at stopping them.
Barring a quick stoppage by either one, I anticipate this being a fairly sloppy fight. Both have tired quickly in their fights allowing their technique to break down and though they have both fought twice in the Octagon, they will have the spotlight square on them in the main card for the first time. St. Preux had a full camp and less to adjust to. He'll get the nod. St. Preux by Decision
Record for last Card: 6-3
Record for Year: 57-28
I realize I picked a lot of decisions (only decisions actually) for the main card. I don't think it'll be as boring as it sounds though... except for Shields-Lombard and St. Preux-Krylov. Hmm... thats still 40% of the fights. Oh well.