Johny Hendricks nearly took the welterweight belt from Georges St-Pierre in November, and last night he won the belt GSP vacated with a thrilling decision win over Robbie Lawler. Hendricks went from jeopardizing his right to fight for a title on Friday night by missing weight to undisputed champion by Saturday night. A new champion means it's time to survey the field to see who will be Hendricks' first title defense.
Much like my recent layout of the flyweight division, I've separated the current top 15 into 4 different tiers. The top tier defines those in line for a title shot within this calendar year (i.e they've earned it already or need another win), the 2nd tier is for those in the top 10 who are a bit further back in the line, 3rd tier is for the bottom half of the top 15, and the 4th tier is a mixture of those with a ways to go as well as effective "no-hopers". Keep in mind that the new rankings go up tomorrow and I've also added in a few un-ranked as they pertain to last night's card.
Robbie Lawler (#3). Lawler was valiant in defeat and continues his incredible run at a weight class he previously hadn't fought in since 2004. While most had Hendricks as the victor, you could've argued a win for "Ruthless" depending on how you scored round 1. It was a tense, competitive, and high-level fight that saw Lawler nearly finish Hendricks in the 3rd. Even if he isn't granted an immediate 2nd fight (which is the likely outcome), it shouldn't be difficult for him to get another crack at gold soon. Lawler is more than just some sort of underdog story, he's a legitimate top welterweight, and no one could've predicted that when he was struggling with middleweights in Strikeforce.
Rory MacDonald (#4). Whether you love him or hate him, Rory MacDonald has multiple wins against the current top 10 (Ellenberger and Maia), which very few welterweights can claim. The UFC is very keen on finding a replacement Canadian star with GSP on hiatus and possibly gone from competition for good, so even though he lost to Lawler just last November, it's not inconceivable for him to be vaulted into the #1 contender position to set up Hendricks vs. MacDonald down the line. I personally would be against it, but given the importance of the Canadian PPV market, it's a distinct possibility.
Tyron Woodley (#11). He might be the biggest jumper in the rankings with his win over 2nd ranked Condit. As much as the finish was anti-climactic and unfortunate, Woodley targeted a clearly wounded Condit and landed a perfectly legal leg kick to finish the fight off. Woodley was otherwise winning the fight up to that point and looked great against the best opponent he's faced to date. This is clearly not the same guy who lost to Nate Marquardt in Strikeforce, and if he doesn't get a title shot for beating Condit then he's at least in a position where he could be booked for a #1 contender match-up. Granted, Woodley lost to Shields less than a year ago, but Dana White seems to have filed that under a bogus decision, so in the UFC's opinion he's probably 4-0 in the promotion with 3 stoppage victories.
Hector Lombard (#12). Lombard is obviously going to shoot up to around or in the top 5 by tomorrow, but Dana White didn't seem too enthused over his performance. I can only assume that comes from Lombard not finishing Shields, not attacking him more on the feet, and being generally inactive from top position. But the win was big for him and he's officially established himself as one of the best in the division, it's just a matter of who the UFC pairs him up with next and whether or not he can not only win, but do so in exciting fashion.
Nick Diaz (NR). Yeah, he's 0-2 in his last 2, hasn't won a fight since 2011, was the least competitive opponent for GSP since the Dan Hardy fight, but he talks, and the UFC isn't exactly immune to awarding title shots that are utterly bereft of merit.
Carlos Condit (#2). Unfortunately for Condit, not only does he have a serious knee injury, but the Woodley loss has dropped him to 1-3 in his last 4. He was on the cusp of a title shot last night, particularly given his classic first encounter with Johny Hendricks, but the combination of the recent string of results plus a long-term injury will make it difficult for him to be a title challenger in 2014. Condit won't necessarily need a long winning streak to get back "in the mix", but it's no longer as simple as "win and you're the next contender", as was the case heading into Saturday night.
Jake Ellenberger (#5). "The Juggernaut" has floated around as a title threat since knocking out Jake Shields, but he's 2-2 in his last 4 and his showing against Rory MacDonald was pitiful and impotent at best. He's fighting Tarec Saffiedine next month and really can't afford a losing streak, so this is easily the most pivotal fight at 170 looking over the UFC's schedule.
Matt Brown (#8). As great as the Matt Brown story is, his next fight is against unranked Erick Silva. He went from a planned fight with Carlos Condit to a main event vs. Erick Silva in the span of a few months on the shelf. Mike Pyle remains his only win against a ranked opponent, so his value in the division can fluctuate based on how he performs against the Brazilian. If he loses then the fun ride comes to an end and he has to restart, or he adds to his winning streak and is thrust into top 10 caliber opposition at last.
Dong Hyun Kim (#10). One of the biggest beneficiaries of Condit's injury might be Kim, who was KO'd by Condit just under 3 years ago. Since losing to Demian Maia via injury TKO, Kim has won his last 4, and has shown finishing power that he has otherwise not unleashed in the past. His KOs of John Hathaway and Erick Silva were both unexpected and absolutely terrific, and while I am VERY hesitant to favor "Stun Gun" against a top 5 guy given his reckless abandon, he's been exciting in his recent bouts and could be in line for a title shot with 1-2 more wins.
Tarec Saffiedine (#9). The brakes needs to be pumped on Saffiedine just a tad. His top 10 ranking to me is shaky at best, and seems to be a product of his upset win over Nate Marquardt in Strikeforce. Outside of that he has a loss to Tyron Woodley and has not exactly beaten stiff competition. A win over Jake Ellenberger at UFC 172 would bump him up a tier with ease, but for now he's on the outside looking in.
Mike Pyle (#13). "Quicksand" is just about a gatekeeper right now, much like Matt Wiman at 155 lbs. Pyle has stoppage losses to Jake Ellenberger, Rory MacDonald, and Matt Brown. His only win against a current top 15 opponent is Rick Story, who nearly KO'd him in the 1st round. At 38, he's defied Father Time and evolved from a wrestler/submission fighter into a dangerous Muay Thai striker who can win just about anywhere the fight takes place. Just for that reason alone I can't rule out some sort of miraculous run that propels him towards an unlikely title shot, but I wouldn't count on it.
Jake Shields (#6). He's more likely to be cut than ever make another run at the title. Shields had his chance after beating Demian Maia, but Lombard dominated him and that shut his window of opportunity for good. His striking is as meager and tepid as ever and his takedown efficiency has been absolutely abysmal in the UFC. Combine that with his generally boring fights and you have probably seen the last of Shields in the organization.
Demian Maia (#7). Consecutive losses to Shields and MacDonald were ones he couldn't afford, and at 36 years old that was probably his last chance at gold. Like Shields, age is not on his side, and while he's improved significantly as a striker, he doesn't have enough tools in his game to compete with the elite of 170.
Rick Story (#14). For the 2nd time in less than a year, Story has had a chance to finish off his badly hurt opponent and not only couldn't seal the deal, but ultimately lost the decision. You could argue over the scoring of the Pyle and Gastelum fights as much as you want, but the fact of the matter is he's now 2-3 in his last 5 and likely to be out of the rankings by Monday night. It's all gone downhill for him since losing to Charlie Brenneman, and the loss to Gastelum assures me he's not got another run in him to make the top 10.
Josh Koscheck (#15). He should probably be unranked by tomorrow. Bad KO losses to Woodley and Lawler combined with his general performances after Georges St-Pierre nearly jabbed his head off in their title fight. His only value to the division right now is, at best, a gatekeeper. Koscheck's days as a contender are long gone and if not a gatekeeper then you have to wonder how much longer he'll continue to compete in the sport.
Kelvin Gastelum (NR). I included Gastelum specifically because I expect him to be in tomorrow's top 15 by virtue of beating Story. Count me in as someone who has obviously underrated Gastelum's abilities, particularly as a striker, and this was a big win for him considering how quickly the UFC has pushed him. That he's in the 4th tier isn't a knock on Gastelum, I just believe that the division is too crowded with better fighters and that the UFC will not continue to rapidly push him up the ranks and let him continue to feast on the middle of a really deep division.
And that's a wrap. The UFC isn't short on options in a division this stacked, and a rematch shouldn't be out of the question. Feel free to leave your thoughts, suggestions, and predictions on who is next for Hendricks.