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Gunning for GSP: Different Roads to the Top in the Welterweight Division

So far knocking out TUF winner Amir Sadollah is Johny Hendricks' sole moment in the MMA spotlight.
So far knocking out TUF winner Amir Sadollah is Johny Hendricks' sole moment in the MMA spotlight.

Yesterday we got word via MMA Weekly that Jay Hieron, the #14 welterweight in the USAT/SBN Consensus MMA Rankings, is finally free of his contractual obligations to Strikeforce after a very unsatisfying one year, two fight tenure with MMA's number two organization. 

UPDATE: SBN's David St Martin tweeted that the MMA Weekly story might be a bit premature and Hieron is still locked in with Strikeforce. It may be there is no escape!

Hieron is hoping to return to the UFC after a five year absence from MMA's big league. He had an up and down odyssey outside the Octagon, going 12-2 and putting together a seven fight win streak at the end. He spent two years with the IFL where he won their welterweight title. But perhaps more tellingly, the two men who beat him in the IFL -- Brad Blackburn and Chris Wilson -- both got shots in the UFC, largely based on their wins over Hieron. 

Jay also fought one fight for Affliction and then signed with Strikeforce where he was promised a title shot against Nick Diaz. That fight was all signed and set for August of 2009 but Diaz pulled out due to drug testing issues with the CSAC and Hieron never got his title shot. Instead he got to fight Jesse Taylor and Joe Riggs on the untelevised undercard.

While his gaudy win-loss numbers and tenure at the top of the IFL and near the top of Strikeforce's 170lb class have kept him in the mind of those who rank MMA fighters, Hieron has frankly been wandering in the wilderness. We'll find out soon if he'll get a deserved second chance in the UFC, if not Bellator might be his only fall back option. 

Contrast Hieron's odyssey with the route of Johny Hendricks and Rick Story. Both men shined in their most recent UFC bouts on the UFC 117 undercard. Now they're booked to meet on the main card of The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale. While that fight will be a well deserved coming out party for at least one of these promising talents, it hasn't been easy.

Hendricks came into MMA after an amazing collegiate wrestling career where he was a four time All American at OSU and won two national titles. Part of Team Takedown's experiment with MMA management -- they recruit highly decorated collegiate wrestlers, pay them to train full time, manage their MMA careers and take a hefty slice of the purse -- Hendricks has succeeded where teammates Jake Rosholt and Shane Roller have struggled.

But it hasn't been as easy as Hendricks' 9-0 record makes it look. He fought twice for the low profile WEC before moving up to the UFC when Zuffa consolidated their welterweight divisions. Since then he's gone 4-0 in the big show but has only been on the main card once, when he quickly TKO'd TUF winner Amir Sadollah at UFC 101. The rest of Hendricks' UFC career has been a low-profile slog against tough guys like T.J. Grant and Ricardo Funch. 

Despite his credentials and unbeaten record, Hendricks hasn't come anywhere near the top 25 in the rankings. 

Nor has Rick Story.  Story built his 4-1 UFC record in the grinding workhouse that is the underbelly of the modern UFC. His biggest name win is an annihilation of Dustin Hazelett at UFC 117 and his only loss is to the fast-rising John Hathaway at UFC 99. Now he's got an imposing obstacle to get past in the form of Johny Hendricks. 

Contrast this with Olympic wrestler Ben Askren's run in Bellator. A perfect 6-0 since going pro, Askren has lept into the rankings at #18 with his Bellator tournament finale win over the highly regarded #20 Dan Hornbuckle. He'll face Bellator champ Lymon Good next Thursday. While Hornbuckle is no slouch, Askren's fast rise in the minds of MMA watchers illustrates the big-fish-in-a-small-pond phenomenon. 

For whatever reason, winning a title in a second tier organization gets much more bump than slogging away and compiling an impressive record in the lower rungs of the UFC. The rub will come when and if Ben Askren finds himself in Jay Hieron's spot -- potentially trapped by Bellator's championship clause and unable to get top tier opposition.

Jay Hieron might finally get the chance to show his relatively high ranking is merited, but only time will tell if Askren will get the opportunity to face the best. Look at the fates of Strikeforce champ Nick Diaz or Askren's Bellator colleagues Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard. All three men are earning good money and Diaz is fighting for a relatively large audience, but none are facing the very best.

Meanwhile Johny Hendricks and Rick Story are on the verge of emerging as heralded contenders for the most highly regarded title in all of MMA -- Georges St. Pierre's UFC welterweight title. 


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