The UFC's welterweight division is easily one of the most interesting weight classes in the UFC. While Georges St. Pierre is considered by many fans to be an unstoppable force at the apex of the division, there are a number of top notch talents below him who could give him a run for his money in the years to come. What makes it even more intriguing is the match-ups between these great fighters that will eventually produce a legitimate contender. UFC 121 houses two fights that could be considered solid bouts near the top of the division, and the outcomes will be very important in determining who may be in line to fight for a contender role within the next year.
In the first welterweight battle on the main card on Saturday night, former UFC lightweight contender Diego Sanchez (21-4, 10-4 UFC) will make his second appearance since returning to welterweight as he battles Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Paulo Thiago (13-2, 3-2 UFC). While Sanchez has stated that his intentions following this match-up are to return to the UFC's lightweight division, that doesn't take away from the fact that Thiago could regain some ground in the division with a win. Martin Kampmann was able to smother any ideas of Thiago making a run at the title with his victory over him at UFC 115, but Thiago has, at the very least, proven he is a staple in the upper-echelon of the division.
This isn't a throw away fight for Sanchez by any means. While he may be leaving the division, he needs to return to the lightweight division with some considerable momentum. After all, B.J. Penn absolutely dominated him in their UFC 107 title showdown, and John Hathaway was surprisingly effective in neutralizing Sanchez at UFC 114. Those two losses bring an added appeal to this fight, mainly due to the fact that Sanchez was seen by many fans as a fighter who could compete at the upper levels of both divisions. Is he now nose diving into mediocrity? Perhaps, but a win on Saturday night would certainly put a stop to that thinking.
Paulo Thiago will aim to prove that theory, and he'll provide a stiff challenge for Sanchez to lift himself out of his current funk. Much of the talk among fans has focused solely on Thiago's small advantage in the size department and Sanchez's underrated grappling ability. While Thiago is one of the better grapplers in the division, he can be controlled by a better wrestler who has the knowledge to recognize submission attempts and escape. Diego fits that mold perfectly, and his conditioning should allow him to maintain a quick pace -- keeping Thiago on the defensive and wearing him down.
But this fight may not necessarily be decided on the ground. Thiago's stand-up ability has come and gone from fight to fight. He looked sloppy against Josh Koscheck in the opening exchanges, but managed to surprise him with an uppercut. He performed even better against Jacob Volkmann and Mike Swick, but somewhat regressed when he fought Martin Kampmann at UFC 115. Will a much more honed Paulo Thiago show up on Saturday night? If so, Sanchez could be in for a long night of being jabbed to death.
I'd call this with a flip of the coin, mainly because it depends on what type of fighter shows up on both sides of the Octagon. Sanchez should improve after returning to Greg Jackson, but I fear his limited power on the feet will be his demise in this fight. Thiago can be rather tough to fight on the feet due to his range, and Diego will need to wade through his reach to land punches. If that's the case, I'm more inclined to believe he'll try to take Thiago down and control him, and that should give him a great chance to win.
Unfortunately, I think Sanchez's recent run of bad performances have shown that he can't take too many blows before he begins to wilt, something we normally don't see from Sanchez. Perhaps his body is tired, or perhaps his heart hasn't been in it since being demoralized by B.J. Penn. In any case, he needs to wake up Saturday night and remind all of us why he's known as "Nightmare". I'm taking Paulo Thiago via decision, but this should be a very interesting, narrowly contested bout.