Fantasy Fights

Intelligent, unique MMA analysis

The State of the UFC Welterweight Division After GSP’s Departure

With the semi-retirement of Georges St-Pierre I have chosen to remove him from the FPR list for the welterweight division. I have also removed Nick Diaz; I didn’t really buy that Diaz was retired but with Diaz repeatedly turning down fight offers from the UFC, it doesn’t make much sense to continue ranking him alongside active welterweights.

St-Pierre’s departure has left the UFC welterweight title up for grabs. Let’s take a look at the top contenders in the division and break down their chances of winning that title.

(Before we get started, I need to make clear that FPR isn’t a ranking system. It’s a statistic that estimates how well each UFC fighter has performed in the Octagon. It shouldn’t be compared to ranking systems like those found at Fight Matrix.)

Rank Fighter FPR
1 Jake Ellenberger +7.83

Surprisingly, the fighter left with the highest FPR in the UFC welterweight division is Jake Ellenberger. The last time we saw Ellenberger compete, he lost by unanimous decision to Rory MacDonald in one of the dullest fights of the year. He certainly didn’t look the part of a fighter who is the best the division has to offer.

I don’t personally agree with FPR’s assessment. I think Ellenberger is very good but would stop short of calling him the best welterweight remaining. Even so, it’s very important to recognize that no fighter should be judged solely on how he performed in his last fight. I see people say all the time that in the sport of MMA you’re only as good as your last fight. That is absolutely ridiculous. Fighters are like anybody else in sports or in life – sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you have a bad day. No fighter’s ability to compete should be based solely on their worst day.

A great example of this concept at work is the trilogy between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. After Dos Santos knocked out Velasquez in their first fight it was easy to conclude that Dos Santos was the better fighter – and many people did, including myself. After two beatings by Velasquez it’s clear that opinion was woefully incorrect.

The whole point of this is to say – don’t dismiss the idea that Ellenberger might be the best welterweight remaining just because of his last fight. Every fighter has a down performance once in a while.

Rank Fighter FPR
2 Rory MacDonald +7.44

The same goes for Rory MacDonald. It’s true that MacDonald just lost to Robbie Lawler. I’ve already said a lot about that fight, but to reiterate: MacDonald had one of the worst performances of his career while Lawler had one of his best. MacDonald had an awful gameplan and was extremely tentative while Lawler was relaxed, aggressive, and confident. Still the fight went to split decision. Give MacDonald 100 fights against Lawler and he wins at least 70 times. If you ask me who the best five remaining UFC welterweights are I would probably answer: Johny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald, Jake Ellenberger, Carlos Condit, and Jake Shields, in that order.

MacDonald’s next fight will be against Demian Maia, a fight he should win as long as he’s able to keep it standing.

Rank Fighter FPR
3 Johny Hendricks +7.32

Hendricks has opened as about a 3-1 favorite to beat Lawler in their upcoming title fight. FPR has Hendricks beating Lawler 77 percent of the time so it’s pretty much in agreement with the sportsbooks. Hendricks should be able to control Lawler in the takedown game and that makes it difficult for Lawler to win by either knockout or decision. Lawler’s best chance of winning is if Hendricks chooses to engage in a striking battle – but Hendricks has been very consistent in attempting takedowns throughout his UFC career. It’s very likely that Hendricks will be the next UFC welterweight champion.

However, Hendricks has holes in his game that will leave him vulnerable to losing against some of the toughest fighters in the UFC. Hendricks’ biggest weakness is his striking defense – a weakness that could get him out-pointed by fighters like MacDonald. Because of that I don’t see Hendricks having a championship reign on par with fighters like St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, or even Jon Jones.

Rank Fighter FPR
4 Demian Maia +6.08
5 Jake Shields +5.95
6 Nate Marquardt +5.40

Maia and Shields just had a razor close fight as is reflected in their very similar FPR ratings. Unfortunately, both fighters are grapplers first and it’s hard to see them imposing their will on the likes of Hendricks, MacDonald, or Ellenberger, all of whom are far superior wrestlers. For that reason it’s hard to see Maia or Shields taking the title.

The idea of a Nate Marquardt resurgence is almost definitely out of the question. Marquardt has been completely unable to take punishment in recent fights, although to be fair, he’s faced heavy handed opponents in Jake Ellenberger and Hector Lombard. Still, Marquardt is on his way down, not up.

One thing FPR struggles to measure accurately is the fighter in decline. According to FPR B.J. Penn is #11 at welterweight, Thiago Alves is #17, and Josh Koscheck is #18. The ability of these fighters to win is probably a lot worse than FPR would indicate.

Rank Fighter FPR
7 Carlos Condit +5.40

When Condit fought Hendricks at UFC 158 he came about as close to winning as could be expected of a fighter who was taken down 12 times. He’s more of a threat than Lawler because he’s much better at fighting off his back and getting back to his feet. He’s already defeated Ellenberger and MacDonald… although the Ellenberger fight was a split decision and he only barely defeated MacDonald. It’s clear Condit is a serious threat to become UFC champion but his woeful takedown defense is an obstacle he’ll have to deal with constantly.

Rank Fighter FPR
8 Tyron Woodley +5.06
9 Hector Lombard +4.64
16 Matt Brown +3.38

With Diaz turning down a rematch against Condit, the fight that makes the most sense is Condit against Tyron Woodley… but it doesn’t look like the UFC wants to put that fight together. Woodley is a strong wrestler with knockout power, but flawed striking and conditioning. He profiles as a poor man’s Johny Hendricks. I wouldn’t love his chances against Condit or any top welterweight who could counter his wrestling.

EDIT: The NEXT DAY after I write this it’s announced that Condit will be fighting Woodley. Good stuff.

It’s hard to know what to make of Hector Lombard. He’s knocked out Marquardt and Rousimar Palhares but was out-pointed by Tim Boetsch and Yushin Okami. I just don’t know if Lombard will ever be consistent enough to be a true title contender.

Matt Brown’s rise from the bottom of the division to fringe title contention is one of the more remarkable turnarounds I’ve seen in the sport of MMA. His aggressive and punishing strikes earned him a series of wins and a fight against Condit… which he unfortunately withdrew from due to injury. Brown’s takedown and submission defense are still huge question marks, and even his striking is still a bit rough around the edges. It’s hard to see him beating truly elite fighters like Condit.

Rank Fighter FPR
22 Robbie Lawler +2.45

I feel like my writing has been unfairly biased against Lawler, just because I’ve been trying to put his recent career into perspective. Contrary to what you might think, I’m not a Lawler “hater.” In fact I think he’s really fun to watch and always dangerous because of his knockout power. When I speak negatively of Lawler, please know that I do it purely as an analyst. If Lawler keeps proving me wrong… well, I’ve been wrong before.

Even with his victories over MacDonald, Bobby Voelker, and Josh Koscheck, Lawler is 4-3 in his last seven fights. In his career, Lawler has absorbed more significant strikes than he’s landed, been taken down more times than he’s taken his opponents down, had his guard passed more than he’s passed guard, and had more submissions attempted against him than he’s attempted. This is a fighter with serious flaws – and a fighter who was taken down six times by MacDonald and Koscheck. I feel very strongly that he will lose to Johny Hendricks.

Despite my feelings about Lawler, I have to acknowledge the real possibility that Lawler will knock Hendricks out and become UFC welterweight champion. It wouldn’t be nearly as improbable as Matt Serra’s victory over Georges St-Pierre was. But even if it does happen, don’t expect Lawler to remain champion for very long.

SUMMARY

I believe Hendricks, MacDonald, Ellenberger, and Condit are the top four fighters in the division and all have a good chance of winning the title. Maia, Shields, Woodley, and Lombard are in the mix as well but will have a lot of trouble winning consecutive fights against the top tier. Lawler is a flawed fighter who has a real chance of beating Hendricks to win the title, but simply is not as good as the other fighters mentioned here.

One thing seems almost certain: that after years of the welterweight division being dominated by a single fighter, there is suddenly a lot of parity among its top contenders. It will be very interesting to see how things unfold.

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