Sometimes in MMA, the story of certain weight classes becomes one of a dynasty. On average, championship belts change hands with fairly high frequency. Holding the belt for more than 2-3 years is unusual and is celebrated as the mark of a true champion. Holding it longer than that cements a fighter’s status as a legend. Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva both cemented their legacies as some of the best of all time by becoming champions and remaining undefeated for nearly 8 years. When a champion is that dominant in an organization’s weight class, the entire show revolves around him. The organization will focus on finding him quality opponents – that he will tear through anyway – until one day the reign comes to a shocking conclusion. Silva and Fedor went out as great champions do, violently and unexpectedly.
Georges St-Pierre was another dominant champion, but he avoided the fate of Fedor and Silva. After 6 years on top of the welterweight division, he walked away of his own accord after a close and controversial bout against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. During his reign the UFC’s welterweight division was on lockdown. The title stayed firmly in his grasp and challenger after challenger was turned back and systematically shut down. When GSP walked away from the sport to take some much needed time off in December 2013, the welterweight division was turned on its head.
Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks fought for the vacant welterweight championship at UFC 171 in Dallas. Hendricks emerged on top after an extremely close contest to become the new UFC welterweight champion, setting the stage for a new era in the UFC’s welterweight division. Now that Hendricks is the champion he’ll have to contend with a murderer’s row of welterweights all determined to take his spot as the king of the mountain. For the first time in 6 years the welterweight division is wide open, and everyone wants their title shot. These are the top 10 welterweights in the UFC, the men all gunning for Johny ‘Big Rigg’ Hendricks.
10. Tarec Saffiedine
The former – and final – Strikeforce welterweight champion opens the list at #10 in the official UFC welterweight rankings. After being on the shelf for nearly a year following the UFC’s purchase of rival Strikeforce, dutch welterweight Saffiedine finally got to make his debut in the octagon at UFC Fight Night: Saffiedine vs. Lim, where he got the better of his opponent Hyun Gyu Lim to get the decision victory after a gruelling 5 rounds. Saffiedine was expected to face Jake Ellenberger at UFC 173 but had to pull out due to injury. The timetable for his return isn’t currently known.
9. Dong Hyun Kim
Dong Hyun Kim has been with the UFC since 2008 and has a professional record of 19-1-2. ‘Stun Gun’ has clearly been aiming to impress recently, as he’s coming off 4 straight wins in the welterweight division. His most recent victory was in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Kim vs. Hathaway, where he got the KO victory via spinning back elbow in spectacular fashion. Kim is surely only 1 victory away from being in the mix for the title, and although his next opponent has yet to be determined, it will almost certainly be against another high-ranking member on this list. If his momentum continues, Dong Hyun Kim could be a dark horse championship contender in 2014.
8. Demian Maia
Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Demian Maia comes in at #8 in the official rankings. After a run at middleweight that culminated in a failed attempt at Anderson Silva’s UFC middleweight championship, Maia decided to drop down a weight class to the 170lbs welterweight division in order to make better use of his size. After 3 victories he was close to the top of the rankings, but back-to-back losses against Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald have derailed his hype train. With a professional record of 18-6, Maia needs to regroup with a victory to propel himself up the rankings and back into title contention. His next bout is on May 31st, at the The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3 Finale against Alexander Yakovlev. The fight is a must-win for Maia, as failure might mean a permanent shift into irrelevancy.
7. Hector Lombard
Hector Lombard represented Cuba in the Olympics in the sport of Judo and made the switch to a professional MMA career when he was finished with his amateur Judo career. He was undefeated between 2006 and 2011, making his UFC debut with a great deal of hype in 2011. He lost his first fight under his UFC contract, which temporarily derailed the hype train. Still, Lombard has been putting in consistent and dominant performances against stiff competition like Jake Shields, Nate Marquardt and Rousimar Palhares. At 36 years old, Lombard probably doesn’t have the longest career left in front of him. He’ll be keeping his eyes on the prize and finding a way to earn his title shot sooner than later.
6. Matt Brown
Matt ‘The Immortal’ Brown probably has the most appropriate nickname in all of MMA. After briefly and temporarily dying from a heroin overdose when he was younger, Brown recuperated and used MMA training as a way to help him kick his addiction. After a relatively successful UFC debut in 2008, Brown lost 4 out of 5 fights in a very short period of time and looked to be on his way out. He rebounded with a victory against Chris Cope and never looked back. He’s now on a 7 fight winning streak after a dominant and star-making performance against Erick Silva in what was possibly the best UFC fight so far in 2014. After nearly being taken out in the first round by a vicious body kick that Silva transitioned into a rear naked choke, ‘The Immortal’ lived up to his nickname and brought his victory chances back from the dead. For the next 10 minutes, Brown blasted Silva with a flurry of strikes in the clinch until he got the TKO victory halfway through the 3rd round. After that tremendous showing – not to mention one of the longest active UFC winning streaks – Brown is surely only one fight away from a title shot.
5. Jake Ellenberger
Jake ‘The Juggernaut’ Ellenberger has been a perennial figure near the top of the welterweight rankings for a few years now. With a professional record of 29-7, Ellenberger has been constantly searching for his opportunity to get a title shot – something that has so far eluded him. At UFC 173, he may have his chance. He’ll be facing Robbie Lawler – who came inches from becoming welterweight champion – and a victory over him will propel him up the rankings and immediately into the title discussion against Johny Hendricks. His last fight was a loss to Rory MacDonald, so Ellenberger will need to come out strong to make UFC matchmakers forget about that performance and focus on his future.
4. Carlos Condit
Former UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit was right on track for another title opportunity. He was booked to fight Tyron Woodley at UFC 171 in a fight that was considered the unofficial #1 contender’s match. The winner was expected to be next in line to face the winner of Hendricks/Lawler for the UFC welterweight champion. Unfortunately for both men, Condit blew out his knee in the 2nd round. This put Condit on the shelf for the rest of the year – putting a screeching halt to his current title run – and gave Woodley an unsatisfying victory that didn’t deserve to be awarded a title shot. Only one thing is for sure; when he’s recovered, ‘The Natural Born Killer’ will insert himself right back into title contention. It’s just what he does.
3. Tyron Woodley
Tyron Woodley is a massive, imposing figure at 170lbs. The 32-year-old has a professional record of 13-2, and he’s displayed an explosive aggression in his victories that few welterweights can keep up with. Since Woodley’s victory over Condit, he’s publicly and repeatedly vocalized that he believes he’s in line for a title opportunity against Johny Hendricks. UFC matchmakers have set up one more test for him; a fight against Rory MacDonald at UFC 174, in MacDonald’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada. The winner of that fight is expected to be the next man to face Hendricks, so if Woodley wants his opportunity he better come prepared.
2. Rory MacDonald
Canadian Rory MacDonald was in a bit of a jam at welterweight. MacDonald is the training partner of longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, and although he quietly rose up the welterweight ranks, he never publicly asked for an opportunity for a title shot. MacDonald was hesitant to face his longtime friend and teammate GSP. With GSP’s semi-retirement, all that changed. MacDonald began talking about a championship opportunity, and rebounded from his loss to Robbie Lawler with a victory over Demian Maia. If he can get past Woodley, he’ll guarantee a championship fight against Hendricks that could see a new Canadian welterweight holding the belt.
1. Robbie Lawler
After coming literally seconds away from becoming the new UFC welterweight champion, ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler finds himself sitting comfortably as the #1 contender. Lawler, an MMA veteran who made his professional debut at age 19, has a professional record of 22-10. Now 32, Lawler must look for any way possible to earn another crack at Johny Hendricks. Seeing as how he came extremely close to beating ‘Big Rigg’, UFC matchmakers won’t hesitate to give him an opportunity if he can string together a few more victories. First, he has to get through Jake Ellenberger. If he can manage that, and defeat another top 10 opponent, expect Robbie Lawler vs. Johny Hendricks II to go down with just as many fireworks as their first ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate encounter.