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UFC welterweight division: A primer on the top fighters

Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks are the only

Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks are the only men to hold the UFC welterweight title during the past two years. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Alex Trautwig

It’s not often that a fighter claws his way back from journeyman status to reign as champion, but that’s exactly where Robbie Lawler’s career trajectory has taken him.

Perhaps things would have been different if the current UFC welterweight champion, who defends his crown against former interim champion Carlos Condit at UFC 195 on Saturday night in Las Vegas, never ventured above 170 pounds. His career record sits at a modest 26-10 (1 no-contest), but remove his fights at middleweight and above from 2004-12 and it becomes a more impressive 15-3.

It’s hard to say whether Lawler would be champion today without his experience at heavier weights, but it’s interesting to think about what might have been for the 33-year-old leader of one of MMA’s deepest divisions.

Read on for more on Lawler and the other important players in the UFC’s 170-pound weight class and beyond, with fighters separated into descending tiers based on their standing in the division.

 

Champion

Robbie Lawler (26-10, 11-4 UFC)

In the three years preceding the champ’s UFC return, Lawler went 3-5 fighting mostly at 185 pounds. With that as context, it’s easy to see why his 7-1 record and championship reign as a UFC welterweight since the start of 2013 is such a shock.

His current UFC run includes wins over Rory MacDonald (twice), Johny Hendricks, Matt Brown and Jake Ellenberger. The latest, a Hall of Fame-caliber war in July when he stopped MacDonald’s bid for the welterweight crown, cemented Lawler as the most exciting champion in the UFC.

 

True contenders

Johny Hendricks (17-3, 12-3), Rory MacDonald (18-3, 9-3)

Hendricks became the UFC welterweight champion after longtime kingpin Georges St-Pierre’s retirement — an event that immediately followed a contested split decision win over Hendricks in November 2013. After beating Lawler for the title four months later, Hendricks lost the immediate rematch in December. Since then, he’s battled weight cutting issues that came to a head when he was hospitalized the day before an expected No. 1 contender bout against Tyron Woodley in October.

MacDonald, who at 26 is a six-year UFC veteran, may very well become champion one day. He nearly finished Lawler in July before succumbing to strikes in Round 5. With wins over Woodley, Demian Maia, Jake Ellenberger and Tarec Saffiedine, he’s proved to be an elite 170-pounder.

 

Upper echelon

Carlos Condit (30-8, 7-4), Demian Maia (22-6, 16-6), Tyron Woodley (15-3, 5-2)

Condit was a curious choice to challenge Lawler at UFC 195, largely because he lost due to a knee injury against Woodley in March 2014. He won his only fight since the injury when he beat Thiago Alves last May. Woodley, the likely next title challenger, has gone 2-1 since, with his loss coming at the hands of MacDonald.

Both have beaten top fighters. Condit won the interim championship in 2012 against Nick Diaz and gave MacDonald his first career loss in 2010. Woodley’s last two wins came against Dong Hyun Kim and Kelvin Gastelum.

Maia kick-started his flagging career by dropping from middleweight, where he once challenged Anderson Silva for the title in one of the former champion’s more bizarre bouts. He’s 7-2 at welterweight, having won four in a row. Another win over a top five opponent should be enough to warrant a title shot for the 38-year-old expert grappler.

 

Muddled middle

Matt Brown (20-13, 13-7), Nick Diaz (26-9, 7-6), Kelvin Gastelum (11-2, 6-2), Benson Henderson (23-5, 11-3), Dong Hyun Kim (21-3-1, 12-3), Hector Lombard (34-4-1, 3-2), Neil Magny (17-4, 10-3), Stephen Thompson (11-1, 6-1)

Henderson, the former lightweight champion, is the most interesting name in this group. He could rocket up the rankings if he faces and gets past a more well-regarded welterweight in 2016. He is a free agent, however, so he might sign elsewhere if he finds a more attractive offer outside the octagon.

Thompson, Magny and Gastelum are largely on the rise in the division. Magny won a split decision against Gastelum in November, but as long as weight issues don’t hold Gastelum back he should be a major player in the future.

Brown and Kim are high-level gatekeepers who provide a good barometer for welterweights with title aspirations. Brown, in particular, is one of the most exciting 170-pounders on the roster.

Diaz and Lombard were suspended last year — Diaz infamously received a five-year ban for marijuana that seems likely to be shortened dramatically.

 

Best of the rest

Thiago Alves (21-10, 13-7), Jake Ellenberger (30-10, 9-6), John Hathaway (17-2, 7-2), Ryan LaFlare (12-1, 5-1), Mike Pierce (17-7, 9-5), Tarec Saffiedine (15-4, 1-1), Rick Story (18-8, 11-6)

LaFlare and Saffiedine are the most likely to ascend much farther than this group. Saffiedine is the former Strikeforce welterweight champion, but has just two fights since winning that belt three years ago. Hathaway could also be grouped in here, but the former prospect lost to Kim in his only fight since September 2012.

The other four are tough outs, but they’re little more than gatekeepers. Some (Alves) are more appealing to watch than others (Pierce).

 

Outside the octagon

Ben Askren (14-0, 0-0), Andrey Koreshkov (18-1, 0-0), Douglas Lima (26-6, 0-0), Rousimar Palhares (18-6, 8-4), Jake Shields (31-8-1, 4-3)

Askren, Koreshkov and Lima once made up Bellator’s cream of the crop. Askren beat the other two before departing for ONE Championship. Lima succeeded him as champion before dropping the title to Koreshkov in July.

Palhares submitted Shields, a standout grappler himself, in an August World Series of Fighting title fight. However, the actions by both men during the fight garnered suspensions. Palhares’ ban is indefinite, while Shields will compete for the vacant WSOF belt that was stripped from Palhares.

Askren, Shields and Palhares, disciplinary issues aside, are borderline top 10 fighters in the division. In fact, if not for Palhares’ disgusting habit of holding on to submissions for too long, he might have been the one challenging for the UFC belt on Saturday.

Koreshkov and Lima are harder to pinpoint, but are roughly top 20 are higher.

Expected upcoming bouts

  • Lawler vs. Condit (Saturday, UFC 195)
  • Ellenberger vs. Saffiedine (Jan. 30, UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Bader)
  • Hendricks vs. Thompson (Feb. 6, UFC 196)
  • MacDonald vs. Lombard (TBA)
  • Shields vs. Jon Fitch (TBA)

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