With his thrilling win over B.J. Penn on Saturday night, Matt Hughes solidified his position as the top welterweight in the world, and arguably the best welterweight ever to compete in mixed martial arts. How does Hughes’s win affect the rest of the division? Who are the contenders for the title, and who are the sleepers? Let’s have a look at the landscape of the very crowded Welterweight Division…
Matt Hughes: Like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes has dominated his division since becoming champ for the second time. Fighters have tried to exploit different phases of Hughes’s game, only to find themselves on the wrong end of a TKO or submission.
Since his now basically irrelevant loss to Penn in their first fight, we’ve seen Hughes in trouble a few times, but we’ve never seen him finished, and he has always come back to reassert his dominance. The lesson to be learned is simple: if you don’t finish Matt Hughes when you have the chance, you might as well forget about it.
Georges St. Pierre: St. Pierre is the most obvious contender, having plowed through a who’s who list of top welterweights since his loss to Hughes almost two years ago. Dave Strasser, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, and Penn himself have fallen victim to the French Canadian phenom. It’s worth noting that St. Pierre stopped Sean Sherk for the first time in Sherk’s career, something even Hughes himself couldn’t do (St. Pierre and Hughes account for Sherk’s only two losses in 33 fights.) St. Pierre is hungry and wants the title in a bad way. He’s next in line for a shot, and given the comments he made over the mic Saturday night (which he later told Hughes was just buildup for the fight, but you know the hype machine will use the confrontation), this fight will be a big draw.
Diego Sanchez: Sanchez is another guy that just keeps beating everyone the UFC puts in front of him. He hit a speedbump in John Alessio at UFC 60 (Sanchez won the fight but was unable to score many takedowns and/or finish Alessio), but showed he deserves to be mentioned with others at the top of the division with his defeat of Karo Parisyan in what I consider to be a fight of the year candidate. With St. Pierre already guaranteed to have the next title shot, Sanchez will probably have to win another fight or two in order to remain in contention. I only hope he gets his shot before the winner of TUF 4, but time will tell.
B.J. Penn: His decisive loss to Hughes notwithstanding, Penn is in the unique position of holding a win over Hughes, thus providing a possibility of the ever-popular “rubber match.” Wade Keller noted that this would definitely be interesting if Penn would concentrate more on cardio, perhaps hiring a professional cardio trainer to help. I agree that this would only make Penn a more viable candidate to take the belt away from Hughes. He surely would not have outlasted the champ on Saturday in a decision given the shape he was in, even if Hughes had been unable to end the fight. Should Hughes lose the belt to either St. Pierre, Sanchez, or someone else before Penn gets another shot, look for this match to happen as a next step for Hughes.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Jon Fitch: Perhaps the best welterweight we’ve never seen, Fitch has been relegated to undercards, where he’s racked up a record of 3-0 in the UFC, taking out Brock Larson in his debut, followed by Josh Burkman and Thiago Alves. These three victories cap off a current streak of ten straight wins overall. I find it curious that we’ve never seen Fitch on a main card, while we’ve seen both of the last two guys he’s defeated. Fitch is scheduled to make his PPV debut, however, on the UFC 64 card against Kuniyoshi Hironaka. He’s one to watch, and with a few more wins, Fitch could force the UFC brass to notice him in this crowded division.
Karo Parisyan: It’s almost a crime to have Karo in this category, since he’s one of the most proven fighters in the division. But the fact remains that he’s lost to two of the four fighters in the upper two categories, and that relegates him to here. Parisyan is always thrilling to watch, and constantly pushes the pace. His most recent match with Diego Sanchez, as I mentioned before, was outstanding. It’s worth mentioning as well that despite his relatively extensive UFC experience, Karo is only 24 years old, and he’ll be around for a long time.
UP AND COMERS
Josh Burkman: Always confident and unquestionably skilled, Josh Burkman is a tough draw for any
welterweight. At this point, however, with all the talent in this weight class, Burkman’s loss to Jon Fitch was a relatively significant setback. He bounced back with a convincing decision win over Josh Neer at UFC 61, but it will take more than that to get into contention.
Josh Koscheck: Koscheck did significant good to his reputation as a boring fighter with his submission win over Jonathan Goulet at UFC Fight Night 6 in August. It was his third straight victory after losing to Drew Fickett in a fight that Koscheck dominated for most of three rounds before getting caught by a knee and put to sleep by a rear naked choke. This was the only loss of Koscheck’s eight fight career, and if he continues to make progress like he showed against Goulet, Koscheck could make some serious noise down the road.
Nick Diaz: Diaz is hardly what you could consider a UFC rookie, with a record of 5-4 in the Octagon. I have him in this category because after his three straight losses to Diego Sanchez, Joe Riggs, and Sean Sherk, Diaz needs to string together a few more wins in order to get himself back into contention. Having
been mentioned as a fighter signed by the new World Fighter organization, his UFC future may be a question mark, but time will tell. He’s certainly an exciting and talented enough fighter to come back and make noise in the UFC. He started his comeback with a nice submission win over Josh Neer at UFC 62 as a late replacement.
John Alessio: Alessio’s lone bout in the UFC was a decision loss to Diego Sanchez, but the fight was the
first time Sanchez had been almost completely stuffed in his takedowns. Many fans in attendance thought Alessio won the fight (or at least they were rooting for him), but besides stuffing takedowns, “the natural” didn’t really do anything to deserve the decision. He definitely showed proficiency for planning and cardio, though, and we’ll learn more about him when he takes on Thiago Alves in an undercard bout at UFC Fight Night on October 10.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Joe Riggs: “Diesel” has been inconsistent in his UFC career, never winning or losing two in a row since his debut in 2004. He made a move up to middleweight to fight Mike Swick, where he lost quickly. I’m
not sure what the advantage was in taking that fight. It may have been a one-time fight at middleweight, or perhaps he wanted to contend at 185 lbs and then decided to drop back down to 170 lbs after the loss, but he followed the loss to Swick with a quick submission win over Jason Von Flue in August. Riggs will have a lot of work to do to get back into title contention after his lackluster defeat at the hands of Matt
Hughes in a non-title affair back in November of last year (that’s a story for another time.) His work continues October 10 when he faces UFC newcomer Tony DeSouza at UFC Fight Night.
Josh Neer: Neer got a reputation as a scrapper when he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Melvin Guillard at Ultimate Fight Night 3, and with a pretty one-sided decision win over TUF 3 winner Joe Stevenson. Successive losses to Josh Burkman and Nick Diaz, however, have caused a setback for “The Dentist.”
WHO CAN HELP
Jake Shields: It’s hard to even fit this category into the article, since this division is so loaded with talent, but Shields would undeniably be a good addition to the welterweight class of the UFC. He’s currently on a five fight win streak, with wins over Yushin Okami and Carlos Condit coming in the same night when he won the Rumble on the Rock tournament in April.
Duane Ludwig: Why “Bang” hasn’t been in the UFC since his lightning quick KO of Jonathan Goulet is beyond me. Ludwig doesn’t win every fight, but his contests are almost always exciting, and his reputation makes him a decent draw among long-time fans.
There you have it. The list is obviously not comprehensive, as I’d be here for days writing about each
contender. But I think this is perhaps the most clear-cut division in the UFC, at least at the top of the food
chain. Hughes is the dominant champ, and in my eyes, the next three guys that deserve title shots are almost a no-brainer.