So much has been said and written about the fantastic series of events following former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre’s controversial decision victory over Johny Hendricks, his immediate retirement, the circus that was the post-fight presser at UFC 167 on Nov. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas and the aftermath, it would be redundant to recap it all here. Suffice it to say, St-Pierre’s exit from the sport left an enormous vacuum in the UFC’s 170-pound division and an even larger vacuum in the promotion’s pay-per-view buys.
While St-Pierre reigned as champion, the division had arguably become stale. The French-Canadian’s wins came via decision in eight of his nine title defenses since he captured the belt back from Matt Serra in April 2008. While the first two of those defenses consisted of a savage, cathartic beating of Jon Fitch and a corner stoppage against B.J. Penn, St-Pierre became more of a risk-averse fighter with every subsequent bout, leaving every single fight after the Penn stoppage in the hands of the judges. After defeating Thiago Alves at UFC 100 in 2009, St-Pierre had cleaned out the division to the point where the next contender was chosen in a fight between Dan Hardy and late replacement Mike Swick, who was visibly a shadow of his former self at the time. Other than Swick, Hardy’s UFC wins at that point had come over Marcus Davis, Rory Markham and a split decision over Akihiro Gono in Hardy’s Octagon debut, and the win over Gono was the result of a point deduction on Gono for an illegal knee. This isn’t meant to downplay Hardy’s impressive knockout wins over Davis and Markham, but he clearly did not share anywhere near the same pedigree as the title challengers who came before him.
For a while, St-Pierre didn’t have a fight where he was in danger of losing at any point. That changed when he faced the very dangerous interim champion Carlos Condit, who had him rocked with a head kick at one point. Even in that fight, however, the danger was fleeting and GSP rode out the five rounds comfortably to win on the scorecards yet again. When Nick Diaz, coming off a close loss to the aforementioned Condit, finally got his title shot, St-Pierre dominated the fight easily to take another one of his predictable decision wins. UFC welterweight championship fights by this point had largely been pedestrian affairs lacking in any kind of drama or entertainment value. Sure, they still made plenty of money for the promotion due to the champ’s status as a national treasure in Canada by that point, but it was becoming something analogous to watching a Klitschko boxing match, and those brothers have similar national treasure status in their adopted home of Germany, obviously taking the place of David Hasselhoff.
If one was to follow this mindset, it would become easy to see just why it was so infuriating to witness the division’s last hope, the aforementioned Hendricks, get robbed of a decision win against St-Pierre in their thrilling fight. It was such a robbery that every single journalist in press row except for Dave Meltzer scored it in favor of the challenger, and it wasn’t until the Sunday morning stick-it-to-Dana-White contrarian faction weighed in on it that we saw anything resembling a substantial dissenting voice in the matter (not to say that Meltzer isn’t a substantial voice, but substantial in terms of numbers). To see the champ take his ball, or championship title in this case, and go home immediately after this fight could’ve been the death knell for the division. Thankfully, GSP ended up relinquishing his title, and a fresh, highly competitive welterweight division eventually emerged from the ashes.
The remainder of 2013 and 2014 saw the rise of quite a few legitimate contenders for the welterweight crown, from relatively newer yet battle-tested faces like Rory MacDonald, Hector Lombard and Tyron Woodley to old faces like Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown who were once thought to have lost their relevance. When at one time each of these contenders may have been seen as the latest foil for GSP, the division is now wide open and it is feasible for any one of these contenders to win the title from current champ Hendricks on any given night.
Another issue the welterweight division had to deal with for the last few years of GSP’s reign was his constant knee injuries holding the whole thing up. When Condit was awarded a title shot against St-Pierre at UFC 137 on Oct. 29, 2011, due to original challenger Nick Diaz’s failure to meet his promotional obligations, St-Pierre sustained an ACL tear during training which put him out of action for a few months. Not only did this put the champ on the shelf, but it also caused Condit to wait on the sidelines for his return. When Diaz ended up utterly dominating Penn at UFC 137, he called out both GSP and Condit, and this forced UFC President Dana White to decide to give Diaz the shot at the title at UFC 143 on Feb. 4, 2012, when GSP was supposed to return from his injury. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to this fight, GSP injured his other knee, which put him back on the shelf for a then-undetermined amount of time. Condit and Diaz ended up fighting at UFC 143 for the interim title, which Condit won. Once Condit was the interim champion of the weight class, he again made the choice to sit on the shelf and wait for the return of St-Pierre, not defending his title once in the meantime. By the time the two finally faced off when UFC 154 came along, it was Nov. 17, 2012, over a year after St-Pierre’s originally slated fight with Condit.
Needless to say, GSP’s injury had the entire upper echelon of the division in something of a cryostasis, except it was a shoddy one where the people in it aged anyway and just didn’t do a whole lot. The entire series of events that kicked off prior to UFC 137, the whole awkward song-and-dance between GSP, Condit and Diaz, felt almost like a Lynchian nightmare that wasn’t fully resolved until GSP won a unanimous decision over Diaz at UFC 158, finally bringing this messy chapter of the division to a close.
Soon after St-Pierre’s retirement, he announced that he sustained yet another ACL tear in training which would rule out any return to MMA in the immediate future. Had he not stepped away from the sport, we could have easily seen a postponed rematch between him and Hendricks, setting the stage for even more welterweight ennui instead of what we did get, which was an amazing five-round war between Hendricks and the amazingly resurgent Lawler to determine the new kingpin of the division.
Although Hendricks has had his own injury issues to deal with, the welterweight division in 2014 has seen some great fights that have set the stage for some additional great fights in the future. Hector Lombard made his 170-pound debut by rag-dolling Jake Shields for three rounds and making it look easy, when this is something no other fighter has ever managed to do against Shields. Woodley has defeated Condit and Dong Hyun Kim in convincing fashion. Brown went on an improbable seven-fight winning streak before running into top contender Lawler and Rory MacDonald has had impressive wins over Tarec Saffiedine and the aforementioned Woodley. There is also Condit, who is still a nightmare match-up for most fighters and is still on the road to recovery from his knee injury sustained in his loss to Woodley. On Dec. 6, Hendricks and Lawler will face each other in a rematch of their war earlier this year, and the fight will determine who will be the flagbearer for the 170-pounders heading into 2015.
The UFC’s welterweight division hasn’t been this stacked and exciting in quite some time, and it has clearly benefited from the departure of St-Pierre. Now, with the former champ being recently cleared to train, and with UFC executives reportedly taking trips up to Montreal to presumably woo him into considering a return, the possibility of GSP revisiting the Octagon in the distant future appears to be more and more feasible. But if he does so, it’ll definitely be a drastically different Octagon than the one he left upon his controversial win over the current champ.