UFC 158 rife with welterweight intrigue

In Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz, the welterweight division has found its odd couple.

They despise each other, and we love it.

Headed into their clash for St-Pierre’s 170-pound title at UFC 158, we quite simply can’t get enough of it, thrilling in that singular way the fight business can at each and every cross word between them. They are perfect together, a headline-stealing machine, as GSP’s straight-laced French Canadian patience slowly unravels in front of the hypnotic skew of Planet Diaz.

It’s no wonder the other four fighters involved in last week’s prefight conference call couldn’t get a word in edgewise. This is a beef for the ages.

Yet even as the great Diaz-St-Pierre feud of 2013 gobbles up all the attention, two of UFC 158’s additional welterweight bouts -- Carlos Condit versus Johny Hendricks and Nate Marquardt versus Jake Ellenberger -- will arguably do just as much on Saturday night to plot the course of the division.

One need look no further than the show’s co-main event, where, as long as Hendricks can take care of business against Condit, it will be difficult to deny him the next available crack at the gold. Of course, that’s exactly what we all thought after Hendricks starched Martin Kampmann in 46 seconds in November and what we thought when he edged Josh Koscheck by split decision six months before that, too.

The story of Hendricks’ UFC career to date has certainly been one of delayed expectations. The guy is so overqualified to be the No. 1 contender, it’s astonishing to behold his 11-1 combined UFC/WEC record, his five straight wins, his nine stoppages in 15 career fights and realize he’s still waiting for his chance. By all rights it should probably be Hendricks fighting for title this weekend, were Diaz-GSP not worth its weight in pay-per-view gold.

The very fact that Hendricks is already so deserving of a championship opportunity is the most nerve-wracking thing about his upcoming fight with Condit. MMA can be a fickle mistress, after all, and if a guy is going to get the rug pulled out from under him in this sport it typically happens just as his fingers are about to close around the brass ring. Long story short: A Condit victory is certainly very possible here, and a loss by Hendricks could potentially be the most chaotic outcome of all.

It would certainly put guys like Demian Maia, Martin Kampmann and Rory MacDonald back in play for No. 1 contender status.

It would also probably do good things for the fortunes of Ellenberger, who could scrawl his own name near the top of the queue if he comes out on top against Marquardt. Ellenberger’s solid wrestling and heavy hands make him nearly as compelling a matchup for St-Pierre as Hendricks, if -- and this is a big one -- he came into their fight prepared to go five full rounds without slowing down.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of all is St-Pierre himself. Assuming he beats Diaz, will he stick around in the welterweight division long enough to fight Hendricks or Ellenberger or anybody else? Or will the champ finally concede to the pressure to head up to middleweight for a big-money superfight against Anderson Silva, leaving this fresh crop of challengers to fight it out among themselves?

Whatever happens, we should at least have a better idea where we’re headed after Saturday.

Unless Diaz wins, in which case all bets are off.