Welterweight contenders and pretenders

Is it wrong to kind of like a George St. Pierre-less welterweight division?

Not that we don’t want him back in November, but these last few months have been kind of fun, yeah? For starters, the St. Pierre injury story is great in itself. No fighter has been able to legitimately challenge him in years. Can a knee injury do it?

Because to be honest, the novelty of St. Pierre ho-hummingly dominating opponents one five-round fight after another had started to wear off. It was still an impressive run, absolutely, but -- come on. In sports, we’re supposed to get drama. We like two-minute drills. We like half-court prayers. We like a man on third, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, down by one.

What’s been kind of nice about St. Pierre being out to start 2012 is that it’s allowed us to envision a welterweight division without such a dominant champ. And what that vision looks like are razor-thin title fights and a serious group of contenders who would trade the belt back and forth between themselves for years.

From a business standpoint, you don’t mind the St. Pierre model. A dominant champ entices casual fans to watch and see what the fuss is about. Hardcore fans will tune in as well, if for no other reason to make absolutely sure they are watching when he loses.

But from a sports fan perspective, I think most would admit they’re ready to see what “St. Pierre in trouble” looks like again. The eye injury he suffered during the Jake Shields win was certainly adversity he had to overcome, but it’s not like the outcome of that fight was ever in question.

So, here’s the question: Can any of these welterweights we’re getting excited about during St. Pierre’s absence actually beat him when he comes back? As I did in October with the lightweights, let’s sort out which of these guys has the best shot at being the one to end St. Pierre’s reign.

The “if stars align and everything imaginable goes your way then maybe ... but still probably not” Group: Dan Hardy, Diego Sanchez, John Hathaway, Rick Story, Dong Hyun Kim.

Go on, laugh at Hardy even being included on this list. Hey, he’s about as long as a long shot can be. But if the organization is willing to hang on to him after four fairly miserable outings, then what’s to say they wouldn’t reward him with a title shot quickly if he were to get hot again?

Sanchez is interesting because if I’m a UFC welterweight I say to myself, “Man, I should call out Diego. I’m pretty sure I can beat him and he’s a big name to add to my résumé.” The only problem is I do that, then I get to the third round of the fight and Sanchez is still coming forward, spewing blood from the nose I’m pretty sure I broke with my knee in the first round and, suddenly, I’m scared. Not sure of what exactly, but definitely scared. This will happen in the next two years: A rising prospect calls out Sanchez and loses.

The “Any way we could combine these two?”: Thiago Alves, Martin Kampmann.

I think last weekend’s fight summed up both fighters pretty well. Kampmann is a gamer with tremendous will but he lacks elite-type athleticism. Alves is the opposite -- he might be the best athlete in the division but he’s vulnerable to mental lapses.

It’s not a terrible idea to go for a takedown in the final minute of a fight you’re winning to remove the flash KO threat, but in these circumstances (Kampmann has five submission wins in the UFC against one TKO) it was bad judgment. And the worst part is, fair or not, we’ve sort of come to expect this from Alves. For the record, though, of these two, I still give Alves a better shot overall at ever holding the belt.

The potential feel-good story of the century: Jake Shields.

If this were Hollywood, wouldn’t you lay everything you’ve got on Shields having a monster year in 2012 and claiming the belt in 2013? In the movie world, St. Pierre would be made out as a way more sinister foe in their first fight and maybe, after the loss to Ellenberger, movie Shields would go on some month-long drinking/partying binge that threatens to end his fighting career. But by the time the credits rolled, he’d be pointing up to the sky with a title belt around his waist.

It could happen. We know the guy is talented. He’s 33 and hasn’t taken a ton of damage despite a lengthy career. And I still think, for whatever reason, we caught Shields on an off night at UFC 129.

The blazing hot prospect and the simmering hot prospect: Rory MacDonald, Erick Silva.

Some of you will no doubt have MacDonald higher on your list, but I can’t quite pull the trigger on a 22-year-old whose biggest win is arguably over string bean Nate Diaz. Don’t get me wrong, I love MacDonald as a future titleholder, just not sure if you can rank him higher than these other guys right now.

Silva, same thing. He certainly looks the part, but so far both opponents he’s fought in the UFC took the fight on short notice and both came within friendly confines of his home country.

The old faithfuls: Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch.

These guys have been here for years and they’ll continue to be here through at least 2013. Fitch’s loss to Johny Hendricks could mean nothing. It was 12 seconds. He was facing some serious ring rust. If you think it’s the last we’ve seen of him, it’s probably because you just don’t like him and it’s clouding your judgment.

Koscheck gets the opportunity to avenge his friend’s loss against Hendricks in May. It’s a surprising fight to me because you’re risking a possible No. 1 contender to a guy who, as long as St. Pierre has the belt, can’t really be a No. 1 contender. Koscheck is high on this list because of his skills but frankly, a lot of things outside his control need to happen if he’s ever going to win the welterweight title.

The "highly" unlikely: Nick Diaz.

He’s probably getting a one-year suspension. If that’s the case, he can’t fight until February 2013. What kind of fight does he pull when he gets back? There will still be a lot of interest in a St. Pierre fight, even if St. Pierre isn’t even holding the belt, but do you really like his chances in that fight after such a long layoff? I don’t. So, would he get a “tune-up” fight first? Even if he did, it would be against a legitimate guy with a real chance at beating him. If that happens, he probably needs to win two more fights to get a title shot. Sorry, but there are just enough unknowns right now that I no longer love Diaz’s chances. He still claims a high spot on this list though because when he comes back, a matchup against St. Pierre is so marketable the UFC will so its best to put it together.

The favorites: Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Johny Hendricks.

In that order. Condit sits at the top thanks mainly to the intangibles on his side. He’s getting the next opportunity to do it -- at least that’s what it looks like. St. Pierre will be dealing with a very long layoff and he’ll be competing for the first time on his reconstructed knee. Stylistically, he faces an uphill battle in my opinion but not an insurmountable one. If he can stay on his feet, he’ll hit St. Pierre. He’ll get taken down but he’s terrific at escapes and he’s very tough mentally. He won’t be intimidated and he’ll keep working even if things don’t go well early.

Ellenberger is actually my favorite to get it done from a stylistic standpoint. I think he’s the most athletically gifted of the three and I like his standup a little over Hendricks’, although they both clearly hit hard. It would be good if he was a little bigger, but St. Pierre isn’t a huge welterweight either. He’d be very dangerous in a fight against the champ, especially early in the fight.

Hendricks is right there as well. He has the game changer in the left hand and, although St. Pierre would frustrate him a bit in the speed aspect, he’s not an easy opponent to control.

When it’s all said and done though, I guess this is all for naught because it’s very difficult to see anyone unseating St. Pierre. My guess is he makes this whole knee-injury, layoff ordeal look easy. That is, after all, the St. Pierre we’ve come to know.