Posted 03/11/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

UFC 171 Preview

For 2,176 days, the UFC’s welterweight division was ruled by one man. Georges St-Pierre won an interim title over Matt Hughes on December 29, 2007; then secured the title proper from Matt Serra on April 19, 2008; before rattling off nine consecutive defenses of that title. Only one man – Johny Hendricks, St-Pierre’s last defense – can claim to have kept it close with the champ. St-Pierre put a close on his own dominant run when he vacated the title this past December while leaving the door open for a possible return.

If St-Pierre’s vacation ended the chapter of his reign, Saturday night’s main event at UFC 171 is the start of a new one. It’s no surprise that Hendricks figures as one half of the equation. Prior to the St-Pierre fight (a decision he swept on tracked media scorecards), he was riding a six-fight winning streak over established names like Condit, Kampmann, Koscheck, and Fitch. His only other loss came by decision to Rick Story over three years ago. Had the UFC decided to hand St-Pierre’s belt to the most worthy man in line, it would have fallen into the hands of Hendricks.

On January 1, 2013, Robbie Lawler was on nobody’s list of fighters on the cusp of a title. Lawler had once been a top UFC prospect, starting his career 7-0 with three wins inside the Octagon. A 1-3 skid later led to his release from the company. An 8-1 run brought his record back to a respectable 16-4 when he found himself in Strikeforce following that company’s acquisition of EliteXC. He went 3-5 in Strikeforce, bouncing around between 182 and 195 pounds. He returned to the UFC as a 3-1 underdog against Josh Koscheck, who he knocked out just shy of the four minute mark. He followed that up with a knockout of Bobby Voelker. Then he took a split decision against Rory MacDonald, a once can’t-miss prospect who’s found struggles of his own. With St-Pierre’s sabbatical and Condit’s still-recent loss to Hendricks, Lawler found himself as the unlikely-yet-deserving challenger opposite Hendricks.

It’s an interesting fight with an interesting story, though you’d never know from the UFC’s promotional material. St-Pierre left, so here’s the guy he last fought that hits hard and here’s this other guy who hits hard and WHO IS GONNA LEAVE WITH THE BELT? It’s unfortunate both because it does a disservice to the fighters and to the fight itself. Hendricks, even if you agreed with the decision at UFC 167, had the belt stolen from underneath him; Lawler is the fallen prodigy on the cusp of career redemption. It’s as easy a story as a promoter can promote, but the UFC doesn’t want to do that because I don’t know why. Sometimes the UFC doesn’t make any sense.

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Meanwhile, in the co-main event, odd-man-out Carlos Condit fights Strikeforce product Tyron Woodley in a matchup that likely determines the next opponent for the winner in the main event. Woodley is 12-2, but both of his losses have come in his last four fights, alternating wins over Jay Hieron and Josh Koscheck with losses against Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields. Condit stumbled in his UFC debut against Martin Kampmann, breaker of hearts, before earning a shot at St-Pierre after five quality wins in the division. He dropped the fight to St-Pierre, the most competitive fight of the champ’s run to that point, and the followup to Hendricks as well before finishing Kampmann in their rematch back in August.

Condit vs. Woodley is a perfect example of the need to liberalize the use of five-round, non-title fights. You have a former champion (Condit held an interim title while St-Pierre rehabbed a knee injury in addition to WEC and Rumble on the Rock titles) squaring off against another top 15 fighter (who also fought for Strikeforce’s welterweight title) in a title eliminator type of bout. It’s a big, relevant fight with big, relevant meaning attached to it, but it’s only allotted three rounds because the UFC placed it on a PPV with a bigger fight in the main event. Meanwhile, Dong Hyun Kim and John Hathaway were scheduled for five rounds because they found themselves headlining an event that wasn’t worthy of Fox’s UFC budget. Where’s the logic?

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In the third welterweight feature of the evening, Jake Shields meets Hector Lombard in a battle of disappointing big free agent signings.

Of course, “disappointing” is all in the definition. The UFC brought Shields over in 2010 as a sort of “fuck you” to Strikeforce for signing Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko. He eked by Martin Kampmann, heartbreaker, to earn a title shot against St-Pierre, whose comfortable decision became less comfortable after a Shields’ eyepoke midway through the fight. He tried to fight Jake Ellenberger a few weeks after the death of his father, and found his lights turned off within a minute for his trouble. He’s undefeated in his last four (which includes an overturned win against Ed Herman after Shields tested positive for some unknown substance), though he’s done so in ugly fashion. A win over Lombard puts Shields in position to be in position for a second chance at UFC gold.

Lombard entered the UFC 31-2-1 and unbeaten in five years. His best wins included names like Jesse Taylor, Alexander Shlemeneko, and Kalib Starnes, however, so it wasn’t altogether surprising when he dropped a decision to Tim Boetch in his UFC debut. He pounded out one-trick-pony Rousimar Palhares to rebound, but found himself undersized and outmuscled against Yushin Okami, which forced him to reconsider his career at 185 pounds. He debuted at welterweight at UFC 166 against Nate Marquardt, making short work of the fellow former middleweight.

This is a big fight for both men. A loss means, at minimum, another three fights until a title shot, and at 35 and 36, respectively, Shields and Lombard don’t have the time to make up ground. Each man is trying to hold their window open before it shuts for good.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter

Mike Fagan