The Future of the UFC's Welterweight Division Makes No Sense

After Woodley-Thompson II and booking Maia-Masvidal for UFC 211, what exactly is going on at 170 pounds?
March 6, 2017, 4:03pm
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC​

The first time UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley fought Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson last November, it was an exciting fight undone by its majority draw outcome. Saturday night's sequel at UFC 209 in Las Vegas, however, was a dull reminder of what can happen when two counterpunchers share the same Octagon: stare, circle, repeat. Woodley cooked up a few consequential moments—a takedown in the third round and a blitz of punches in the fight's final 30 seconds that nearly knocked Thompson unconscious—but it was largely fought with narrow margins of victory every five minutes. In the broadcast booth, "tactical" was the euphemism of the evening.

During the fifth round, commentator Jon Anik said, "Perhaps [there are] more questions than answers when it comes to the top of this UFC welterweight division." But really, welterweight looks damn near incomprehensible from the top down—and the future only looks more mystifying.

By virtue of being the champion, Woodley represents the spirit of things at 170 pounds. He's one of the most hot-and-cold fighters in the UFC, a fine-tuned wrestle-boxer capable of seizing the title by putting down a durable brawler like Robbie Lawler inside of a round, and capable of getting out-hugged by Jake Shields. He's also a weirdly polarizing figure for talking about (the real problem of) racism in MMA and how he feels he's been mistreated as a champion. And he's unapologetically an athlete instead of an entertainer, a problematic distinction as a UFC headliner because pay-per-views are openly transactional: you can dispute whether an audience is entitled to a dose of entertainment right up until they stop paying $60 to watch you fight.

The rematch with Thompson exemplified Woodley's win-first ethos, a crappy majority decision win won by two scores of 48-47 that he ascribed to an abundance of caution. "I know this is a sport where you guys love to see knockouts, you love to see the gore, you love to see blood, guys getting beat up and then they find a way to come back. I love watching it as well," Woodley said at the post-fight press conference. "But guess what? I love being the world champion, and sometimes it's not the sexiest fight on Earth."

Even Dana White, who criticized the lack of action and scored the fight for Thompson, came to Woodley's defense. "It's easy to sit in your seats, drink some beers, eat your popcorn and boo people," White said. "You're not out there fighting Tyron Woodley or Wonderboy. A lot was at stake, and these guys fought the way they felt they needed to." (Side note: while fans don't earn the right to be ill-mannered parasites just because they bought a ticket, the old "I'd like to see you try it" defense is maybe the worst comeback.)

Now, with Thompson going to the back of the line and no clear next contender to feed to Woodley, welterweight is about to eat itself. Last week, the UFC announced a match-up between Demian Maia and Jorge Masvidal for UFC 211 in May, and what a truly baffling choice that is. Don't get it twisted: in terms of sanctioned face-punching, Maia-Masvidal is a highlight of my spring. The fighter that comes out in one piece is the only valid title contender.

That's exactly the problem though. There are literally two 170-pound fighters with the momentum to challenge for a belt—why throw them at each other for anything less than a championship right now, since the loser becomes just another top-10 welterweight with a flimsy case for a title shot? Carlos Condit is 0-2 in as many fights, including a failed title bout, and might be retired. Neil Magny has won exactly one fight in a row. Donald Cerrone was just knocked silly by Masvidal. Dong Hyun Kim's three-fight win streak isn't at all compelling. And Georges St-Pierre, instead of doing the thing that makes sense and fighting for the welterweight title that he gave up of his own volition four years ago, is instead fighting middleweight champion and mean drunk Michael Bisping.

Maybe Tyron Woodley waits for Maia or Masvidal. Maybe Lawler, who's been a ghost since losing to Woodley last August, gets a rematch off a loss for lack of better options. Maybe, just after White railed against fighters who request big-money match-ups, the UFC puts Woodley against Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz—both occasional welterweights who've headlined the biggest selling pay-per-view in the promotion's history, at least one of whom was specifically excepted from White's rant, neither of whom has done anything to warrant a title shot.

The possibilities are limited. Nothing makes sense. Clarity will come, and it will take a very long time.