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The Fab Fifteen – Welterweights

You’ve experienced “Brocktober” – now comes “Ranksgiving”!

When I became an editor at Five Ounces of Pain, one of my first orders of business was to re-establish the site’s rankings. Throughout this week I will be providing a list of fifteen Mixed Martial Artists currently competing in a specific weight-class with the intention of subjectively sorting out the involved names from “exceptional” to “pretty frakkin’ good!”

As already alluded to, I’m well-aware that these kinds of lists are not doctrine and won’t insult you by pretending my set of names should be the mirror reflection of your own. In some divisions, it’s difficult to determine who the #1 fighter actually is and the reality is that a sport like MMA thrives on its unpredictable nature. When two finely-tuned individuals step into a cage and let loose the difference between consciousness and looking up at the ceiling is a matter of milliseconds no matter who is ranked where.

That being said, I invite you all to join in on the discussion in the “Comments” section below the article.

Welterweight is a tricky poundage to ponder. While a certain Canadian who recently got an ESPN commercial appears to be the easy favorite for the chief slot, even he has faltered in the past to lesser opposition and has a newly-signed, former middleweight champ hot on his heels. There’s also a sneering, sublimely talented Boilermaker and a son of Stockton to consider towards the top. The rest seem to be poised for “5A” and “5B” designations or are at least skilled enough to dethrone even the best 170er out there under the right circumstances.

And away we go…

1. Georges St. Pierre (20-2)

Was there ever any doubt St. Pierre would be sitting atop the list? While GSP has recently earned a reputation for essentially being too good, and capitalizing on his ability to control opponents in an intelligent fashion, the truth is he’s turned in finishing performances in three of his last six fights and nearly submitted Dan Hardy. It would have also been hard to blame the corners of Jon Fitch and Thiago Alves had they thrown in the towel after the physical abuse each man took at the limbs of St. Pierre.

2. Jake Shields (26-4-1)

Shields receives a lot of criticism based on his approach to competition but his place in the division isn’t based on entertainment value; it’s the result of…well…results. The former Strikeforce champ has racked an impressive number of notches up on his record including wins over Yushin Okami – currently next in line for a middleweight title-shot – and former WEC welterweight champ Carlos Condit on the same night in 2006. Shields also has victories over respected 185-pounders like Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler, and Jason “Mayhem” Miller. He may not have looked sharp against Martin Kampmann, but he was coming off an extended absence from 170 and still got the win over a “Top 10” adversary. He’s beaten other tough welters and hasn’t lost is nearly six years. Need I say more?

3. Jon Fitch (23-3)

The fan in me wants to rank Fitch at the two-spot but the realist in me doesn’t feel he deserves it. While I’m absolutely an avid supporter of the AKA front-man, he hasn’t shown the ability to finish fighters he should be a definite step above like Mike Pierce, Chris Wilson, or Kuniyoshi Hironaka. He’s a solid #3, but Shields has tapped or TKO’d eight of the last eleven individuals he’s fought and for that fact alone he deserves to come out a nose ahead in the race.

4. Nick Diaz (23-7)

As wonderful as it would be to judge “2010 Diaz” against the essentially 75% of this list competing for the UFC, I can only go by what he’s done outside of the Octagon and as such he definitely deserves to be in the “Top 5”. He’s won eight straight and twelve of his last thirteen while only having been legitimately finished a single time in his thirty-fight career. He’s a threat when standing, or if action hits the canvas, and is more rounded than Fitch or Shields in that regard.

5. Josh Koscheck (15-4)

This is the point the rankings become a little murky for me. Koscheck is only 4-2 in his last six fights and hasn’t beaten a consensus “Top 10” guy since perhaps Diego Sanchez in 2007 (while losing to the other three he faced). Still, he’s an extremely skilled wrestler with good submission skills and the ability to leave an opponent rubber-legged with ever-improving hands.

6. Carlos Condit (26-5)

Condit may deserve to supplant Koscheck in the “Top 5”, as the only blemish on his record since June 2006 is a split-decision loss to the #9 guy on these rankings. However, he hasn’t faced quite as many “Top 10” guys as the polarizing Ultimate Fighter alumnus/coach so it’s difficult to know exactly where he should fall. Still, Condit has won three consecutive fights since the Kampmann loss, including a first-round knockout of the man below him on this list, and had his hands raised in the end leven of the last twelve times he’s entered the ring.

7. Dan Hardy (23-8)

I’m not sure how I can justify Hardy in this spot with back-to-back losses other than to say his relative competition for the designation have also hit hard times over the last 12-18 months and each defeat came to a “Top 10” welterweight. Minus the two losses, and an accidental groin-kick DQ three years ago, the Brit hasn’t lost while racking up eleven victories during the span. He seems to be improving each time out in terms of wrestling and has an underrated ground-game to compliment his speed/striking. As long as he continues to progress, I wouldn’t say he’s too far away from putting it all together and making another legitimate run at the belt.

8. Thiago Alves (17-7)

Also victim of two losses in his previous pair of fights, Alves has beaten a number of highly touted opponents including a trio of competitors on this list. His main fault seems to be an ability to handle high-level wrestling (or the necessary weight-cut to make the 171-pound welterweight limit). If he can figure out a way to slim down without sacrificing his explosiveness, not to mention stuff a hotly-contested takedown, there’s no reason he can’t beat anyone he stands opposite from in the cage.

9.Martin Kampmann (17-4)

Kampmann’s only issue seems to be with taking power-shots to the chin and, frankly, how many fighters can eat leather without crumpling at some point? He took Shields to the limit at UFC 121 and has looked sharp at welterweight since dropping down from a successful stint at 185 pounds. The Dane’s Muay Thai is as crisp as a pretzel and sometimes overshadows his ability to tangle foes up like the baked snack too, as he’s never been tapped in twenty-one fights while having almost an equal number of submissions on his record as he does TKOs.

10. Matt Hughes (45-8)

Like many of you, I found myself starting to believe in Hughes divisional resurgence and was shocked, though satisfied, with the ending to his trilogy with B.J. Penn this past weekend. However, he did beat Ricardo Almeida and Matt Serra prior to the loss, not to mention Chris Lytle before running into GSP and agreeing to fight an overweight Alves on late notice. Hughes has found a lot of success against a number of tough opponents and will remain relevant as long as he fights due to his blend of strength, cardio, and wrestling. The 37-year old may not be able to take a clean strike as well as he might have 5-10 years ago but he will always be a major mountain for any welterweight to climb.

11. Diego Sanchez (22-4)

There’s no question Sanchez is a threat to be reckoned with when he’s focused on the task at hand. He brings great intensity in the cage along with multi-level stand-up and fast, powerful submissions. Still, “Nightmare” hasn’t QUITE been able to get over every highly-ranked hurdle he’s encountered in his career but has wins over some top names like Paulo Thiago, Ken Florian, and the afore-mentioned Diaz. He also took Fitch to a split-decision. I’m willing to write off the Hathaway loss to his return from 155 to 170 but Sanchez was smashed by Penn and still cleanly fell to Fitch, not to mention Koscheck, regardless of how the “L” came about.

12. Tyron Woodley (7-0)

Woodley is the only name you’ll find among the fifteen listed here who has earned his spot based on potential more than who he’s actually beaten. Though none of his seven victories have come against especially notable opponents, “T-Wood” has looked exceptional in every outing. The former Missouri State Champion wrestler has great takedowns, is quick, and can fight from any position. He also reminds me a bit of St. Pierre when the current divisional king first came into the UFC based on pure athleticism.

13. Paul Daley (25-9-2)

Regardless of what you think about Daley’s post-fight sucker-punch of Koscheck, “Semtex” is still a supremely talented striker who has taken out his share of tough fighters. He’s a great addition to Strikeforce and should turn in some classics starting as soon as next week with his upcoming match-up against Scott Smith.

14. Paulo Thiago (13-3)

Similar to a few of the folks who are ranked higher, Thiago is coming off consecutive losses to “Top 10” competition. Dropping decisions to Sanchez, Kampmann, and Fitch a few fights earlier has far less impact than it might if any of the defeats had involved a submission/TKO. It’s also worth considering that Thiago can’t train full time due to his commitments as part of a special Brazilian Police unit.

15. Chris Lytle (30-17-5)

Lytle is still seeking a “career defining” win in the Octagon, which is why he’s this low on the list, but I wouldn’t be surprised to seem him attain at least one of them over the next year or two. The Indiana fireman has won five of his last six fights and is stiff test in any area of the ring. Consider this – Lytle has never been cleanly finished in his 50+ fight career. He’s lost bouts due to cuts and fifteen based on judges’ scorecards but never by a submission or strike-based TKO. It’s a remarkable statistic and one I’d challenge anyone to top.

Honorable Mentions

B.J. Penn (16-7-1): Though Penn’s knockout of Hughes was jaw-droppingly impressive, it was his first win at 170 pounds in six-and-a-half years for Baby Jay. If he can beat Fitch in Februray at UFC 127, which is far from a guarantee in my opinion, he’ll obviously jump up a lot higher in the rankings.
John Hathaway (14-1): The British youngster may have been exposed against Mike Pyle in his first career loss last month, but Hathaway has taken out some tough foes in his short career and appears to have a ton of upside based on the skills he’s exhibited thus far, not to mention his size and age.
Jake Ellenberger (22-5): The 25-year old has won six of his last seven with the lone stumble being a razor-thin decision loss to Condit in which he nearly finished “The Natural Born Killer” on more than one occasion. He’s also beaten the likes of Pyle, John Howard, and Pat Healy, and has upside for days when it comes to how far he could go in MMA if he gets minimally better in all areas.

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