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The Changing Of The Guard In The UFC’s Welterweight Division

2011 was a year of massive change for the UFC. They bolstered their ranks substantially, first by offering two new weight classes and then by acquiring their closest competitor in Strikeforce. The company experienced some of their most successful events ever with a record-shattering debut in Toronto, as well as their massively successful return to Brazil this past summer. This all led up to the announcement of a blockbuster deal with the FOX network and the premiere of the UFC on broadcast television.

With all this major news there have been plenty of stories that have seemingly fallen through the cracks. One story that has played out over the course of 2011 has been the changing of the guard in the UFC’s welterweight division, as former contenders have continued to fall to up-and-coming fighters throughout the year. Georges St. Pierre continues to hold the championship, but this year has seen him unable to answer the challenge of two new contenders.

GSP had another successful title defense at UFC 129 in April, but it was yet another lackluster decision win in a string of five-round affairs from the champ. Sure he’s still the best fighter in the division, but “Captain Canada” has failed to provide much in the way of sizzle for the UFC’s fickle fans.

The problem may be one of motivation. In the lead-up to his UFC 129 bout with Jake Shields it seemed as though St. Pierre was going through the motions. GSP constantly made reference to Shields being “the most dangerous opponent he’s ever faced,” which might have more weight if he hadn’t already applied the same label to Dan Hardy not that long ago. As with his previous title defense against Josh Koscheck, St. Pierre kept his opponent at bay with a solid jab and constant footwork. There was little challenge to be had, just as there has been little-to-no challenge in so many of his previous title defenses.

It looked like Nick Diaz might be able to provide a tougher test for GSP, but a lack of proper behavior from Diaz left these questions unanswered. There was also the sudden insertion of Carlos Condit into the contender position, but an injury in training took St. Pierre out of the fight. After a vicious beat down on B.J. Penn, some trash-talking from Diaz, and another injury to St. Pierre, we’re now left with an interim UFC Welterweight Championship fight between the last Strikeforce Welterweight Champion and the last WEC Welterweight Champion.

St. Pierre isn’t the only fighter at 170 pounds that’s had trouble in 2011, as several of the men who have faced him saw their careers spiral downwards in the last twelve months. Hardy went 0-2 in 2011 to extend his losing streak to four. Thiago Alves was battered for three rounds by Rick Story, and Shields got flattened in under a minute by Jake Ellenberger. Of course this string of top 10 fighters losing to newer competitors was capped off on Friday with Jon Fitch, the consensus #2 welterweight fighter in the world, losing in twelve seconds to Johny Hendricks.

On top of that we have former arch-rivals to St. Pierre (and one another) Matt Serra and Matt Hughes seemingly coming to the end of their careers. Serra sat out this last year while Hughes came up short against Koscheck before asking the UFC to “put him on the shelf.” Let’s not forget another former rival of GSP, the two-time two-division UFC champ Penn, who also announced an indefinite vacation from the sport following his loss to Diaz.

The times, they are a-changin’ in the UFC’s welterweight division. Diaz and Condit are scheduled for what should be a spectacular fight to crown an interim champ while St. Pierre rests and recuperates. Hendricks has made a pretty good case for himself as the next challenger for the belt, whether it be against the Diaz/Condit winner or the eventual undisputed champion once St. Pierre returns. Ellenberger also has a pretty legitimate claim for a title shot if he can get past Diego Sanchez in February. St. Pierre will have a new challenger to face whenever he returns, but if this past year is any indication it looks like the new blood is taking over.

Can GSP retain his dominance against newer and younger fighters?

Stay tuned to find out.

PHOTO CREDIT – UFC