For the first time since April 2008, the UFC will have an undisputed welterweight champion not named Georges St-Pierre, as a pair of southpaws in Johny Hendricks (15-2, 10-2 UFC) and Robbie Lawler (22-9 1 NC, 7-3 UFC) are set to square off in the UFC 171 main event for the vacant 170-pound title.
After narrowly defeating Hendricks in a controversial split decision at UFC 167, St-Pierre announced his hiatus from MMA last December, leaving the Las Vegas-based promotion without one of its top draws. But in his absence, the competition in the welterweight division has been revived, and both Hendricks and Lawler are eyeing the title come Saturday, March 15 (10 P.M. EST, Pay Per View).
An elite wrestler with devastating knockout power, Hendricks possesses a complete mixed martial arts' skill set, and nearly captured the promotional strap from St-Pierre in his last octagon appearance. Having never been finished in professional competition, the Dallas-based Oklahoman has utilized his strong grappling base, a repertoire of takedowns, and one of the most feared left hands in the business to earn the UFC's number-one ranking. The only thing that still eludes him is the welterweight title.
Lawler, who returned to the UFC in 2013 after an eight-year journey that took him from the International Fight League to Elite XC, to Strikeforce (organizations which have all since folded), is looking for his fourth-consecutive victory inside the octagon. His career in resurgence of late, Lawler is finally living up to the lofty expectations placed on him over a decade ago, during his first run with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Hendricks and Lawler have both proven themselves worthy successors to St-Pierre's welterweight throne, and while Lawler's striking arsenal is a more dynamic combination of heavy punches and kicks, Hendrick's wrestling pedigree will prove to be the difference in this matchup as he takes the decision and the 170-pound crown.
Co-main event: Carlos Condit vs. Tyron Woodley
With welterweights dominating the UFC 171 card, the co-main event between Condit (29-7, 6-3 UFC) and Woodley (12-2, 2-1 UFC) may very well determine the next contender at 170 pounds.
A native of New Mexico, and a product of the Jackson's MMA camp, Carlos Condit is one the best finishers in the business, utilizing his wiry frame, long reach and unorthodox ground game to control opponents inside the octagon. Last seen punching and kneeing his way to a fourth round stoppage over Martin Kampmann, Condit possesses one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles in MMA.
Woodley, a former NCAA All-American wrestler, is as strong a welterweight as you'll find, known for closing distance and dominating the clinch game. Coming off a "Knockout of the Night" finish over Josh Koscheck at UFC 167, Woodley maneuvered his way into the co-main slot, and will rely on his grappling to neutralize Condit's diverse striking skill set.
While a finish is unlikely here, Condit's experience, game planning, and reach will prove to be too much, as the "Natural Born Killer" earns the decision.
Diego Sanchez vs. Myles Jury
A likely candidate for "Fight of the Night," the lightweight matchup between The Ultimate Fighter alums Sanchez (24-6, 13-6 UFC) and Jury (13-0, 4-0 UFC) is set to be a fast-paced affair of versatile mixed martial artists.
Sanchez has long since been a fan favorite, known for his aggression, unrelenting pressure, and entertaining mix of boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Having fought previously at both middleweight and welterweight, Sanchez has found his permanent home at 155 pounds, where his power and quickness are best suited. And while he lost his most recent bout, a decision to Gilbert Melendez at UFC 166, Sanchez has shown no signs of slowing down.
Standing opposite him at Dallas' American Airlines Arena will be Myles Jury, a highly touted prospect out of San Diego's Alliance MMA. Jury has looked impressive thus far in the octagon, despite a rather boring outing against Mike Ricci at UFC 165. But his unbeaten string will likely see its end on Saturday.
Diego Sanchez takes this one by a late-round submission.
Jake Shields vs. Hector Lombard
Yet another pivotal welterweight bout, this contest between Jiu Jitsu ace Shields (29-6-1 1 NC, 4-2 1 NC UFC) and Lombard (33-4-1 1 NC, 2-2 UFC), an elite Judoka, has potential title contention implications moving forward in the post-St-Pierre era.
Shields is known for his grappling dominance, but it comes at the cost of entertainment value, as the San Francisco product finishes at less than a 50-percent rate, choosing to ground his opponents and employ the lay-and-pray method.
Conversely, Lombard records stoppages at nearly an 80-percent rate, using his hip tosses against the fence to go in for the knockout blow. While Lombard has the more entertaining style, he has had trouble finding consistency inside the octagon against grapplers.
This fight has the makings of the evening's most boring bout; look for Shields to earn the decision.
Nikita Krylov vs. Ovince St. Preux
The lone light heavyweight contest on the UFC 171 card, this bout between the Ukranian Krylov (16-3, 1-1 UFC) and former NCAA football standout St. Preux (14-5, 2-0 UFC) should be a fast and violent affair.
Fighting a week after his 22nd birthday, Krylov is making his debut at 205 pounds after a pair of heavyweight bouts inside the octagon. Krylov has shown a great ability to start fast, recording a head-kick knockout in 25 seconds, just seven weeks ago, but his stamina has been an issue.
St. Preux is a powerful and athletic light heavyweight whose only loss in the last four years came at the hands and feet of perennial top-10 Gegard Mousasi.
Expect both fighters to exchange in the first frame and switch to a more methodical clinch game in the second. But early in the third round, look for St. Preux to land heavy combinations en route to a TKO.