Professional athletes are a rare breed. Driven by competition and excellence from a young age, they dedicate their lives to the pursuit of greatness, and for a select few, they reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport, achieving heroic status. But eventually these champions, these legends and all-stars, are forced to face the looming reality that their world-class skills will one day fade, forcing them to ponder the terminus of their careers, as newer, younger competitors arrive.
So when UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre offered a cryptic message about his possible retirement following his most recent title defense, a controversial split-decision win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167, the entire MMA media went into an immediate tailspin, hypothesizing about the future of the 170-pound division.
With the debate over St-Pierre's retirement continuing to be a hot topic among the UFC faithful, it is impossible to ignore the chance that he may, in fact, never compete again. So rather than try to convince and persuade St-Pierre to return to the octagon as some sort of indentured champion, or match Hendricks with another foe for an interim title, let's consider another alternative for how the UFC can crown a new welterweight king: an eight-man, single-elimination tournament.
As 2014 rapidly approaches, the UFC is booking their event calendar, making matches, and after Jon Jones officially dropped out of UFC 170, which is to be held on February 22 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, the door was officially opened for a potential yearlong, welterweight contest.
The concept is simple really, take the top eight remaining welterweights on the promotion's roster -- some combination of Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Robby Lawler, Rory MacDonald, Jake Shields, Demian Maia, Matt Brown, Nick Diaz, Jake Ellenberger, Tyron Woodley, Tarec Saffiedine, and Martin Kampmann -- and promote four bouts as part of the UFC 170 main card.
Any combination of these fighters would bring enough credibility to the event to draw solid pay per view numbers, and the promotion of a yearlong road to the title would create a new buzz for the UFC, which stopped hosting tournament-style events over a decade ago, save their lesser forays to crown the first 155 and 125-pound champions.
Because MMA is a sport where injuries are common, the second round of the 170-pound bracket would need to take place several months later, which would coincide perfectly with the UFC's annual July 4th show. Of course if there were any major injuries, an athlete who did not qualify for the initial eight could easily step in as a replacement fighter, and the promotional inroads from the first round would easily draw enough attention to the semifinals to attract another strong pay per view audience.
With the second round a wrap, the UFC would have two clear-cut contenders, both riding back-to-back victories, at a minimum, to promote one final 170-pound showcase, which could take place at their annual New Year's Eve event.
This format would, of course, be resisted by some, in particular Hendricks, who is deserving of an immediate rematch with St-Pierre, but with the champion out indefinitely, drastic measures are needed to re-invigorate a division that is deep with talent, but without a bonafide star.
It is this very lack of welterweight star power that has the UFC in a bit of a predicament. St-Pierre is the promotion's top pay per view asset, an irreplaceable commodity that has helped the brand conquer Canada, and no one else in the division has the weight to sell events at the same buyrate.
But, this potential tournament winner would have the benefit of competing on three high-profile pay per view cards, which would help the UFC groom a new champ, and attract new fans, create new allegiances, and, very likely, sell a wealth of merchandise.
This of course would not be the first time the UFC has lost a champion during a title reign. In 1998, then-heavyweight champion Randy Couture fled for Japan, and former lightweight kings Jens Pulver and B.J. Penn were both stripped of their belts, the former during a contract dispute in 2002, the latter in 2004 to pursue his career with the K-1 promotion.
And since UFC President Dana White has stated that he is not interested in promoting a match for an interim title, as the organization has done on several occasions when champions have been forced from competition for extended periods, usually due to injury, this eight-man tournament may be an interesting experiment.
It is still unclear how the St-Pierre situation will unfold. Most people would probably prefer to see the title change hands as a result of competition inside the cage, but if GSP never returns, a tournament might be the most interesting, novel, and out-of-the-box way to save the division and crown the new, undisputed, welterweight champion of the world.