Three men have held the welterweight title since Georges St-Pierre vacated the belt in 2013. But will the current champion build a legacy without GSP?
Following Georges St-Pierre’s last fight, a chorus of applause did not follow the greatest welterweight of all time into the press conference, but rather a palpable tension.
For several minutes a fuming Dana White had been telling the media that St-Pierre’s decision win over Johny Hendricks was a disgraceful injustice. Then the champion arrived and stammered through an explanation of his post-fight interview, where he’d announced his plans to take a leave of absence from the sport. His voice rattled with the weight of an uncertain future, his eyes like shattered glass in the center of a beaten face. He did not look the part of a dominant champion who had just made his ninth straight title defense — it was fitting that for the first few minutes of his opening statement, the belt was nowhere to be seen. White had claimed that St-Pierre had been rushed to the hospital, but here the welterweight champion sat, looking like the uninvited guest to his own burial.
That night White had proclaimed angrily that St-Pierre had to fight Hendricks again — he “owed it” not only to Hendricks, but to the inanimate belt itself.
“I need to make a point, man,” St-Pierre said in response to White’s statements. “I can’t sleep at night now. I’m going crazy. I’ve had issues. I need to relax, I need to get out for a while.”
And get out he did. The rematch never happened; St-Pierre vacated his title, making good on his emotional post-fight announcement. After three-plus years of speculation, negotiations and public posturing by both sides, St-Pierre and the UFC have come to terms and he will be making his comeback in 2017. But the division he left behind, where he earned his name as one of the sport’s most dominant champions, is not the one he’ll be coming back to.
When a champion of St-Pierre’s figurative stature leaves a division, he casts quite the shadow. The transition was perhaps eased by the fact that Hendricks, who in the eyes of many had beaten St-Pierre at UFC 167, went on to win the vacant title. And the manner in which he did so, in a phonebooth brawl against Robbie Lawler, inspired confidence that the welterweight championship was headed in an exciting direction. GSP would be missed, but not yearned for.
The thought that a new dominant champion had arrived to fill St-Pierre’s shoes evaporated at UFC 181. Lawler’s split decision win over Hendricks in their rematch was suspect — you’d have to be sitting far from your television to give Lawler three rounds — but it was hard to complain when the new champion was a brawling berserker with the word GLADIATOR etched onto his abdomen, a fighter who greeted clean punches with maniacal laughter.
After Hendricks failed to live up to his potential as the next dominant welterweight champion, Lawler became the anti-GSP.
St-Pierre’s title defenses were tactical affairs, often devoid of dramatics — his greatness came in his ability to neutralize any opponent’s threats and create a fight in which danger was not only unlikely but positionally impossible. Before the controversial Hendricks fight, most of St-Pierre’s challengers were lucky to win a round, let alone hurt him (Carlos Condit’s peekaboo head kick aside).
Lawler, on the other hand, was never a sure thing to hold onto his title. He entered his first title defense as a moderate underdog (fittingly, to GSP’s teammate and spiritual successor Rory MacDonald). And where St-Pierre fought in a manner that eliminated the chance of chaos, Lawler sought it out.
In his two successful title defenses, Lawler was not dominant. MacDonald took him to the brink of defeat, both men bloodied and beaten by the end of the fourth round, looking like red ghosts as they momentarily refused to retreat to their corners. Had Lawler not put the finishing touches on MacDonald’s shattered nose in the fifth, he would have lost on the judges’ scorecards. And Carlos Condit, who’d been mostly shut down in his first title bid against St-Pierre, arguably bested Lawler in January of 2016 but lost a split decision.
Yet in his title reign, Lawler had done something arguably more special than become the next indomitable welterweight champion, the rightful successor to St-Pierre’s throne. He instead wrote a new, entirely different chapter in the division’s history — or rather, tore the entire book to shreds in a snarling rage. He took part in two five-round fights that will go down in the sport’s history because he embraced all the things St-Pierre’s style was built to avoid. GSP was brilliant, an athletic specimen with a fight IQ to match his physical gifts. But Lawler was a different kind of champion, a fighter in some kind of ancient sense. He lacked the charisma to inherit GSP’s mainstream appeal, he spoke as little as he could get away with. His fights took on a primal quality.
Part of the rush of the wild ride that was Lawler’s title reign came in the the knowledge that it couldn’t last. GSP recognized the cost fighters pay when they step into the cage—it’s why he fought they way he did, and part of why he stepped away. Lawler paid that cost willingly.
Tyron Woodley did not have to wade into a nightmarish slugfest to steal Lawler’s welterweight title. He did so with one howling overhand right, two minutes into their fight at UFC 201. The outcome itself was not particularly shocking: Lawler’s willingness to be hit had burned him in the past, when MacDonald wobbled him late in their epic fight, or when Condit staggered him in the fourth round of their five-round battle. Whether or not his chin was fading after all those wars was beside the point — few men could take such a punch from Woodley without waking up to bright lights and a sympathetic referee.
A number of factors contributed to Woodley’s crowning moment becoming more maligned than celebrated. First, the natural disappointment that came in seeing Lawler crumble so quickly: fans had learned to expect an extended crescendo of violence when they tuned in to his fights, and instead they watched him collapse before landing a single meaningful strike. And Woodley’s recent inactivity — he’d received a title shot after his #1 contender matchup with Hendricks fell through, and his last fight was an uninspiring split decision over Kelvin Gastelum in 2015 — and the UFC’s failure to put any promotional muscle behind him gave the victory an incomplete feeling, like reaching the surprise ending of a novel and then realizing there was a hundred-page chunk missing.
Then there were Woodley’s post-fight interviews, in which he shot down the consensus next contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and instead called for a “money fight” against Nick Diaz or Georges St-Pierre, who’d been publicly discussing his comeback.
It would be Wonderboy, not St-Pierre or Diaz, that challenged Woodley for his belt, but Woodley’s relationship with the MMA fanbase only grew more contentious. To silence the critics that considered him unworthy of a blockbuster fight with St-Pierre or Diaz, he needed to first defend his title, and do so emphatically.
Since the night Woodley ended Lawler’s ruthless reign and called out St-Pierre, he’s fought Wonderboy not once but twice —Demian Maia lets out a polite sigh, but does not curse — and neither performance lived up to his goal of usurping St-Pierre as the greatest welterweight of all time.
In November, Woodley put his best attributes and worst tendencies on display. In the first round he dominated the karate stylist with his wrestling and in the fourth he flattened him twice with the right hand before snatching an ill-advised guillotine, but for too many of the fight’s twenty-five minutes he was inactive, his back against the fence as his opponent racked up points. The fight was ruled a draw, and thanks to the excitement of the fourth round it was labeled ‘Fight of the Night’ and looked back upon fondly despite long stretches of inactivity in the other four frames.
Ahead of the rematch at UFC 209, Woodley was vocal with his dissatisfaction with the treatment he’s received from the UFC and the fanbase since winning the title.
He also promised to make a statement in his second date with Wonderboy, adamant that he would begin his quest to prove himself as the greatest welterweight of all time. The man who currently holds that title loomed large over the event — St-Pierre’s comeback fight was announced days prior to the fight, as he will return not at welterweight but rather against middleweight champion Michael Bisping.
The day before UFC 209, a press conference between St-Pierre and Bisping was held (the British champion arrived late, as GSP had back in 2013, not nursing title-fight head injuries but rather a Vegas hangover). Speaking about what would be next should he defeat Bisping, St-Pierre compared the fight game to the stock market (quite a few times, to Bisping’s annoyance). He didn’t know who would be next, but he’d wait and see whose stock would rise to the point of drawing his interest.
Woodley’s stock did not rise at UFC 209. The rematch played out like a sedated version of the original: the crowd booed incessantly as Thompson and Woodley circled one another in a dull dance of feints and half-committed prods, Woodley’s back once again pinned to the fence. Aside from a third round takedown, Woodley mounted nearly no offense for the majority of the twenty-five minute slog (Thompson, to be fair, didn’t do much more). With thirty seconds left in the fight, Woodley connected on a right hand as he did in the first fight, dropping Wonderboy to the canvas and then unleashing a hellacious barrage until the final bell. The crowd came alive for a moment, but resumed their booing once the fighters separated.
His last-second explosion won him the fight on the judges’ scorecards, but the bout may as well have been ruled another draw for the lack of clarity it provided. Many viewers believed Thompson had deserved the nod, but rather than cry robbery, they were merely glad that the dull saga was over.
The next chapter for Woodley remains unwritten. Perhaps his second bout with Thompson, and the out-of-the-cage drama surrounding it, will be looked back upon as the low point of his title reign. But he’s yet to make his mark as a champion, and the timing of his ascent has added a complicated wrinkle to the legacy he’s hoping to carve for himself.
Robbie Lawler never said he was the greatest welterweight of all time, nor did he ever say much at all. His legendary wars spoke for him, etched his name in the division’s history with a violent flair that was distinctly his own.
Tyron Woodley has loftier aspirations. Whether he ever shares the cage with St-Pierre, he’s chasing him — chasing the weight of his name, his place in the sport’s history. In light of recent events, he’s got a steep climb ahead of him.
Georges St-Pierre may not be a welterweight for the time being, but he’s back. And his shadow’s back with him.