Making Sense of the Welterweight Mess: Who Deserves the Next Crack at Tyron Woodley?

Things are a little bit complicated in the UFC welterweight division at present. Take a quick scan through the divisional rankings, and you’ll see the problem. Just about every member of the top-10 has either recently lost to champion Tyron Woodley, lost to somebody else, or failed to establish himself as a saleable title contender. The debate as to who deserves the next title shot, then, is a bit of a tricky one.

Let’s take a closer look.

At the moment, there is no tenth-ranked fighter at welterweight, as Neil Magny and Santiago Ponzinibbio are tied at ninth. When discussing possible welterweight title challengers, we can breeze right past Magny, whose recent decisive losses to Lorenz Larkin, and most recently, Rafael dos Anjos render him a definite no-go. Ponzinibbio’s case, meanwhile, is better, as he recently dazzled with a blitzkrieg bludgeoning of Gunnar Nelson. Unfortunately, this win (which happens to be somewhat marred by a number of inadvertent eye pokes) was Ponzinibbio’s first in the welterweight top-15. So he’s just not there yet.

Onto number eight. The number-eight spot in the UFC welterweight rankings is occupied by Colby Covington. Covington’s situation is similar to Ponzinibbio’s, as he’s almost there, but not quite. Sure, he looked great against long-time South Korean contender Dong Hyun Kim in his last fight, but it’s going to take at least one more big win to really justify a crack at the champ. Luckily, Covington will have that chance when he takes on recent title challenger Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 119 this October. If he’s able to win this fight impressively, he might just be the next welterweight title challenger. When his incessant trash talk of Woodley is factored into the equation, this possibility looks even more likely. But for the moment, he’s got a little more work to do.

Then, there’s the number-seven ranked welterweight: Carlos Condit. Condit and Woodley have already fought once, back in 2014, in a bout that ended when Woodley injured Condit’s leg with a cracking kick. Though Condit always seems to be banging on the door of a UFC welterweight title shot, we know that he’s been contemplating retirement over the course of his last few fights. He’s too much of a question mark to even consider as a title challenger. And of course, he’s a tough 1-3 in his last four fights. So, even though he is undeniably one of the best welterweights on Earth, it would be very hard to make an argument for his being the next title challenger.

So, onto number six: Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. The argument against Cerrone is pretty simple. He’s lost his last two fights, coming up short against top-flight foes in Jorge Masvidal and Robbie Lawler. While his loss to Lawler – a decision defeat at UFC 214 – was somewhat debatable, his loss to Masvidal was not. This loss, instead, was as decisive as they come, as he was walloped to a second-round knockout. Simply put, Cowboy will need a few wins before he’s talked about as a credible title challenger.

So let’s take a look at number five. This is where things start getting interesting.

The welterweight division’s number-five spot is occupied by former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. After losing his title to Eddie Alvarez, and losing his follow-up fight against Tony Ferguson, dos Anjos abandoned the lightweight division for a fresh start at welterweight, where he endures a less taxing weight cut.

In his first fight in the division, a June decision defeat of former Strikeforce champ Tarec Saffiedine, he looked good. In his second fight in the division, a first-round submission defeat of Neil Magny at UFC 215, he looked fantastic. Now, with two-straight wins over top-15 welterweights, and accolades as a former champ at lightweight, dos Anjos might have the strongest case for the next welterweight title shot. But let’s keep going.

The welterweight division’s number-four fighter is Jorge Masvidal. Like Cowboy, the case against Masvidal is pretty simple. He came up short in his last fight, losing a decision to Demian Maia. Though it was a very competitive fight, it was a loss all the same, and title shots, barring special situations, don’t go to fighters riding losses.

It’s for this same reason that the next title shot isn’t going to Demian Maia either. He was the last title challenger, having lost a lackluster decision to Woodley at UFC 214 in June. As such, he’ll likely need a few decisive wins before he’s even talked about as a title challenger again. He’ll take his first step in that direction when he battles the surging Covington at UFC Fight Night 119.

The no-title-shots-off-losses logic also applies to the division’s number-two fighter, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Thompson’s last two fights have both been title fights with Woodley. Their first fight, in November of 2016, was a draw. Their second, meanwhile, saw Woodley pick up a decision in one of the most forgettable title fights in recent memory. While there is no debating that Thompson is one of the best welterweights on earth, and maybe even a future champion, he needs to remind us that he can win fights before we talk about him as a title challenger. He’ll have the chance to remind us of this when he battles Masvidal – who’s in a similar boat – at UFC 217 in November.

Then there’s the division’s number one fighter: former champ Robbie Lawler. Lawler last fought in July, when he defeated Cowboy via decision. This bout was his first fight since a June 2016 knockout loss to Woodley, which marked the end of his title reign. While Lawler’s win over Cowboy served to separate him from his title loss, the fact remains that he had his batteries removed by the reigning champion a little over a year ago. As Woodley himself pointed out after Lawler defeated Cowboy at UFC 214, this makes him a bit of a tough sell as a title challenger.

So, who is the most deserving man of the next crack at Tyron Woodley? Well, there’s no clear correct answer. In the humble opinion of this writer, the strongest choice is Rafael dos Anjos, given the simple facts that he’s on a win-streak, he’s a former champion, and he’s never fought Woodley before. The next best option would be the winner of Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal’s November scrap, though Covington could well skip the line if he beats Maia.

Thankfully, we know that Woodley is planning to take the rest of the year off, which should give the contendership picture at welterweight a little more time to shake out. Then again, Woodley also recently suggested his next fight could be at middleweight, where he hopes to battle the winner of Michael Bisping and Georges St-Pierre’s November title fight, so it’s possible the issue of the next welterweight title challenger isn’t as pressing as it might seem. As is so often the case in the hectic world of combat sports, time will tell.

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