George St. Pierre's dominance over the welterweight division looked so great after his beatdown of Dan Hardy in March that it was starting to look like the UFC might have a little trouble selling anyone else as a credible threat to St. Pierre, who had already defeated all of the UFC's other top welterweights.
But two things have happened since then: The UFC signed Jake Shields and he won his first fight in the Octagon to become the No. 1 welterweight contender, and the current season of The Ultimate Fighter has done a good job of building up some heat for St. Pierre's upcoming fight with Josh Koscheck. So the UFC's welterweight division is in good shape going forward, and we'll look at the key fighters and key fights below.
Next title fight:
GSP vs. Koscheck, UFC 124, December 11: These two previously fought at UFC 74, the first fight on St. Pierre's current seven-fight winning streak. In that one St. Pierre controlled the fight on the ground and won a unanimous decision, and I expect him to do the same this time around. But if Koscheck pulls the upset, don't be surprised if the UFC decides to book a GSP-Koscheck rubber match. Otherwise, Shields gets the winner for the first welterweight title fight of 2011.
Key fights to watch:
1. Matt Hughes vs. B.J. Penn, UFC 123, November 20: The winner of this rubber match between former welterweight champions would move right into title contention if Koscheck beats St. Pierre. As long as St. Pierre is the champ, however, I don't see Hughes or Penn getting another title shot, since they've both lost to GSP twice.
2. Jon Fitch vs. Jake Ellenberger, UFC 126, February 5: UFC President Dana White anointed Fitch the No. 1 welterweight contender when he beat Thiago Alves in August, but White has since changed his mind on that, and so Fitch will get Ellenberger instead. I'd love to see the winner of Fitch-Ellenberger take on the winner of Hughes-Penn.
Others in the title mix:
Of those not listed above, Carlos Condit is the most likely to get a title shot in 2011. Condit is coming off a big knockout of Dan Hardy in October, and he's expected to take on Chris Lytle in February in a bout that sets up very well for Condit to win and look good doing it.
Potential breakout fighter: Rick Story will be going for his fifth consecutive UFC victory when he takes on Johny Hendricks at the Ultimate Fighter Finale next month -- not bad for a guy who's only 24 years old. Don't be surprised if Story breaks into the Top 10 by the end of 2011.
Predicted champion at end of 2011: Georges St. Pierre