When Georges St. Pierre last fought, at UFC 129 in April, he defeated Jake Shields in a performance that had people saying he had cleaned out the UFC's welterweight division. But St. Pierre's long layoff with a knee injury has done something that none of his opponents in the last four years could do: It has made the welterweight division look like it has some real obstacles for the best welterweight on the planet.
When I ranked the Top 10 welterweights a year ago, I noted that GSP was just a victory over Shields away from having beaten all five of the guys immediately below him: Jon Fitch, Shields, Thiago Alves, B.J. Penn and Josh Koscheck. But when I ranked the Top 10 welterweights this week, the three guys immediately below GSP -- Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz and Johny Hendricks -- were three guys who have never faced him.
St. Pierre says he'll be ready to return to the Octagon in November, and it's still unclear whether Condit will wait for him, or if Condit will take another fight before then. But what is absolutely clear is that when GSP returns, the welterweight division will have fresh challenges that he's never faced before.
Condit is first in line for now, Diaz may get back into contention, and I would absolutely not count out Hendricks, who has an outstanding wrestling background and a powerful punch, as a future threat to St. Pierre. Hendricks has only been fighting in the big leagues for three years and has room to improve as an all-around fighter, and he's already plenty good.
And it goes deeper than that: Next week's UFC on Fuel main event features a couple of welterweights in the main event -- Diego Sanchez vs. Jake Ellenberger -- who have never had a shot at St. Pierre. The winner of that one will be closing in on title contention. Next month we have another welterweight main event, with Thiago Alves taking on Martin Kampmann at UFC on FX 2. Alves has already been dominated by GSP and probably wouldn't get another shot any time soon, but Kampmann could absolutely make a case for himself as a title contender with an impressive win.
The future is also very bright for less experienced welterweights like Rory MacDonald and Mike Pierce, and it's important to note how many of these new challengers are younger than St. Pierre. Condit, Diaz, Hendricks, Sanchez, Ellenberger, Kampmann, MacDonald are all younger than the champion, who turns 31 in May. It's been well established in many sports that athletes on the wrong side of 30 often struggle to get back to form after serious knee injuries. It's going to be a new challenge for GSP to keep up with the new crop of welterweights.
Whether he's up to that challenge remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that the welterweight division got a lot more interesting while GSP was away. The last time GSP fought, the rest of the UFC welterweight division looked like a bunch of also-rans, Diaz was still in Strikeforce and no one had Condit in the Top 5. Now there are new, credible challengers to the champion. By the time GSP returns, he'll be returning to a very different welterweight division than the one he left.