Had John Hendricks failed to make weight, we'd be having an entirely different discussion. He reached the required threshold, however, so things remain as ordinary as they need to be.
Looking at what UFC 171 aims to achieve, UFC has done a surprisingly masterful job of resetting the division in the absence of its long-time king while giving themselves enough flexibility to consciously shape its contours. They can't control who will win the title or any of the number of contender bouts on tonight's card, but they have made each contender bout of tantamount importance. The only condition of upward mobility in the division is 'performance', which means they can piggy back fan enthusiasm as much as the legitimacy of a win.
Like any other event the UFC stages, this one carries risk, but recasting the division after GSP's absence seems like a prudent choice. I don't think it's fair to say the division has been stagnant during GSP's reign, but shaking everything up after his departure also seems like the right call. It's time to see how the welterweights position themselves in a post-GSP era, but the UFC can't be too strict or limiting with how they set events and outcomes in motion. The UFC 171 fight card seems like as good a way as any of giving the UFC the best chance to keep the long-burning light of the welterweight division burning as brightly as possible.
At stake: fulfilling destiny. I don't know if Lawler has ever been perceived as next-level talent, but he has always been a force of nature. And because he got into the game as young and so ferociously, there was always curiosity about who he could become. In his second and most recent UFC stint, he has inspired and fomented a confidence about his ability that hasn't existed since his initial UFC run.
Hendricks is much different. He got into the game later in his athletic development, but with an impeccable pedigree. He affiliated himself from the outset with a team he thought could turn him into a world champion. His eyes have always been on the prize and the expectations extraordinarily high. After facing GSP and arguably defeating him, some view him as the heir apparent in the division. As I type this, he is the odds-on favorite to win.
For both competitors, this bout is becoming the best version of themselves. It is about making good on the promise of their careers and expectations. Lawler's legacy won't suffer as much without a title as Hendricks', but it'd be particularly noteworthy in either case.
The unifying theme of the two is they entered the game with high expectations. Lawler created his with fistic brutality at an age before he could legally buy alcohol. Hendricks did it with hugely successful runs at the highest level of wrestling in post-secondary America. Lawler had periods of his career where he went astray and Hendricks' climb as been a touch slow, but here they are. They are poised for greatness, ready to make use of their talents as much as their maturity. The only question remains is whose projected destiny was overreach and who turned their promise into actual results.
At stake: a title shot. All of these fighters are in different positions in their career, although there is some overlapping similarities. Some are a bit older like Shields and Lombard. Others are already had title shots in the UFC, like Shields and Condit. Others have hype after huge KO wins, like Lombard and Woodley. Whatever the case, the UFC has created an environment where it's essentially a four-man race to face the winner of tonight's main event. What we also know is that despite GSP being out of the division for now and perhaps forever, climbing the welterweight ladder in the UFC is an unimaginably difficult thing to do. Lose here and another title shot may never come. Getting more than one welterweight title shot is actually sort of a remarkable achievement. That's why winning and losing here is of monumental consequence, which is particularly true for competitors like Condit or Shields who have already had a UFC welterweight title shot.
With the exception of Woodley, most of the reputations and resumes of the other competitors are complete. Not totally complete, obviously, but 'full'. A loss here isn't devastating to reputation or how they'll be remembered. But winning tonight and perhaps even in a title match could also substantively add to how their perceived in a manner nothing else could. This is what they compete for and the openings and opportunities are minimal. Making best use of them is hugely consequential.
At stake: a future that matters. This bout is highly, highly intriguing. As I stated on The MMA Beat, what's notable here is not just the positioning of old veteran vs. young contender, but about doubt and belief. Both fighters have offered reasons to admire them and believe in their capacity to win at an elite level. Both have also demonstrated cause for doubt, albeit for entirely different reasons. What this fight is ostensibly set out to answer is who is still has a future worth paying attention to: can Sanchez stay relevant or is Jury coming into his own? My hunch is UFC made this bout precisely because they don't know the answer even if they might be inclined one way. What we can be sure of is that this bout will likely be viewed as a touchstone, a moment when careers turned a definitive direction. Which direction and for which fighter are the only unknowns.
Ovince St. Preux vs. Nikita Kyrlov
At stake: more visibility. These opening bouts on pay-per-view aren't of zero significance, but more than any other bout on the main card, are designed for entertainment. UFC needs these fighters to be highly offensive, particularly in the striking department. They don't tell the fighters to compete this way, of course. They simply choose competitors who naturally incline that way. OSP could feasibly become a contender in the division, although I don't think much of Krylov. Still, the more immediate stakes are simply about doing enough here to merit further placement on fight cards of significance.