Does former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks deserve an immediate trilogy fight against the man who lifted his title by the slimmest of margins at UFC 181, Robbie Lawler? Or should the UFC move forward with its original plan to give Rory MacDonald the next title shot?
Those are the questions upon which the entire welterweight division will hinge in 2015 (Okay, and also whether former champion Georges St-Pierre returns).
Proponents of an immediate Hendricks rematch note that after 10 rounds of fighting, Hendricks and Lawler are basically deadlocked on the scorecards at five rounds each. Even those who feel there are slight variations either way will still concede Hendricks and Lawler are as evenly matched as two fighters can be. On some level, it would simply seem wrong not to have the question of who is the better fighter resolved.
MacDonald's proponents believe his time has come. Ever since his split-decision loss to Lawler at UFC 167, the Canadian contender has refocused and turned into the killer he was long expected to be. While Hendricks often seems content to do just enough to get a decision, MacDonald has left no doubt about the better man in one-sided wins over Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine.
It seems the UFC hasn't quite figured out which direction they're going. The company sent the media a quote from MacDonald immediately after the UFC 181, but then UFC president Dana White indicated he wouldn't mind seeing a Lawler-Hendricks trilogy bout yet.
Whichever way you wish the see the UFC go next, there is little doubt that Lawler, Hendricks, and MacDonald are the head of the class at 170 pounds. They were unanimous picks for first, second, and third, respectively, in the current edition of the SB Nation welterweight poll. There was also near-unanimous agreement on four and five, as Tyron Woodley took five of six fourth-place votes, and Carlos Condit five of six fifths.
(Note: These rankings were compiled before the Dec. 13 Rousimar Palhares vs. Jon Fitch bout).
(Scoring: Fighters are given 10 points for a first-place vote, nine points for a second, etc., down to one point for 10th place. The results are then tallied up and presented here. Official SB Nation rankings policy: Fighters under commission suspension are ineligible to be ranked during the duration of their suspension or if they have licensing issues. As of this writing, this does not affect any welterweights of note. Also, since Georges St-Pierre voluntarily relinquished the UFC welterweight title and walked away from the sport without any guarantee of returning, he will be regarded as a retired fighter for rankings purposes and is ineligible).
1. Robbie Lawler (25-10, 1 NC, 60 points) At 3-1, avenging a narrow loss in the process, and in a thin year for candidates, Lawler has likely made the jump from 2013's Comeback Fighter of the Year to 2014's Fighter of the Year.
2. Johny Hendricks (16-3, 54 points) Whether Hendricks' massive weight cuts are slowing him down, or whether he takes his foot off the gas pedal at the wrong times, Hendricks needs to tweak something in his approach to his fights.
3. Rory MacDonald (18-2, 48 points) It's wait-and-see for MacDonald, who wouldn't seem to benefit by facing off with someone lower on the pecking order at this points.
4. Tyron Woodley (14-3, 41 points) Woodley meets Gastelum at UFC 183, which means it's taken him all of a year to go from calling out big-name fighters in order to get attention, to being the big name with the target on his back.
5. Carlos Condit (29-8, 37 points) Last we heard from Condit, the "Natural Born Killer" is targeting a return to action from his knee injury early next year.
7t. Ben Askren (14-0, 21 points) Askren continues slowly rising each rankings period without an actual fight in the interim, which is a testament to his ability to keep himself in the limelight.
7t. Matt Brown (19-12, 21 points) Sidelined with a broken hand since his July loss to Robbie Lawler, Brown looks to make it eight out of his past nine with a tough challenge against Tarec Saffiedine on Feb. 14.
10. Kelvin Gastelum (10-0, 4 points) Remember back when Gastelum was considered cannon fodder for Uriah Hall? Those days long behind, Gastelum takes on his biggest challenge in Woodley next.