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Chaos (and liberation) rules UFC’s new 170-pound landscape

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In the welterweight free-for-all that went on in Dallas, looting Georges St-Pierre’s mansion was the fun part. Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks not only took a match to the measured game plans that St-Pierre so beautifully carried out during his five-year reign as the champion, they ran over his Gi, blew their nose with his headband, and chucked the fleur-de-lis at each other like they were Chinese stars.

There was nothing safe about what Lawler and Hendricks did at UFC 171. And it was glorious.

Glorious in that Hendricks and Lawler stood in the pocket with each other for five rounds of battery, as if the idea self-preservation had not yet found its way to Texas. First it was Hendricks teeing off on Lawler with kicks and hands and elbows in long violent sequences, then it was Lawler who crushed Hendricks with a left and put him on the brink. Glorious in that there were momentum shifts and wits departing and Lawler’s sadistic smiling. There was footwork, head movement, swift counter punching, left hands with vapor trails, variations in high-low combinations, phone booth exchanges, blood splatter and chins moving as mirages. And when the occasion called for it (which felt like often), there was plant-and-fire pocket material -- two guys just knocking each other’s blocks off.

Each took what the other could give.

And in the fifth round, when Hendricks remembered his singlet and took Lawler to the ground in the decisive moments, Lawler glanced up at the clock and his face showed the thing that everybody knew -- that the title he’d spent a dozen years pursuing was headed for the exits. It was poignant. We love triumph, but the fight game is nothing without the agony of defeat. That look on Lawler’s face. To have come that far only to…

Of course, this all felt so wild and new, like the coming on of spring.

Remember when St-Pierre was making it so the blood would drain out of BJ Penn’s shoulders by using his hulk in the clinch game? Genius. Or when he turned into Jake Jabs against Josh Koscheck? Or when he took Dan Hardy down and held him there for a small eternity? Those fights held their own majesty. St-Pierre was just the kind of aesthetic wonderman who could sap the will from his opponents a minute into the first round of a fight destined for 25.

GSP was so damn smart and so damn good for so damn long.

But these guys were different. They fought as though all those years under GSP’s reign had turned them into savages. They fought like there was no tomorrow, and in this game -- if we’re being truthful -- tomorrow’s are such a buzzkill. When a fight is a literal crossroads, and money is being wagered and drinks are being thrown down gullets and people are paying for the privilege of being thrilled, tomorrow doesn’t factor in. And with no GSP, tomorrow’s feel so yesterday.

So while St-Pierre is away -- and according to Dana White, he’s most certainly coming back -- we could get used to this kind of fun. There’s a queue of contenders lining up to face Johny Hendricks with the same idea in mind. After many years of a dictatorship, the 170-pound belt is up for grabs. The thing is so wide open and evergreen fresh. Tyron Woodley, Rory MacDonald, Hector Lombard, and agents of chaos like Matt Brown or Nick Diaz, the devastation knows no end.

Besides, Hendricks is a very obliging champion. He’ll brawl. They all will. There’s something about the possibilities in that. And for the first time in years the UFC’s welterweight class feels like anybody’s division.

Of course, there’ll come a moment when order will need to be restored. When the smoke settles and some contenders come and go and perhaps the belt changes hands once or twice, maybe we’ll again crave a grandmaster at the top shattering all delusions. Maybe that man is already installed in Johny Hendricks. It’s too soon to know for sure.

But for now it’s fun to watch the 170-pound asylum run a little wild, to just enjoy the idea of all these possibilities and to leave GSP’s return for tomorrow.