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Fortunes changed for four (divisions) after UFC 201

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
On Saturday night, shortly after Tyron Woodley captured the UFC welterweight title from Robbie Lawler in spectacular fashion, he was on the post-fight show talking to analyst, and top division contender, Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson.

Thompson (13-1) put in his bid for a title shot. Woodley shut it down, saying that he was looking to fight Nick Diaz next, suggesting he was ready to fight him next month at UFC 202. Later in the conversation, he also threw out the name Georges St-Pierre for a potential November match in Madison Square Garden.

From Woodley's standpoint, you had to admire him. He's 34, careers are short in this sport, and at that age, you look at things a lot differently. When you see the end of your career, you want the money fight, not the hardest fight.
Luke Rockhold had a similar situation twice in recent months, first picking Chris Weidman over a potential fight with Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza or Yoel Romero, neither of which would do as much business. Then he picked Michael Bisping as a replacement opponent over the higher-ranked and more dangerous Souza, again figuring Bisping was the better choice for building a fight up with limited time. That didn't end up working out well for him since Bisping beat him for the title. Bisping, at 37, then played a similar game, choosing Dan Henderson over any of the big four contenders, Souza, Romero, Weidman or Rockhold.

Title shots going to the most marketable contender, as opposed to the most deserving contender, has been a part of fight sports for a century. It likely will be for the next century. But there has to be a balance at some level.
Diaz, who is coming off an 18-month suspension for a marijuana test failure after his loss to Anderson Silva in early 2015, hasn't won a fight since October 21, 2011, nearly five years ago. During the ensuing period he's had two suspensions, two losses and a no-contest in a fight that two judges had him losing every round in.

But would more people be interested in Diaz facing Woodley than Thompson? Probably. When fighters get paid based on pay-per-view numbers, that's what they are going to push for.

The news from Monday that St-Pierre was interested in taking Woodley's challenge may make this specific issue moot. Even though Thompson has won seven in a row, including wins over Jake Ellenberger, Rory MacDonald and Johny Hendricks, a Woodley vs. GSP fight would be among the biggest fights of the year. While GSP himself hasn't fought since late 2013, he is almost indisputably the greatest welterweight fighter in history as well as the biggest drawing card, by far in that division's history.

One could argue after three years off that St-Pierre should take a tune-up fight first, but if he's willing, and Woodley is willing, the promotion should be willing and there's little doubt the fans would have interest.

But for guys like Thompson, who is 33, and Souza, who is 36, there may always be someone more marketable in their weight division ahead of them. Souza has one loss in the UFC, to Romero, a fight that at worst should have been a draw, and that if there was a winner, it should have been Souza.

Romero hasn't lost in UFC either, and is 39. Weidman and Rockhold are former champions who have recently lost. With Bisping facing Henderson, the right thing to do would be to do have Souza face either Rockhold or Weidman, and have Romero face the other. At that point, the most impressive winner of the two fights should get the shot, with the other winner being next in line.

For Thompson, there's nothing wrong with being bypassed by St-Pierre but he should be all but guaranteed a shot with one more win. St-Pierre being willing, and the UFC actually making the deal, are two different things, particularly when Dana White has been insistent that he doesn't believe GSP will fight again. If that fight doesn't happen, it's incumbent at that point for the UFC to be able to make the deal to get Woodley to defend against Thompson, because unlike in other divisions, welterweight has a clear champion and just as clear a top contender.

The year of top of the card upsets continued on Saturday as every fight on the main card saw the underdog prevail. There are loads of theories why this is the case, between USADA testing changing the game, to more even matchmaking, to fewer fighters who are heads and shoulders above the competition the way some of the longer-lasting champions of the past have been.

From a business standpoint, while there is something to be said for real unpredictability of results, it is usually the dominant fighters who draw the most interest.

Let's look right now at the divisions that have been shaken up the past week plus.

WELTERWEIGHT - Woodley (16-3) vs. Thompson is still the fight that really needs to be made unless a GSP deal can be made. If not, Thompson should probably face the winner of the Demian Maia (23-6) vs. Carlos Condit (30-9) fight on Aug. 27. Lawler (27-11, 1 no contest), the former champion, has a natural match-up with Donald Cerrone (30-7), providing Cerrone beats Rick Story (19-8) on Aug. 20. But Lawler vs. Nick Diaz is probably the way to go, given Diaz knocked Lawler out in 2004 when both were getting started and both are major names now.

Cerrone looked great with Patrick Cote and he and Lawler could be a major fight. Cerrone is still small for the division and may be better suited at lightweight, particularly now that Rafael dos Anjos is no longer champion, and the current champion, Eddie Alvarez, is someone Cerrone has a win over. Lawler could also face the Maia-Condit loser.
Jake Ellenberger (31-11) kept himself alive with his upset win over Matt Brown. He could also face the Lorenz Larkin (17-5) vs. Neil Magny (18-4) winner, or Dong Hyun Kim (21-3-1) next.

Either way, this division remains one of the deepest in the sport.

STRAWWEIGHT - Karolina Kowalkiewicz (10-0) looks to have earned herself a title shot at champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (12-0), which would be a natural headliner in Poland, where both fighters come from. Kowalkiewicz solidly beat Rose Namajunas (6-3) on Saturday. It was technically a split decision, although when 23 of 24 reporters in had it for Kowalkiewicz, it would have been a travesty had it gone the other way.

In this era of upsets, it's hard to write anyone off. Still, Kowalkiewicz may have solidly beaten Namajunas, she didn't do it in a manner where she appeared she'd be dangerous for Jedrzejczyk.

For Namajunas, her next opponent could be either Maryna Moroz (7-1), provided Moroz beats Danielle Taylor this coming Saturday, or the loser of the Joanne Calderwood (11-1) vs. Jessica Andrade (14-5) fight on Sept. 10, as the winner of that fight should be in line for a title shot.

WOMEN'S BANTAMWEIGHT - The win by Valentina Shevchenko (14-2) over Holly Holm (10-2) on July 23 changed the face of the division again.

Obviously Ronda Rousey (12-1) will get a title shot as soon as she asks for it. But for short-term, we have to go with the idea that Rousey is out of the picture. Plus, the biggest money fight that can be made is very clearly Rousey vs. Holm, even with Holm having lost twice. The second biggest is Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg, but weight issues have kept that fight from happening for years and for now it's not something to spend too much time thinking about.

But this is a division where the championship is very much secondary to the personalities, as the champion, Amanda Nunes (13-4) is light years behind Rousey, Holm and Miesha Tate as a star, and that isn't going to change over a short period of time.

A Holm win would have almost surely given her the next title shot, and as champion, she and Rousey would be one of the biggest drawing fights, perhaps even the biggest, in UFC history.

Holm vs. Tate (18-6) in a rematch that really should have been at UFC 200 is the way to go. Although a Holm loss at that point would weaken the Rousey fight. But Holm is going to fight before Rousey returns most likely, and that fight at least guarantees one of the big names would be in position where they could challenge for the title, or face Rousey coming off a big win.

As far as Nunes goes, the next opponent should come down to Shevchenko or Julianna Pena (8-2). The argument for Shevchenko is that her win over Holm was more impressive than Pena's over Cat Zingano, and that 4.7 million people saw the fight, meaning that even if Shevchenko wasn't that well known going in, a huge amount of people know her today.

The argument for Pena is that she's got the longer winning streak, has a name from winning a high-profile Ultimate Fighter season, and Nunes has already beaten Shevchenko.

LIGHTWEIGHT - Edson Barboza (19-4) came across like a title contender in his win over Gilbert Melendez (22-7) on July 23.  But a few things stand in the way. Barboza and Alvarez are teammates. Barboza also lost in December to Tony Ferguson (21-3), who has won 14 of his last 15 fights.

Provided Nate Diaz (19-10) beats Conor McGregor on Aug. 20, Diaz would be the money fight for Alvarez. Cerrone
dropping down would be the second biggest money fighter, followed by Ferguson. But Ferguson will face former champion Rafael dos Anjos (25-8) on Nov. 5 in Mexico City. Khabib Nurmagomedov (23-0) also can't be dismissed, and has been pushing hard for a title fight. For Barboza, a potential next foe could also be Nurmagomedov. or former champion Rafael dos Anjos (25-8).

If Diaz loses, with dos Anjos vs. Ferguson seemingly taking both out of the hunt for the next title shot, it would seem to come down to Nurmagomedov, Cerrone or perhaps Barboza. Cerrone hasn't been fighting in the division, but does have a win over Alvarez.

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