The UFC’s welterweight division is a shambles.
Once the most illustrious division in all of combat sports; recent years have seen the division falter and lose fan interest.
Established stars Georges St-Pierre and Jake Shields have abandoned the promotion and up-and-coming fighters Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum have departed the division.
While Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson have all had impressive performances, the division is without a true focal point.
With no bonafide prospects climbing the rankings, it seems like the UFC’s welterweight division is going to fall further down the popularity stakes, but it didn’t have to be like this.
In 2016, the UFC let one of the sport’s biggest cult figures walk right into the arms of Bellator.
Some people are born to scrap, they are hardened in battle and built for combat, but Rory MacDonald is not one of those.
Rory MacDonald is the thinking man’s fighter, the cage connoisseur’s choice.
Since exploding onto the scene as a teenager, MacDonald has improved exponentially and in 2015, he was within touching distance of winning the UFC title before being finished in the last round by Robbie Lawler. Following his fight of the year candidate with Lawler, MacDonald would drop his next fight against Stephen Thompson, before electing to test free agency and ultimately signing with Bellator MMA.
On Friday night, MacDonald strapped up his Bellator gloves for the first time and stepped into the cage against English fan favourite Paul “Semtex” Daley in London.
Paul Daley is just about as vicious as a striker can get. When Daley lands his left hook, people fall to the floor and many people expected a back-and-forth brawl, however Rory MacDonald was easily able to show the world just how talented he is.
Under the tutelage of Firas Zahabi, MacDonald has developed a complete arsenal and while he has previously shown a propensity to stand and trade, he utilised his elite MMA grappling to nullify Daley’s game.
With Daley being such an explosive striker, MacDonald tactfully elected to score an early take down. During the ground exchanges, McDonald remained in top position throughout; Daley’s muscles filled with lactic acid and by the end of the opening stanza, Daley was notably fatigued.
As the second round commenced, Daley Looked exhausted and when MacDonald managed to bring the fight to the ground again, Daley’s defense began to waver.
Overall fatigue eliminates absolute technique.. so when MacDonald was on Semtex in the second round, Daley’s resistance began to deteriorate, rapidly leading him to succumb to a rear naked choke.
Barely defending the sports most common submission, so tired was Daley, the tap came with more than just a hint of compliance.
The one punch knockout artist had nothing more to give.
MacDonald’s performance was not only impressively pragmatic against the uber dangerous Daley but was interesting in a number of ways peripherally: it highlighted how inmmensely talented Rory is, showcased his evolution as a fighter and gave credence to his ever growing popularity- as was referenced by the sheer volume of positive support he received online.
Given the fact that MacDonald holds wins over the UFC champion, Tyron Woodley and the number one contender, Demian Maia, it is hard to deny that MacDonald has a claim to being the best welterweight in the world right now.
This is the first time since Fedor’s heavyweight dominance in 2009 that a fighter outside the UFC roster can realistically and credibly lay claim to being the best in the world.
Does this signal trouble for the UFC’s welterweight division?
If MacDonald was a lone anomaly and the only great welterweight outside the company then it would not be a big problem for the promotion. However the fact is there are many notable 170lbers who may lay claim to a top ten spot, currently applying their trade outside of the world’s biggest promotion.
Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov are vastly talented and hugely popular.
Bellator’s other free agent signee, Lorenz Larkin is perhaps one of the most underrated fighters in the world, and not just in his division.
To make matters even worse for the UFC, the welterweight standouts aren’t solely competing in Bellator, ONE FC has unbeaten Olympian standout Ben Askren competing in their ranks.
Ben Askren is probably the greatest fighter most casual fans have never heard of.
Askren’s grappling is prodigious and his smack talk is genuinely entertaining. While Askren has always been a maverick, he has proven throughout his career that he can dominate all-comers.
Next to MacDonald, Askren is a fighter that could legitimately beat anybody on the planet at 170lbs on any given day.. so if ONE FC and Bellator were to co-promote, it is reasonable to believe that a fight between MacDonald and Askren would decide who is the best fighter in the world at 170lbs.
It seems as though the sport of MMA is on the precipice of incomprehensible change.
Unless the UFC compensates its athletes more closely in line with their demands, more stars will elect to test free agency and join other promotions which may well lead the sport down a slippery slope.
The dilution of mixed martial arts could legitimize world titles outside of the number 1 promotion and leave us with multiple world champions; akin to the existence of the alphabet world titles in boxing.
For the sport to continually evolve and expand, WME-IMG must share wealth with its athletes more transparently, or else the UFC could begin facing serious problems one weight division at a time.