Number One Contender: Dan Hardy. He is the number one contender not because he is the best opponent for St. Pierre, but because he is getting the next title shot. I’ll give Hardy credit he has looked good inside the UFC against guys like Markham, Davis, and Swick. St. Pierre will be a whole different ball game.
The Other Contenders: It looks like there are two signifcant bouts coming up with title implications. First, is the Jon Fitch vs. Thiago Alves re-match. Fitch won the first fight. No doubt a great fight, but do fans want to see a re-match between GSP and Fitch or Alves? Fitch and Alves both are top 5 in the world, but didn’t do great against St. Pierre. The other fight is the May fight between Josh Koscheck and Paul Daley. This is the more likely bout to determine a number one contender. There remains a possibility that B.J. Penn could make another run towards GSP, but the way the lasy fight played out it doesn’t seem likely right now. I think the division has a lot of good fighters who may be actualyl great, but they are in a division dominated by St. Pierre. Outside of the few guys mentioned before there sits Paulo Thiago. A few other names who could get opportunities to climb the ladder towards contention: Carlos Condit, Martin Kampmann, Mike Swick, Matt Serra, and even Matt Hughes. Also, two guys from the lightweight division have moved up and could make a run at a title in Nate Diaz and Diego Sanchez. I do not know how well Diaz can do in the welterweight ranks, but he is always a threat. Former mdidleweight Ricardo Almeida will make his welterweight debut against Matt Brown in March and could have an impact at 170. Renzo Gracie may be in his 40’s, but a win over Hughes will start some chatter of him getting a title shot. Outside of the guys I mentioned Anthony Johnson and Ben Saunders may be the sleepers who could be a force in the division. They would still have some work to do, but their size and power helps them here. Also, do not be surprised to see a big signing down the road. I really think in his heart of hearts Jake Shields wants to be in the UFC and wants the GSP fight. When his contract is complete do not be shocked to see him sign with the UFC. Nate Diaz is another guy that could end up in the UFC eventually, maybe not today, but eventually he wants St. Pierre. Jay Hieron is now a free agent. I do not know if he is a serious contender, but he is a top 20 guy. He will probably land back in Strikforce, but the door may open for the UFC. The bottom line is the best welterweights in the world are in the UFC and any top tiered welteweight wanting to test themselves ought to be in the UFC, not Strikeforce or anywhere else.
Keep Your Eye On: Rory MacDonald. He is not at title contention point now, but he is very young and very talented. Many people say he is the next big thing. It appears a June fight with Carolos Condit is on the horizon. A win or even a good showing there could really improve his stock. Guys like Jake Ellenberger, Dong Hyun Kim, Amir Sadollah and John Howard could also make some noise in the division and notch some big wins. Perhaps the UFC can bring in some prospects to challenge St. Pierre as they have done in the heavyweight division.
I really think this division is better than some realize. It, just like the middleweight and lightweight divisions is just dominated by a great champion who is head and shoulders above the others in their respective weight class.