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When Georges St. Pierre announced his retirement on Feb. 21, a natural period of reflection began to unfold, as many mixed martial arts observers set out to determine where he stands in the Greatest of All-Time discussion.
The same has been done with Fedor Emelianenko, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and a few others. Fighting ability, longevity and strength of schedule are all considered when trying to decide the best of the best. With St. Pierre, the level of competition was never in question. The Canadian maestro fought across more than one generation of elite welterweights, having faced everyone from Matt Hughes, Frank Trigg and B.J. Penn to Dan Hardy, Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit and Johny Hendricks. St. Pierre’s resume stacks up favorably against any of the all-time greats.
When someone of St. Pierre’s stature retires, it can leave a void -- at the championship apex and among the rising contenders below. That will not be the case here, and those searching for evidence should look no further than UFC Fight Night 147 on Saturday in London. We are coming up on six years since St. Pierre last competed as a welterweight. In that time, Hendricks, Robbie Lawler, Tyron Woodley and Kamaru Usman have reigned atop the division, with fighters like Stephen Thompson, Demian Maia and Rory MacDonald all vying for the top spot. As was the case throughout St. Pierre’s run, those who make up the new breed of welterweight have begun to reach their primes and are lining up for a championship opportunity, many of them from across the Atlantic.
Darren Till, one half of the UFC Fight Night 147 main event, fought Woodley for the welterweight title in September, losing by submission. However, at just 26 years of age and with Usman having been crowned as the new welterweight champion, Till could certainly find himself in position to challenge for the gold in the future, especially when many observers wondered if he was paired with Woodley too soon. He had plenty of experience but little of it against top-level opposition. Whatever additional experience he accrues can only aid his development, and Till’s forthcoming showdown with Jorge Masvidal appears to be another step in that direction.
A grizzled veteran with 45 fights to his name and title aspirations of his own, Masvidal poses a stern test for anyone in the division and profiles as the kind of fighter only present in the deepest weight classes. He has never been highly ranked, but he has always been a difficult matchup. Till, who is almost certainly a future middleweight, will have a major size advantage against the former lightweight. Nevertheless, Masvidal has proven himself as a solid wrestler and technical striker, so he represents a formidable obstacle for Till in his attempt to rebound from his championship loss to Woodley. The fact that Usman, Woodley, Lawler and Ben Askren all fought at UFC 235 only reinforced the idea that the welterweight division had again become one of the promotion’s deepest weight classes. It makes matchmaking all the more important, both at the upper and the lower reaches of the Top 15.
To that end, the UFC Fight Night 147 co-headliner will see the ninth-ranked Leon Edwards square off with the 12th-ranked Gunnar Nelson. The winner figures to be looking up towards Masvidal, Till, Santiago Ponzinibbio and Rafael dos Anjos, while the loser could find his place in the Top 15 at risk. Both men have swung and missed at opportunities in the past.
A 2015 defeat to Usman halted Edwards’ rise through the ranks -- the kind of misstep from which it can take years to recover in a division this strong. The 27-year-old has rattled off six straight wins since to re-establish himself as a contender, the latest coming in a five-round decision over Donald Cerrone on June 23. The Birmingham, England, native continues to improve his skills while training alongside brother Fabian Edwards, Tom Breese and others.
Nelson’s time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship tells a similar tale. The Icelandic grappler trains between the Mjolnir academy in his homeland and SBG Ireland, the star-studded camp that is home to former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor and a litany of newly signed Bellator MMA fighters, many of whom compete at or around Nelson’s weight. Some recently traveled to Iceland to train with Nelson. Setbacks against Maia and Ponzinibbio prevented him from reaching the top, though he managed to bounce back in subsequent appearances.
Nelson and Edwards have unquestionable ability. Edwards will pit his wrestling skills against Nelson’s world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Their standup games are quite different but effective. With a number of other welterweights -- Claudio Henrique da Silva, 12-1, and Danny Roberts, 16-3, will meet in another 170-pound showcase -- on the rise, this looks to be a must-win situation for Edwards and Nelson.
All in all, the current welterweight division compares favorably to the St. Pierre era, with up-and-coming prospects, highly skilled ranked fighters and championship contenders in abundance. It enhances the importance of winning and losing and makes UFC Fight Night 147 a significant event for the new crop of fighters at 170 pounds.