The last time a UFC welterweight title fight happened without Georges St-Pierre was way back on September 23, 2006 - a nearly eight-year run. That run will be broken on Saturday night, when Johny Hendricks (15-2; 10-2 UFC) and Robbie Lawler (22-9; 7-3 UFC) compete for the 170-pound crown in UFC 171’s main event in Dallas.
St-Pierre vacated the belt in November, following a controversial split decision victory versus Hendricks at the UFC’s 20th anniversary event from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Vegas. Now, UFC 171 is the story of how the show must go on. Hendricks and Lawler face a seemingly impossible task in becoming St-Pierre’s successor; after all, “GSP” is an institution - a first ballot Hall of Famer, if such a thing existed in mixed martial arts. (St-Pierre is undeniably the best 170-pound fighter ever, and a record nine title defenses during a five-year stretch between 2008 and 2013 prove it.) St-Pierre’s UFC success lasted 10 whole years: Hendricks, meanwhile, has been top notch in the last six years, but it’s the next five in which “Bigg Rigg” can really define his, and perhaps welterweight’s, legacy.
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On the opposite end, Robbie Lawler is a 31-year-old, world-traveled veteran, once a prodigious, “Ruthless” puncher that arrived in the UFC a year after his pro debut in 2001. He faded out of the organization in two years, but a return to the company came with a unanimous “Comeback Fighter of the Year” 2013 label for Lawler, positioning him to fulfill the “future champion” tag he’d carried in the sport over a decade ago. So UFC 171’s appeal is simple: Hendricks vs. Lawler, two of the best power hitters in history, with a total of 26 career knockouts between them, vying to step up to plate first. What a story to tell in a world without “GSP.”
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So what was it that made GSP such an icon? In short – everything. Athletically, no one seemed as ready-made for the sport as St-Pierre. He was so ahead of his time; he debuted in the UFC in January 2004, two years into his pro career, and earned a title shot that same year. Fourteen of 21 UFC career bouts were for a title, and the only two losses on his record he avenged soundly, technically, and violently. Ten years of being virtually untouchable in front of swelling UFC audiences built up his box office goodwill. His success was also built on legendary consistency in a volatile sport. The last time he was away from the octagon, Carlos Condit scored a controversial unanimous decision against Nick Diaz for an interim title in February 2012, but the undisputed champ rehabbed his ACL after drawing the UFC’s biggest crowd of 55,724 fans to Toronto, and Condit fell short of dethroning St-Pierre in November 2012 (not without a head-kick knockout scare, of course). The impressive comeback feat further elevated Canada’s favorite athlete. His injury went away - questions surrounding his ability to fend off dangerous, high-level challengers flawlessly on every fight night did not.
The real question is, will anyone ever be able to meet or surpass this standard? St-Pierre’s in-cage time during his title stretch runs longer than The Godfather, so there is no denying his legend: He ushered in the downfall of Matt Hughes’ UFC Hall of Fame career, bested B.J. Penn, one of two two-division champs in UFC history, and beat three outside-the-octagon titleholders in Jake Shields, Condit, and Diaz leading up to his final match with Hendricks. But then in St-Pierre’s final fight, Hendricks battered the champion. The challenger left unscathed while St-Pierre, one of the UFC’s most famous faces, was rendered nearly unrecognizable behind red welts. He held that welterweight title of his until the very end, despite Hendricks’ best efforts, but the writing on the wall was too apparent for St-Pierre to ignore: Hendricks is 30 and in his prime, with much more cage time ahead in his career, while St-Pierre, 32, has already racked up too many fight miles to count.
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St-Pierre hadn’t lost a round in five years until facing Shields. He hadn’t been knocked down in a fight in five years until Condit. In his entire career, including eight of nine bouts in his title run being 25-minute decision wins, St-Pierre always seemed to be the fresher fighter at the end of the bout, until Diaz. There was never anything inconclusive about St-Pierre’s career until Hendricks, who came one judges’ scorecard short of making history and seizing St-Pierre’s championship. The times, they are a-changing. At UFC 171, Hendricks and Lawler have a golden opportunity to write the next chapter in welterweight history, and it’s fair to say that the chapter beginning now without St-Pierre might end up being just as important as the one starring him.
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