In light of another UFC title changing hands this weekend, I got to thinking about the good old days, the days when Georges St Pierre reigned the Welterweight division with a perfectly sculpted and probably well moisturized iron fist. Where champions could defend their title 8 times and be accused of ‘not trying hard enough’. This got me thinking about the real greats, and so I’ve decided to try and write up a top ten list for the best Welterweights of all time, with more divisions to follow if people want to see it!
Some of my criteria for judging a fighters quality depends on their (relative) level of competition, their ability to win consistently, and the legacy they left to the sport, be it memorable fights, memorable finishes, or long title reigns. Because the standard of MMA has come such a long way in such a short time, don’t be surprised to see some current faces on here, but there are a few oldies thrown in for good measure! It is obviously only my opinion and to disagreements on some of my placements are almost guaranteed, so without further ado, lets get right in to it, starting with the honorable mentions.
-BJ Penn: (16-10-2)
I am choosing to place Penn in the honorable mentions and not higher up on this list because, when you look at his career at Welterweight, he never beat anybody other than Matt Hughes and Duane Ludwig. In fact Penn actually has a better record at Middleweight and above (2-1) than he does at Welterweight (3-6). Penn was always better as a Lightweight, and while his first fight with a young GSP was close, he was never the same force at 170 that he was at 155. As a boxer, Penn relied on his tremendous jab to maintain range and deter opponents from stepping in on him, but against bigger men he almost always fought at a reach disadvantage. His Brazilian jujitsu pedigree earned him the nickname of the Prodigy, earning a black-belt in only three years and then winning the worlds that same year, but against the bigger wrestlers at 170 pounds, Penn often found himself trapped under their bulk and unable to mount any effective offence. Penn was also known to have an aversion to hard training sessions, and especially at Welterweight when he didn’t have to do any kind of cardio to cut weight, he normally came in looking rounder than he probably should have and always slowed considerably after the first round. The only thing that even lands him a spot here is the fact that BJ Penn holds two wins over Matt Hughes, who will appear later on this list. It is true that styles make fights, and even though he was undersized, under motivated, and really only fought at 170 to avoid the weight cut, BJ Penn had the number of one of the best Welterweights of all time, and that’s something almost no other true Welterweight had.
-Jon Fitch (28-7-1-1)
Jon Fitch gets a bad rap for his fighting style, and not without good reason. To me Jon Fitch is the epitome of everything that can go wrong with a hard-nosed wrestling mentality mixed with the insane desire to win that is built on the wrestling mats. Fitch at his best was a blanket, you couldn’t keep him off you and once he got you down you were not getting up anytime soon, as he sat on top and was just active enough to prevent the referee from standing you up, but not enough to put you in danger or allow you to create enough space to escape. As the fight wore on people became more and more desperate to land a hurting blow on the feet, and in opening up the takedown came easier and easier to Fitch, and if you did catch him, he had a chin of stone and was twice as stubborn when someone tried to get blood from him. Watching a Fitch fight was both intensely frustrating and at the same time strangely fascinating, to see him break people without ever really hurting them, to force guys to throw their hands up in frustration as they get punched in the face, and to see them know they are losing the fight, but the more they try to win, the more often they end up right back in that position, with Fitch straddled across them monotonously throwing his fist in to their face.
What really lands Fitch in this category, as opposed to similarly styled Ben Askren, is the quality of the opposition he did this too. With victories over the likes of Josh Burkman, Thiago Alves, Diego Sanchez, Mike Pierce, Ben Saunders, Erick Silva, Akihiro Gono, Paulo Thiago, and Yushin Okami, Fitch fought a veritable who’s who of his division. His UFC record still stands at 14-3-1, with a draw to BJ Penn and losses to Johnny Hendricks, Damian Maia and Georges St Pierre. He only lost to the very, very best in the UFC and to my knowledge he is one of the only fighters in the companies history to be cut on a 1 fight losing streak, going 7-3-1 in his last 10 Octagon appearances.
Number 10: Stephen Thompson (13 -1)
Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson has captured the public’s interest with his flashy kicking style and unusual point karate movement, but it wasn’t that long ago that Stephen Thompson was being written off as an oddity after being thoroughly out-grappled and out fought by Matt Brown in his second Octagon performance. Cries that he had been ‘exposed’ and that point fighting would never work against ‘elite grapplers’ abounded, and Thompson looked set to fade in to obscurity, a curios style with such a fatal flaw that would never really be taken seriously.
Thompson rebounded with a decision over Nah-Shon Burrel, began travelling to New York to train his grappling with Matt Serra and Chris Weidman, and since then has seen not only a steady increase in the level of competition he faced, but he has looked better and better in each outing. People were still pointing to his obvious grappling flaws when he knocked out Jake Ellenberger, and again when he stopped Johnny Hendricks in the first round. After his 5 round decision win over Rory MacDonald, many of the same people who wrote off Thompson’s chances against any ‘real grapplers’ are now saying that the future of MMA lies in ‘movement based fighters’, and point to Thompson as a key example of this. He may have the most impressive string of wins of any Welterweight in the modern UFC since Georges St Pierre retired, and he has convinced a skeptical audience of the validity of the point fighting style in the cage. Couple that with the fact that he has shown markedly improved grappling in every fight since his loss to Brown and you can see the special kind of fighter Stephen Thompson is. He is still young in his career at only 14 pro fights and he has yet to win any world titles, but as the clear current number 1 contender, it’s not outside the realms of possibility that by the end of his career Thompson may be much higher up this list.
Number 9: Tyron Woodley (16-3)
Tyron Woodley may be the biggest freak athlete on this list. As a standout Collegiate wrestler and walking around at 5 feet 9 inches tall and what must be tipping 200 pounds, Woodley is one of the most densely muscled athletes you will find in the UFC today. His explosive power is obvious, and his one punch knockout power is undeniable. Both were on show last weekend when Woodley knocked out Robbie Lawler to win the Welterweight Crown for himself. The reason Woodley is so low on this list is that, while he has looked spectacular against some of the other people I considered putting on this list, (Koscheck, Paul Daley, Dong Hyun Kim) he has some pretty big holes in his game that we have yet to see if he has closed. Because he carries around so much muscle and has such an explosive style of fighting, Woodley tends to slow down by the midway point of the second round. He has always relied almost exclusively on his right hand to win his fights, and seems to only go to his wrestling or kicking game when he absolutely has too. But most of all Woodley has shown that he can be discouraged if a fight doesn’t end early. Against Nate Marquardt, Jake Shields, and Rory MacDonald, Woodley surged out in the early going with that right hand he knocked out Lawler with, but when it missed, or didn’t hurt the guy, or when Woodley got tagged, he took his foot off the gas and began to shell up against the fence. Against Shields it saw him get out pointed in a slow affair, against MacDonald it saw him get punished against the cage and shut down for the full three rounds, but against Marquardt it saw him take a ton of damage and get stopped in one of the most brutal combinations I’ve ever witnessed. Since then Woodley has not shown that he has kicked this troubling habit, but we did get to see some improved ring awareness from Woodley last Saturday, who managed to get off the cage early and coax Lawler to it before unleashing that bomb of a right hand on him, so we’ll take it in baby steps.
Number 8: Nick Diaz (26-9-0-2)
Nick Diaz is probably one of the more divisive placements on this list. On one hand, people will complain that he isn’t higher, on the other people will complain that he is on this list at all, but that is the kind of controversy that has always surrounded Nick Diaz. As a Strikeforce champion, Diaz undoubtedly benefited from some favorable matchmaking that steered him away from heavy top players and high level wrestlers and instead threw him him in to the path of dangerous strikers like Cyborg Santos, Paul Daley, and KJ Noons. Diaz excelled against these opponents by virtue of his volume based punching style, slick jujitsu game from the bottom, endless cardio and generally treating a punch to the face like it was something to get angry at, instead of worry about. His near constant level of trash talking split the fans right down the middle, and people either loved him or hated him for it. When he came to the UFC he was one of the most anticipated signings to come in a long time, and the beating he put on BJ Penn left few people in doubt that Diaz was for real. His controversial split decision loss to Carlos Condit is still contested to this day, with many Diaz fans claiming that his aggression more than made up for the surplus of ‘pitter patter’ kicks and punches Condit landed as he patiently circled off the cage and out of reach.
After the Condit fight Diaz went on to retire from the sport, saying he would not come out of retirement until he got a title shot at Georges St Pierre. Bizarrely, his wish was granted, and he was thoroughly out-grappled over a relatively pedestrian GSP performance. After that he retired again, saying he would only come out of retirement for another title shot, at Welterweight or Middleweight, or a shot at Anderson Silva. Unbelievably so, on the back of a two fight losing streak dating back 3 years, Diaz was granted his wish yet again, and he subsequently went up a weight class to lose a decision to Silva that was later overturned after Silva failed a drug test for 3 different types of steroids (Diaz also failed his drug test in this fight, but for his old contemporary that has followed him for his entire career, marijuana).
There is something strange about Nick Diaz that seems to draw fans in. It might be his unusual style, it might be his ‘keep it real’ attitude, it might be that he swears a lot and smokes weed at a pace that would give Joe Rogan nightmares, but maybe it’s the spectacle of Nick Diaz that fans really come to see, the whole package put together. Yes he’s fun to watch and he says outrageous things, but the man is also a damn good fighter, and has only lost to his most disciplined and talented opponents, who flat out refused to stand in front of him and trade blow for blow. As the old saying goes, “nobody has ever won a brawl with a Diaz brother”.
Number 7: Pat Miletich (29-7-2)
As a man who began fighting back when MMA was still being called NHB (no holds barred) fighting, and where fans and announcers alike were still a little puzzled by this “Jujitsu” magic that everyone kept harping on about, Miletich rose up as one of the first truly well rounded fighters to emerge from the sport. A collegiate wrestler and amateur boxer with a background in Karate and Brazilian Jujitsu, Miletich was the perfect example of the modern concept of ‘mixing it up’ in MMA. His striking was good enough to deal with grapplers who wanted to take him down, and his wrestling allowed him to take down anyone who wanted to strike with him. His legacy is obviously his camp Miletich fighting systems, which went on to produce future Welterweight champs Matt Hughes and Robbie Lawler, but more than that, he introduced the world to the idea that you had to be good everywhere to stay on top. The reason he is not higher on this list is because of the quality of the competition he faced. Miletich fought in an era of MMA when there was still wide discrepancies in the talent level of fighters competing. Miletich once fought the former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Dan Severn, to a draw. While some would see this as a marker of brilliance, the sad truth is that if a near 70 pound weight advantage cannot guarantee you a victory, you must be pretty piss poor in terms of technique. Similarly his 100% takedown completion ratio can be taken as either a sign of his god-like wrestling ability, or as a sign that a lot of the people he was fighting just weren’t that sharp when it came to takedown defense, especially when you had someone like Miletich who wouldn’t just shoot from the other side of the cage, but would look to strike first to raise your guard and take your mind off the incoming shot.
Miletich benefited from being an athletic disciplined and varied Mixed Martial Artist in an era where most people were still only proficient in one discipline, and much like Rocky Marciano’s heavyweight boxing reign, while he dominated his division during his era, his era was fundamentally weak in terms of competitiveness.
Number 6: Rory MacDonald (18-4)
Rory MacDonald is one of the top names on my shortlist of “Best fighters in the world who have never won a world title”. Long hailed by Georges St Pierre as his successor, there was always going to be a ton of pressure on MacDonald’s shoulders, and he has handled it better than anyone else reasonably could be expected too. A few boring performances at the tail end of GSP’s career saw most people thinking that MacDonald was waiting out his friend and mentor’s twilight before stepping up to claim the belt for himself without ever having to fight his teammate. That all changed when Robbie Lawler defeated MacDonald by split decision on the same card that saw GSP driven in to retirement by Johnny Hendricks. Being so close to the title for so long without wanting the shot, and all of a sudden the belt was up for grabs and MacDonald was coming off only the second loss of his young career. The timing could not have seemed worse to MacDonald himself, but it seemed to give him just the kick he needed to bring him back to form. A terrifically well rounded athlete, not to mention large and long for the division, MacDonald is at his best when he can press his opponents up against the cage and unleash combinations. His wrestling and top control have always been top notch, and his jab is probably the most educated jab at Welterweight since the departure of his teammate St Pierre. Mixed in with the physical gifts and technicians mindset is a mean streak that kicks MacDonald in to an extra gear when he smells blood. His title fight with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189 famously went down as Dana White’s “[best] fight of the ever” and while MacDonald came up short in that back and forth war, he provided a stunning account of himself and at just 27 years old he still has a long career ahead of him, be it with the UFC or Bellator.
This is the first half of my top 10 Welterweights in MMA of all time, the top 5 will follow shortly! Let me know what you think in the comments below!