Despite its wealth of talent and celebrity, the welterweight division remains a stale, stagnant shambles.
What makes a weight class great? A dominant champion that is undoubtedly the best in the world? A laundry list of elite killers, hungry to take out the current king? A mixing pot of celebrity names, bold personalities and bad blood that all but guarantee an exciting clash? By those criteria, UFC‘s welterweight division is one of the finest in the entire sport. And yet…it absolutely isn’t. Despite ticking all of those aforementioned boxes, the 170lb division remains messy, stagnant and uninspiring. Like an old car: every time you turn the keys and it feels like it’s about to get moving, it just vibrates and stutters before going completely flat once more.
There’s no place better to start than with the weight class’s undisputed ruler, Kamaru Usman. If anybody in the UFC *looks* like a champion, it’s this piece of rock with Nigerian flag warpaint. He went to war with Colby Covington, dominated Jorge Masvidal for 25 minutes straight, and rallied against Gilbert Burns before punishing him into a 3rd round stoppage. For every ounce of charisma he lacks, he more than makes up for by being battle-tested and undeniable. However, that’s where the problems start: Usman has beaten 4/5 of the division’s top 5, only one of them being close. This dilemma left us with two options: to either move further down the rankings and look for a possible new contender, or to wait for the upper crust of Usman’s former victims to decide among themselves who should get another crack at the champ.
These two options collided last weekend, as 11th ranked welterweight Belal Muhammad seized the opportunity to fight Leon Edwards in what, on the surface, seemed like a number one contender’s bout. Edwards was looking to break the curse of perhaps the most unfortunate two years in UFC history, and Belal Muhammad was looking to finally leapfrog over the division’s top 5 stalemates and emerge as the new top player in town, similar to how Gilbert Burns had a year prior. In a murky, grey sea of would-be contenders, we were finally about to have some clarity. You know what happened next. After an impressive first round, Leon Edwards’s pesky fingers brought it all crashing down with a horrifying eye poke. As Muhammad’s panicked screams echoed around the empty UFC apex, it was clear that we were now even more lost than we were before. Was getting a title shot from and eye poke unfathomable? Or had Leon done enough in those five minutes to stake his claim to a rematch that has eluded him? The last thing this division needed was more questions, and now that’s all we were left with.
Plenty of weight classes have championship rematches. Hell, this current era of heavyweight is being defined by them. So in a pool as talent-rich as the 170lb division, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? That is, of course, when we’re not talking about some of the most stubborn, intransigent people in the entire sport.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a statistic for you: Only one person in the welterweight top 5 has a victory over another in the top 5, and that was Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson beating Jorge Masvidal all the way back in 2017. So many fresh match-ups that would clear this mess right up, and yet the cogs in the welterweight machine just refuse to work in tandem. Teammates turned rivals Jorge Masvidal and Colby seemed like they were on a collision course for so long and then… it just didn’t happen. Now we’re left with “Gamebred” being gifted a rematch with Usman after being thoroughly dominated last July, which really speaks to the mess we’ve found ourselves in. Covington vs Edwards seems like an easy answer to our problem, and yet “Chaos” has made it quite clear he’s not in the ‘Leon Scott charity business.’ Meanwhile, the sport’s nicest guy in “Wonderboy” calls for a fight with just about anybody every day on social media, and yet his oh-so polite call-outs merely echo and disappear into the MMA abyss.
It would be a shame for Belal Muhammad to become lost in all of this, as he, unfortunately, represents another problem with the division. Underneath the glacier-like clusterf*ck in the top 5, there’s a slew of talented, exciting fighters running in place. Battling out far more regularly merely to hold their position in the rankings, unable to pole vault over the aforementioned mess of more well-known contenders. Muhammad got that rare opportunity, only for it to be snuffed out unceremoniously. The likes of Vicente Luque, Niko Price and James Krause of some of the most reliably entertaining talents in the sport, athletes whose ceilings I still believe we haven’t yet seen. I just hope they don’t get lost and overlooked amidst the chaos (and I’m not just talking about Colby).
If the UFC welterweight division is to get back on its feet and take full advantage of the monsters it has to offer, it ultimately comes down to the elite tier no longer clutching to their claim to a shot, and being forced to fight each other for it. And hey, when everybody’s already lost to the champ, it could only take one or two. While Belal Muhammad cracks at a top 5 opponent was a product of extremely bizarre circumstance, I believe that if the UFC offers more opportunities to people like this (the Muhammads, Luques and Chiesa’s of the world) then it will not only potentially give way to fresh, exciting matchups and unexpected Masvidal/Burns-Esque ascensions, but it will break the top 5 stalemates by forcing the best to fight the best. I only say all of this out of love. As I said, welterweight has the potential to be incredible, I just don’t want it to move in slow motion forever.