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The answer to UFC’s welterweight problem is obvious … if it wants to restore order


In a sane world, the next UFC welterweight title fight would have been signed, sealed and delivered in the time between Saturday night’s UFC on Fox 26 main event and the time you’re reading this.

Rafael dos Anjos, the former UFC lightweight champion, put on a clinic in defeating one of the toughest men in the history of the sport, former welterweight champ Robbie Lawler, in the main event at Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Centre. Dos Anjos pitched a 50-45 across-the-board shutout in a dominant performance.

The victory put the Brazilian standout into the Fighter of the Year conversation. After losing the lightweight title to Eddie Alvarez in 2016 and following up with a decision loss to current interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson, dos Anjos reassessed his career and decided to go up to 170 pounds.

There, freed from giant weight cuts that were affecting his performance in the cage, dos Anjos shined. In the past six months, he’s defeated former Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine, finished Neil Magny in the first round and now has a statement win over Lawler.

A fight between the red-hot dos Anjos and champion Tyron Woodley, an opportunity for dos Anjos to join the short list of fighters to hold UFC championships in two weight classes, is a no-brainer.

But this is the UFC in late 2017, and brains aren’t always part of the booking equation. This is a promotion dealing with the aftermath of two years of decision-making in which champions win titles and immediately go searching for “money fights” rather than defend their belts, and where interim champions are crowned at the drop of a hat.

Rafael Dos Anjos (R) celebrates a win over Robbie Lawler at UFC Fight Night in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP)

So naturally, RDA had barely gotten back to the dressing room before the nonsense started.

Woodley didn’t outright decline to fight dos Anjos, but he also sounded less than impressed by the performance of both the winner and Lawler, whom Woodley knocked out to win the belt in 2016.

“In my opinion, what I saw tonight is that if any of those two guys in that bout would fight me, one of those guys is going to get knocked out,” Woodley told FS1. “I saw the IQ wasn’t as high as I would like for a No. 1 contendership fight. Both of those guys are always talking about pushing the pace, and they were going to do this and they were going to do that. I saw a ton of openings for myself.”

Woodley, it should be noted, claimed a shoulder injury caused his lackluster performance in his last title defense against Demian Maia at UFC 214. That was in July. Just last month, Woodley was in discussion to headline UFC 219 with a title defense vs. Nate Diaz, who is mostly a lightweight. He’s 3-3 in his career at welterweight, and lost his last fight to Conor McGregor back in August 2016. When those negotiations broke down, Woodley decided, months later after the original injury, that he was getting shoulder surgery after all.

Such game-playing is a natural result of the path the UFC has chosen over the past two years. It indulged Conor McGregor as he won first the featherweight title, then the lightweight title, then went on to box Floyd Mayweather Jr., without defending either of his MMA belts along the way.

As a stopgap measure, the UFC started awarding interim belts, which traditionally are used in combat sports when a current titleholder is too injured to compete, but working in good faith on their return, simply to cover for McGregor’s absence. This led to both Jose Aldo and Max Holloway having interim title claims before Holloway emerged as undisputed featherweight champ. At lightweight, Tony Ferguson won an interim belt in October, but when negotiations for a potential unification bout with McGregor fell apart, he opted for elbow surgery.

This, in turn, led to former champion Eddie Alvarez claiming a new title of “Most Violent Fighter” for himself, which has garnered more attention in recent weeks than the actual belts.

(And for the sake of sticking to the main topic, we won’t go in depth on middleweight, in which Michael Bisping was rewarded for ducking top challengers right up until he was finished by the four-years-absent Georges St-Pierre, who promptly vacated the middleweight belt.)

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the out-of-the-box thinking has spilled over to welterweight. Knowing that Woodley, who in fairness has defended his belt three times in just over a year, is going to be out a bit, fighters began angling on Twitter to create an interim welterweight belt, and volunteer their services.

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who came up just short in two challenges to Woodley’s belt, complimented both fighters while angling for an interim title fight.

Colby Covington, who has made noise in recent months as a poor man’s Chael Sonnen, predictably took the low road, as he tried to troll RDA into an interim title fight by insulting his homeland of Brazil.

Dos Anjos shut the latter talk down at Saturday night’s post-fight news conference, saying Covington is “just talking crap about people and he showed nothing on the division. He beat nobody.”

The UFC should likewise shut down the talk of anything except the obvious fight. Woodley wants a “money fight,” but the chances of McGregor deciding he wants to fight Woodley on the heels of his $100M Mayweather payday are slim, and St-Pierre isn’t going to be fighting again any time soon, either.

This is the opportunity for the UFC to put a lid on the nonsense that can be traced back to McGregor deciding he didn’t want to defend his featherweight title. It made for short-term financial success, but it’s not sustainable in the long-term. A fight between Woodley and the division’s hottest contender, the one who would be looking to add a second weight class title after doing things the right way by earning his spot in the divisional scheme, would send a strong statement that the company is ready to restore order.

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