The battle at 170 – Breaking down the UFC’s welterweight title contenders

Robbie Lawler was going on vacation. He already had a plane ticket booked for a June fight with Tyron Woodley at UFC Minneapolis, so when Woodley withdrew due to injury, Lawler figured he’d take a few days off and relax in Minnesota.

As soon as he landed, though, Lawler got a call. The UFC asked him to fight former interim welterweight champion Colby Covington five weeks later, in the main event of UFC Newark, set for Saturday in New Jersey. Lawler accepted.

“It kind of came out of nowhere, but I was just kind of like, ‘Whatever,'” Lawler told ESPN. “If it’s an exciting fight and it’s against one of the top names or top-ranked guys, usually I’m ready to go.”

Covington versus Lawler on Saturday at Prudential Center (ESPN+, 11 a.m. ET) will set up the rest of the year and beyond for the UFC’s talent-rich 170-pound division. UFC president Dana White said this past Saturday that if Covington beats Lawler, the former welterweight champ, he will be next for titleholder Kamaru Usman.

The title picture in the welterweight division should clear up when the UFC hits Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday. In the main event, top contender Colby Covington takes on former champion Robbie Lawler, with a title shot likely next for Covington should he earn a victory. “Chaos” is on a six-fight win streak but hasn’t fought in over a year. Lawler, meanwhile, hasn’t won in the Octagon in over two years.

UFC on ESPN: Covington vs. Lawler
• Saturday, Newark, N.J.
Prelims: ESPN, noon ET
Main card: ESPN, 3 p.m. ET

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If Lawler wins, that opens the door for several others. Jorge Masvidal set a UFC record for fastest knockout (5 seconds) against Ben Askren at UFC 239 four weeks ago. Leon Edwards is coming off an excellent performance in a unanimous decision victory over Rafael dos Anjos two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Woodley, who dropped the belt to Usman at UFC 235 in March, believes he should get a rematch.

Even if Covington wins, there will be questions. Covington has been in this spot before. He won the interim title at UFC 225 in June 2018, which should have guaranteed him a title shot. It did not. Due to sinus surgery, Covington was unavailable when the UFC wanted him to fight Woodley in September 2018, so he was passed up twice, for Darren Till and Usman.

Usman took the title with a unanimous decision victory against Woodley.

Covington calls Masvidal his best friend, but he wouldn’t exactly be pleased if his longtime American Top Team training partner got the title-shot nod over him if Covington beats Lawler.

“It would be a robbery and corruption at the highest level,” Covington told ESPN. “It would just show a lot about the UFC and that their rankings don’t matter and there’s no real system to what earns a title shot anymore. If he can get a title shot off being 2-2 in your last four fights, then man, that’s pretty crazy. The UFC, they got a circus running. And they can’t ever legitimize themselves as a true sport.

“If you want to be like the NBA or NFL … win the Western Conference finals in the NBA [and] you’re going to the [championship]. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re Tom Brady and you win the AFC, the Patriots, it doesn’t matter if the commissioner hates Tom Brady because of Deflategate. He won the AFC, he’s going to the Super Bowl.”

Covington will have the inside track if he wins Saturday. But let’s look at all the main contenders in the UFC welterweight division and their potential path to a title shot.

Colby Covington, a winner in six consecutive fights, competes against Robbie Lawler on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, for a chance at the belt. Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Colby Covington

Age: 31
Record: 14-1
Winning streak: 6
Key wins: dos Anjos,
Demian Maia
Key losses: Warlley Alves
ESPN welterweight rank: 4
Next: vs. Lawler at UFC Newark (Saturday)

If Covington beats Lawler, he should be standing across from Usman in a welterweight title fight before the end of the year. Say what you will about Covington and the way he has drummed up attention for himself via crass trash talk, but on merit alone he deserved a title shot last year, before Till and Usman got theirs. Prevailing over Lawler won’t be an easy task, though. Lawler is excellent against wrestlers like Covington and hits like a truck. If Lawler wins in Newark, it’ll open up a multitude of possibilities in the division.

“Robbie Lawler, if we’re being honest, is the biggest name in the division besides myself,” Covington said. “If you go ask 10 people on the street right now if they know … Usman or Robbie Lawler, 10 out of 10 of them are gonna say Robbie Lawler.”

Jorge Masvidal inserted himself onto the list of welterweight contenders with his knockout of Ben Askren. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Jorge Masvidal

Age: 34
Record: 34-13
Winning streak: 2
Key wins: Askren, Till,
Donald Cerrone
ESPN welterweight rank: 5
Key losses: Stephen Thompson, Maia
Next: TBA

Masvidal has gone on record saying he wants either a title shot or Conor McGregor next. With a Lawler victory over Covington, Masvidal would seem to be the top choice to fight Usman next. White has said he thinks Masvidal is too big for McGregor — though, according to White, McGregor was unhappy with that sentiment. Masvidal is red hot right now, coming off knockouts of Askren and Till. He has become a huge breakout star in 2019, even though he has been a pro MMA fighter for 16 years.

In the event that Masvidal doesn’t get the next title shot or McGregor, a bout with Edwards would be highly anticipated. The run-in between Masvidal and Edwards backstage after UFC London — the “three piece with the soda” incident — is now part of Masvidal’s lore. However, that doesn’t seem to be of interest to Masvidal at the moment.

“I’m the hot ticket,” Masvidal said on The Dan Le Batard show in July. “Nobody has moved the needle like this in a long time in MMA. With me breaking the record and whose face I did it on, those things go into consideration. I think strike while the iron is hot. [McGregor and I] both got a hot name. Let’s do it, let’s just compete. If not, let me just fight the champion already.”

Leon Edwards celebrates after his fight with Rafael dos Anjos on July 20. Cooper Neill for ESPN

Leon Edwards

Age: 27
Record: 18-3
Winning streak: 8
Key wins: dos Anjos, Cerrone,
Gunnar Nelson
Key losses: Usman
ESPN welterweight rank: 10
Next: TBA

Edwards doesn’t generate a ton of buzz with trash talk, but his greatness over the past few years cannot be questioned. The Jamaica native, who lives and trains in England, has won eight straight and has impressive victories over dos Anjos and Nelson. “Rocky” can strike, work in the clinch and stop takedowns. He’s multifaceted and extremely dangerous.

Edwards’ most recent loss: to Usman in 2015. He’s currently angling for a bout with Masvidal in a title eliminator if Covington beats Lawler. If Lawler wins, Edwards’ hat could be in the ring for a championship bout. “I don’t think [Masvidal] deserves a title shot,” Edwards told Metro UK. “If Colby Covington’s fighting Robbie Lawler in a few weeks and he wins, they’ll probably give him the title shot because he was the interim champion. That’ll leave me and Masvidal to fight for the No. 1 spot. Masvidal doesn’t deserve a title shot, and definitely not over me.”

Tyron Woodley

Age: 37
Record: 19-4-1
Winning streak: 0
Key wins: Maia, Till, Lawler, Thompson
Key losses: Usman
ESPN welterweight rank: 2
Next: TBA

Woodley was booked for a rematch with Lawler at UFC Minneapolis in June, but withdrew due to a lingering injury to his hand. Woodley knocked out Lawler to win the welterweight title in 2016 and held the belt for nearly three years before losing to Usman in March. Usman won pretty comprehensively. Woodley still thinks his name should be in the conversation for the next title shot, because he was a long-term champ. He’ll likely need at least one more win to get back there.

“It’s important that people sit back and think, ‘Tyron beat all the best welterweights in their prime, the No. 1 contenders, defended his title four times, took out Robbie Lawler in [the first round], which is historical,'” Woodley told ESPN.

“And he [lost] a fight, had a bad night. I think if anybody else — [former champions] Joanna [Jedrzejczyk], Cody Garbrandt, Ronda Rousey — anybody else, you see them in the title picture pretty quick. The fans are kind of speaking for me.”

Can Robbie Lawler get to the top of the mountain once again? Rod Mar for ESPN

Robbie Lawler

Age: 37
Record: 28-13, 1 NC
Winning streak: 0
Key wins: Cerrone,
Carlos Condit, Rory MacDonald
Key losses: Woodley, dos Anjos, Askren
ESPN welterweight rank: NR
Next: vs. Covington at UFC Newark (Saturday)

Lawler returned from knee surgery at UFC 235 in March against Askren and looked dangerous in the 3 minutes, 20 seconds the fight lasted. The former welterweight champion picked Askren up over his head and slammed him down, nearly knocking him out. Lawler landed some ground-and-pound after that, nearly finishing the bout by TKO. Askren survived, though, and seconds later caught Lawler in a bulldog choke. Referee Herb Dean thought Lawler was unconscious and ruled the bout a technical submission for Askren. Lawler protested briefly, but he is not the kind of guy to make a big stink about stuff like that. Dean’s call is still disputed.

Who knows what would have happened if Lawler continued — he could have defeated Askren and this welterweight hierarchy would look totally different. Instead, Lawler’s record says he has lost two straight and three of four. A win over Covington puts the 18-year veteran (and likely future Hall of Famer) right back as a top contender.

Santiago Ponzinibbio is on a seven-fight win streak. Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Age: 32
Record: 27-3
Winning streak: 7
Key wins: Nelson,
Neil Magny, Mike Perry
Key losses: Lorenz Larkin, Ryan LaFlare
ESPN welterweight rank: 8
Next: TBA

Ponzinibbio’s name doesn’t come up often on the short list of top welterweight contenders, but it should. The Argentina native has won seven in a row. The only 170-pound fighters with better win streaks are Usman and Edwards. Ponzinibbio is exciting and he gets finishes — four of those seven victories during this streak were by KO/TKO. “Gente Boa” knocked out Magny last November in his hometown of Buenos Aires, but has yet to be booked again. Last month, Ponzinibbio needed emergency surgery for a bacterial infection in his knee. Abe Kawa, his manager, told ESPN that the Ponzinibbio is recovering and should know more about his status this week.

“I’m focused on my recovery now,” Ponzinibbio told MMA Fighting in June. “I want to fight soon, of course, but I have to get back to 100% first. I know I’ll come back better than ever and win the fights I have to win to win my title.”

Other names in the mix: Anthony Pettis, Nate Diaz and Thompson

Diaz and Pettis face off at UFC 241 on Aug. 17 in Anaheim, California. The winner will have a groundswell of support for a title shot due to his popularity — particularly Diaz. Thompson has lost two straight, but owns a victory over Masvidal and a draw with Woodley. He’ll likely need two wins to get back in contention. Thompson said last weekend that he hopes to return from a knockout loss to Pettis in November.

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