Johny HendricksWhat a main event on Saturday, huh? Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler stood toe to toe, rarely stepping out of the pocket, engaging in a wonderful session of sanctioned face punching at UFC 171 in Dallas.

It’s fights like these that make you think about the brutality beauty of mixed martial arts, reminding you why you love this sport: two fighters, one cage, one winner decided by a combination of skill, heart, determination, and an unteachable sense of toughness.

But in the end, the glory of victory is only temporary, and so too can be a champion’s reign over a division when there’s a long list of hungry challengers waiting for their shots at gold. And while Hendricks is probably living it up on cloud nine right now — as he should because, after all, he finally won the belt after fighting for it twice — a time will come sooner than later where one of the UFC’s 170-pound best tests him for his hardware.

It’s not the lengthiest of lists, but the group of title hopefuls is among some of the fiercest competitors on the planet, reminiscent of the UFC light heavyweight division from 2007 to 2011, when any one of the 205 pounders could have claimed the title. That being the case, based on the accolades of the fighters, the belt is by no means firmly in Hendricks’ grasp.

So who’s the most deserving challenger for the newly crowned Hendricks? Let’s review.

As Dana White always says, these guys are “in the mix.”

Rory MacDonald at UFC 129RORY MACDONALD: MacDonald is the closest to being the heir apparent to former division king Georges St-Pierre. Together, the two competed out of Tristar Gym during GSP’s fighting days, and they continue to be training partners at the Montreal facility.

Being teammates, MacDonald and St-Pierre declined — and that’s putting it lightly — ever fighting each other. Now that GSP is off doing movies, visiting tropical islands, and attending to personal problems, now’s the time for MacDonald to make his case for contention. With six of his last seven fights being in the winner’s circle, and some of those wins being over names like Demian Maia and Jake Ellenberger, MacDonald makes a formidable foe to Hendricks.

What makes the door open even wider for young Canadian fighter is the fact that the only two losses he has in the UFC have been to Carlos Condit and Robbie Lawler, each of whom lost their fights last Saturday at UFC 171. MacDonald, however, is coming off an impressive win over Maia, and carries with him the momentum to swing into a title fight as early as this summer.

There are few others that match MacDonald in terms of credibility, skill set and strength of fight path. These are just a few things that make him the most likely candidate for Hendricks’ next opponent.

Tyron Woodley UFC 167TYRON WOODLEY: If there’s a conversation about who’s made the most noise since Zuffa’s buyout of Strikeforce, Woodley’s name has to be one of the most often mentioned.

Since making the transition to the UFC, Woodley has racked up three wins out of four fights, finishing each of his opponents by knockout or TKO. His most recent fight, Saturday’s UFC 171 win, ended in an unfortunate way with Condit suffering a knee injury, but the fight was dominated by Woodley for the majority of the time up to fight’s stoppage.

In addition to controlling the fight against Condit, Woodley has earned his all of his UFC finishes by strikes, a feat he was only able to accomplish once in 11 fights before joining the organization. Combine these stats with an impressive showing over a former interim champion, and you have yourself a strong candidate for No. 1 contender status, regardless of his stance in the official rankings.

Hector-LombardHECTOR LOMBARD: Color commentator Joe Rogan said during the UFC 171 broadcast that people might not be very excited to see Lombard compete in a title fight, but there’s something about a guy nicknamed “Lightning” that makes you have to wonder what it would be like. Basically, he’s bound to strike catastrophically at some point.

Out of the three “In the mix” fighters, Lombard’s resumé is the weakest with only two fights in the division, so his likelihood to land a title fight in his next outing is small at best. But imagine the possibilities, folks. Lombard manhandled Jake Shields for the better part of three rounds before collecting a unanimous decision over one of the best grapplers in the sport. Shields was, quite literally, tossed around by Lombard, which isn’t something many, if any, have done to the former Strikeforce middleweight champ.

Coming down from middleweight just two fights ago makes Lombard getting a title shot a tough sell, but given his ability to hit with the ferocity of a mack truck and toss bodies around like an overzealous butcher in a slaughterhouse, the excitement and anticipation levels are surely above what Rogan is giving them credit for.

Realistically, though, Lombard is a long shot for a title bid. But if MacDonald gets the next nod to face Hendricks, a match-up with Tyron Woodley might make the most sense for Lombard. They just have to get past that whole American Top Team alliance they share.

Just outside the box:

Matt BrownMATT BROWN: He doesn’t know how to sell fights, admittedly. Jumping up on a social media podium and touting himself as the next challenger to the title isn’t Matt Brown’s style, but what he does do well his hit people. And he’s done it a lot lately.

Brown went from having a 12-11 record to winning six in a row with five of those wins coming by way of finish due to strikes. It’s an impressive run, no doubt, but none of the wins have come over top-10 fighters. The most notable win, a first-round knockout of Mike Pyle at UFC Fight Night 26 made some ripples in the welterweight waters, but it wasn’t quite enough garner him bragging rights as No. 1 contender.

Brown has a UFC Fight Night headlining bout again Erick Silva lined up on May 10, which should go a long way towards raising his profile amongst fans. A fight with someone in the top 10, however, anyone from Jake Shields to the winner of Dong Hyun Kim and Tarec Saffiedine, would give Brown the bump up the ladder he’s looking for, and he won’t need to tweet how awesome he is to get it.

Dong Hyun KimDONG HYUN KIM: John Hathaway’s head might still having a ringing sound echoing through it from the elbow Kim landed at the TUF China Finale. The sound that strike made was similar to that of two bamboo sticks slapping each other. Who knew the human head could make such a sound? Weird. But we digress.

Kim has reeled off four wins in a row, the two most recent being knockouts that came as surprises to more than just his opponents. The new DHK is swinging for the fences and looking for finishes, which, to the spectating public, is always appreciated. But it’ll take a few more of those highlight reels to grant Kim a title shot in the near future.

Still got some work to do: Jake Ellenberger and Tarec Saffiedine

Ellenberger and Saffiedine, while both are competitive and outstanding in many areas, each has some work to do before he can be mentioned in the No. 1 contender conversation.

The two will face each other in April at UFC 172, and if done impressively, the winner of their fight will jump into the “Just outside the box” category. Ellenberger needs to get back in the win column after dropping what many considered a snoozer of a fight against MacDonald last July. As for Saffiedine, the last Strikeforce welterweight champ needs to garner some spotlight on himself beyond the that of a Fight Pass stream.

The Wildcard: Nick Diaz. Yes, Nick Diaz.

It was inevitable that Nick Diaz’s name be mentioned in an article about welterweight contenders because, you know, it’s Nick Diaz, and if web traffic is any indication, this guy warrants discussion.

He hasn’t fought in nearly a year, and if we’re talking about recent runs, the two-fight losing streak Diaz is on doesn’t stand out as a good thing. Credentials like these don’t put a fighter anywhere near the discussion of being in line for a title shot … unless that fighter is Diaz.

The MMA universe is attracted to the Stocktonian for reasons beyond explanation in this column, so let’s try not to name all the reasons why people will undoubtedly buy a pay-per-view headlined by him and Hendricks. The fact is Diaz is an intriguing figure that MMA attention spans flock to, regardless of whether he is applauded or hated. He puts eyes on the cage and butts in the seats, so it’s difficult to outright dismiss him from consideration.

Dana White has laughed at the idea of putting Diaz in for an immediate title shot, but we all know how quickly the UFC boss can change his tune. Don’t be surprised if Diaz’s name gets tossed around as a potential contender some time in 2014.

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