With the departure of long-reigning champion Georges St-Pierre, the UFC welterweight division has seen new life breathed into it over the last few months. There is genuine excitement about new champ Johny Hendricks and the plethora of hard-charging challengers angling towards a chance to fight him.
There’s Robbie Lawler, who made a case for a rematch with Hendricks during a UFC 173 TKO win over the weekend. And Rory MacDonald, Tyron Woodley, Hector Lombard and Matt Brown.
But the odd man out of the equation is Tarec Saffiedine, the talented Belgian who first forced himself on to top 10 lists in Jan. 2013 when he stunned Nate Marquardt to win the Strikeforce welterweight title. The eye-opening victory was supposed to give Saffiedine momentum to carry into a UFC run, but since then — a span of 16 months — he’s only been able to step into the octagon a single time.
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Worse yet, he’s not yet able to offer a return date from his latest setback, an upper body injury that he’s still in the process of rehabilitating.
"It’s been a roller-coaster. It’s been frustrating," Saffiedine told FOX Sports during UFC 173 weekend. "But the momentum is not gone. You can get momentum back with one fight, one win. So I’m not really too worried about that. Right now, I’m just worried about getting healthy, getting back to training, and hopefully fighting again this year."
"This year" is about as specific as he wants to get, worried about offering up an unreachable timetable and maybe even disappointing himself.
This is the third injury he’s suffered since last January. In 2013, he had surgeries on both his right hip and left knee, the former of which knocked him out of a proposed fight with current No. 1 contender Robbie Lawler. This year’s upper body issue, which occurred on March 24, forced him out of a bout with Jake Ellenberger. That’s two showcase opportunities granted and missed. Two chances to vault himself into serious contention.
Saffiedine (15-3) declined to disclose the specific problem he’s currently dealing with, but said he has "a few more weeks" of rehab and would be visiting a doctor in the next two weeks.
The momentum is not gone. You can get momentum back with one fight, one win.
If all goes well, he’s hoping to be cleared to spar, wrestle and grapple. Up until now, he’s been limited to shadow boxing, hitting the heavy bag and doing some kicking.
"It’s been really frustrating," he said. "Last year I had injuries and surgeries where I had to pull out of fights. After my last fight against [Hyun Guy] Lim, I went right back into the gym training for my next fight. I was healthy and getting excited for my next fight, and then, boom, again. So it’s been really frustrating. I’m really anxious to come back, definitely."
If Saffiedine can make his timeline of returning by the end of 2014, his timing might work out for a big fight. In the near future, Lawler might need an opponent. The winner of Rory MacDonald vs. Tyron Woodley might need an opponent. The winner of Dong Hyun Kim vs. Hector Lombard might need one, too. There are desirable situations soon to be had.
Still ranked No. 10 despite his relative inactivity, Saffiedine could step into a high-stakes fight, which given his recent setbacks, would certainly be a welcome positive development.
Still just 27 years old, Saffiedine doesn’t yet have to worry about racing the clock but he still has a sense of urgency about facing one of the best the division has to offer.
"Those are the kinds of guys I want to face next, definitely," he said. "It’s not my decision, but I want to fight against the top. Definitely, I’m a step back because of my injury. I took a step back. Let those guys fight each other but hopefully I can get back into that mix pretty soon."