By the end of February, the pecking order in the UFC featherweight division is going to be pretty clearly delineated.
Over the next six weeks, 10 of the best fighters in the 145-pound ranks will take to the cage, eight of them battling for position in the rankings and greater recognition, while Frankie Edgar makes his divisional debut in a championship showdown opposite Jose Aldo at UFC 156.
The bigger, more recognizable names reside elsewhere on the UFC roster. The lightweight division is always lauded for being the deepest and most competitive in the company. Hopefully, by the time the next six weeks are up, more people will recognize that the featherweight division has become a hot bed of exciting competitors and entertaining match-ups.
No fight exemplifies the depth of talent in the featherweight ranks better than this weekend’s preliminary card scrap between Clay Guida and Hatsu Hioki.
Heading into his last fight, many viewed Hioki as a top-three competitor in the 145-pound weight class, having notched victories in each of his two previous UFC appearances following a standout career in his native Japan. Guida arrives in his new weight class after having spent the last two years as a title contender in the lightweight division, currently holding the distinction of being champion Benson Henderson’s last opponent in a non-title fight.
With both men coming off losses and the division continually evolving, they’re relegated to the preliminary portion of the card and the fringes of title contention as 2013 gets under way.
The man responsible for halting Hioki’s climb, Ricardo Lamas, has enjoyed a steady climb up the rankings since moving to the featherweight division after competing as a lightweight in the WEC. His trio of victories inside the Octagon have propelled him into what many believe is a title eliminator bout this weekend opposite Erik Koch. The duo kick off the main card of Saturday’s event, but haven’t been featured in any of the marketing for the event, which is a mistake in my opinion.
Koch was lined up opposite Aldo at two points last year before injuries derailed the bout both times. These are the kind of fights and the championship contenders the UFC needs to put more effort into promoting moving forward. With the winner likely to be the next title challenger, giving these two an even greater share of the spotlight to bolster their future potential would have made complete sense.
Two weeks from now, the division grabs hold of the spotlight when Aldo and Edgar meet in the main event of UFC 156.
Less than a year ago, this was a dream scenario for Dana White and fight fans everywhere — a battle between the dominant 145-pound champion Aldo and the undersized lightweight champion Edgar. Even after dropping the title to Benson Henderson (and a controversial decision in the rematch), the bout still carries a “super-fight” feel as these two pound-for-pound stalwarts will showcase everything you can expect from the featherweight division next weekend in Las Vegas.
Skip ahead another two weeks and you have an early contender for Fight of the Year, as Dustin Poirier steps in for the injured Dennis Siver opposite Cub Swanson when the UFC returns to London, England on Feb. 16.
Many people considered Poirier’s back-and-forth fight with Chan Sung Jung the Fight of the Year in 2012. While he came out on the wrong end of the results, “The Diamond” moved to Florida to become a full-time member of American Top Team, and rebounded with a first-round submission win over Jonathan Brookins in December.
Long considered a potential title challenger, Swanson has started to live up to those expectations over his last three outings, earning consecutive stoppage victories over George Roop, Ross Pearson, and Charles Oliveira to climb up the rankings. The longtime Jackson-Winkeljohn student has only lost three times in the last five years, with each of those defeats coming against fighters in the upper tier of the featherweight division: Aldo, Lamas, and Chad Mendes.
The Team Alpha Male standout Mendes has rebounded from his UFC 142 loss to Aldo in impressive fashion, and will look to continue his climb back into title contention in the last of February’s long line of impressive featherweight fights at UFC 157.
In his last two outings, Mendes has showcased how much progress he’s made with his striking, needing a combined 166 seconds to stop Cody McKenzie and Yaotzin Meza. He gets a step up in competition this time, however, as he faces another man turned back by Jose Aldo in his quest for championship gold, Manny Gamburyan.
The compact Armenian competitor halted a three-fight losing streak with a victory over Michihiro Omigawa back in August, and remains a dangerous out in the division, despite his recent track record. Like Mendes, Gamburyan has a strong grappling base and powerful hands, so this one could go anywhere, and promises to be exciting.
What makes the featherweight division so compelling right now is that the pecking order isn’t clearly established, which is why February should be so much fun.
Aldo has the opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the best of all-time by defeating Edgar, while the former lightweight champion can turn up the interest in the division another notch or two if he’s able to join Randy Couture and B.J. Penn on the list of fighters to hold championship gold in two different weight classes.
All eight of the men competing in the upcoming non-title fights are jockeying for position on the list of contenders, and will be joined by Jung and Siver once they have fully recovered from the injuries that currently have them sidelined. Add in Brazilian prospect Hacran Dias, grinders like Nik Lentz and Darren Elkins, and knockout artist Robbie Peralta and you’re looking at a division that is closing in on being 15-deep.
The exciting thing for fight fans is that most of the elite talent in the featherweight ranks will take to the cage in the next six weeks, beginning this weekend. While they may not garner as much attention as their heavier, more well-known colleagues, the 145-pounders never fail to deliver entertainment inside the cage.
The featherweights are the most consistently exciting fighters in the UFC, and the division’s best are set to be on display. Trust me when I tell you that you’re going to want to check out these fights.