For as long as there have been professional combat sports, lighter weight-classes often don’t draw as much attention as the heavier ones. That isn’t from a lack of talent. While seeing two large men slug it out is fun, for purists, the lighter divisions are often the place to go for the most skillful action. Even in the Ultimate Fight Championship’s (UFC) short history, the lightweight division has consistently been a hub for fast paced and tactical combat. Now the 155 pound division hasn’t lost its place as shark tank. However, the much maligned UFC featherweight division is starting to make a play for consideration as the most dependable, and best, division in the company.
The much maligned UFC featherweight division is starting to make a play for consideration as the most dependable, and best, division in the company.
Since the 2010 addition of 145 pounds (hyperlink) to the UFC’s plethora of weight-classes, featherweight was a division with a champion that seemed impossible to dethrone. It lacked plausible threats to the champ, and fighters with marketable names. As is the story with many smaller weight-classes in combat sports, it was viewed as having fun fights but not many athletes enthusiasts would pay to see. That included the aforementioned champion—Jose Aldo.
Yet that all changed in December of last year. Conor McGregor did something that no one had been able to do in the previous ten years—defeat Aldo. This invincible figure that had dominated the WEC and UFC since 2008 had finally been conquered. The door of opportunity had swung open. Even as impressive as McGregor had been in his UFC run, he would need to rack up several title defenses before he separated himself from the pack, like the former champion did.
Yet McGregor brings something to the division that hasn’t been seen at a lower weight class since B.J. Penn—star power. “The Notorious” has undoubtedly become the biggest name in the sport and is on a path towards recognition as the greatest pay-per-view draw it has ever seen. He has set ppv records and is looking to break more in his rematch with Nate Diaz. As long as he eventually honors his responsibilities as a champion, and takes on the top contenders, the division has a champion that attracts eyeballs on a level that makes Eddie Alvarez, Tyron Woodley and Demetrious Johnson jealous.
Parallel to the rise of Conor McGregor, Hawaii imported one of its best talents since the previously mentioned Penn, in Max Holloway. The 24-year-old debuted the year before McGregor (2012) and is currently on a nine-fight winning streak. His last lost came to reigning champion and he has openly pined for a title shot for two years. And with his UFC.com featherweight ranking at #3, a title shot seems close at hand.
However, Holloway is not next in line for a shot. That honor goes to the former belt holder, and now interim-champion, Aldo. He is currently ranked #1 by the promotion and he won his interim strap by defeating the man at #2—Frankie Edgar. While Aldo is guaranteed a shot at the title, Edgar is not far off from a championship bout either, despite having had two opportunities previously. He has name value as a former lightweight champion, and is 5-2 in the weight-class. His only loses have come to Aldo, so as long as “Scarface” isn’t holding the featherweight gold, a case can be made for a third chance. Assuming he can rebound from his UFC 200 loss.
At the top of the division you have a superstar in McGregor, a once dominant pound-for-pound fighter in Aldo, a two time contender in Edgar and rising star in Holloway. Yet the fun does not end there. While Aldo solidified his place at the top of the featherweight heap with wins over former lightweight stars in Kenny Florian and Edgar, or against the one-time champion Urijah Faber, the division started to strengthen from top to bottom.
At the top of the division you have a superstar in McGregor, a once dominant pound-for-pound fighter in Aldo, a two time contender in Edgar and rising star in Holloway.
The most obvious difference from the division’s prepubescent days shortly after 2010 is the notable influx of veteran lightweights. Along with the perennial contender Edgar, featherweight is now home to sure-fire hall of famer B.J. Penn. There is former 155 pound contender Gray Maynard. The one-time Pride FC and Dream lightweight star Tatsuya Kawajiri. The very dangerous Charles Oliveira. And the stone fisted slugger Jeremy Stephens. All of these means are established names in the sport, with noteworthy resumes. Any of them are worthy of a ppv slot or a headlining role on a prelims broadcast.
Yet, while many stars from lightweight have moved down into this class, there were already distinguished pugilists helping to put the division on the map. Stalwarts such as Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas and the now suspended Chad Mendes, all went from top prospects to championship hopefuls during their tenures. And all of them have headlined UFC ppv’s or televised cards.
Also we cannot forget another well-known featherweight who is expected to return from a three year sabbatical. The incomparable Chan Sung Jung. “The Korean Zombie” is beloved by fans the world over for his relentless brawling style. He was last seen in the octagon losing to Aldo. Since then he has dealt with recovery from several injuries and mandatory military service to his native South Korea. With him back in the picture could you imagine match-ups with Oliveira, Stephens and Holloway? It’s the type of matchmaking that has turned Joe Silva into a B-level MMA celebrity.
Any great division has equal parts star-power, established names and scrappy veterans. But it also requires soaring prospects. Featherweight has that as well. There is the 29-year-old Dennis Bermudez who has wins over two previously mentioned names in Kawijiri and Holloway. Brian Ortega at 25 is 11-0 with wins over Clay Guida and Diego Brandao. And Yair Rodriguez, who just victoriously headlined a UFC Fight Night, turns 24 in October. Last, but certainly not least, is Doo Ho Choi. At 25, “The Korean Superboy” has put the division on notice as he has finished 11 of his 14 career wins via (T)KO.
All four men have the potential to earn UFC gold. All four men could be matched-up with any of the above fighters. And any of those fights have fight of the night potential.
Here’s something more amazing, of the 12 names that have been mentioned, former bantamweight champion Renan Barao wasn’t one of them. Once looked at as one of the scariest fighters on the planet, he too is now a part of this stellar division.
Would you like to further understand how deep and talented this division is? Legitimate fighters like Alex Caceres, Hacran Dias, Guida, Myles Jury, Anthony Pettis (the former Wheaties cover boy for God’s sake), Dennis Siver and Thiago Tavares are left in the category of honorable mentions.
Unfortunately, if McGregor were to vacate the title and move up in weight—in lieu of having to deal with arduous weight cutting—it would surely hurt the division’s relevancy. But with this much talent and depth it is still arguably the second best division in the world.
But if the king of Irish MMA were to hang around for a while longer, this weight-class could be the epicenter of some of the most impressive fighting and fascinating bouts for the next five years. If you are a purists and need a division to rely on to meeting your viewing standards, look no further than featherweight.