Three years ago, all eyes were on the featherweight division as the UFC began its 2015 campaign with an event on FS1 in Boston, Mass.
The main event featured Conor McGregor taking on Dennis Siver, but the real draw was finding out when — not if — the Irish supernova would challenge reigning champion Jose Aldo for the title. Beating Siver was a foregone conclusion and McGregor did it with ease, dispatching the European veteran two minutes into the second round. That’s when the fireworks began.
McGregor jumped out of the cage and into the audience, screaming at Aldo while the Brazilian stood tall, emotionless. As McGregor carried on and Aldo offered some mocking reactions for the camera, one thing became clear: for the first time in UFC history, the featherweight division was going to the center of attention.
Every fight in the 145-pound ranks took on greater significance and was discussed in more detail; the colossal showdown between the long-reigning champion and the cult figure contender serving as the rising tide that raised all the boats.
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As the 2018 campaign gets underway, the featherweight division is once again front and center.
The featherweight ranks have never been deeper and more competitive than they are right now and while the name at the top has changed, it’s actually a good thing. Current champion Max Holloway has been one of the most active fighters on the roster over the last four years and shows no interest in slowing down now that he has UFC gold around his waist.
Just a little more than a month removed from successfully defending his title for the first time in a rematch with Aldo, Holloway has already booked his next appearance, a title defense against Frankie Edgar, the man he was originally scheduled to face at UFC 218. The fight will serve as the main event for UFC 222 on March 3 in Las Vegas.
That means that Holloway will have defended the featherweight title as many times in three months as McGregor and Aldo did over the previous three years. He may not be the massive box office draw that McGregor is, but the 26-year-old Hawaiian is as game as they come and has the potential to emerge as a superstar over the next 12 months.
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While having a fighting champion atop the featherweight ranks is a breath of fresh air, what really makes the division the most compelling in the UFC as things get underway this year is the depth of talent throughout the weight class and the plethora of directions the matchmakers could go in pairing everyone off.
Aldo remains in the upper echelon of the division despite back-to-back stoppage losses to Holloway. Although there are questions about what the future holds for the former champion, until he declares he’s departing the division (or the sport) or someone other than Holloway or McGregor gets the better of him, it would be ill advised to write off Aldo.
Edgar understands that all too well, having faced and lost to the Brazilian legend on two different occasions. Those are the only two losses the leader of the “Iron Army” has suffered since moving to featherweight. While another failed attempt to claim the belt will limit his championship options going forward, Edgar remains a standout talent capable of beating just about everyone in the division on any given night.
Where things get real interesting is beyond the champion, former titleholder and No. 1 contender. The established hierarchy within the division changed dramatically over the final few months of 2017, creating new opportunities for emerging talents and veteran competitors alike.
Brian Ortega pushed his winning streak to five and vaulted into contention by choking out Cub Swanson in early December. Josh Emmett usurped Ricardo Lamas’ position in the pecking order by knocking out “The Bully” a couple weeks later in Winnipeg.
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This weekend, top-10 fixture Jeremy Stephens headlines against “The Korean Superboy” Dooho Choi, who enters off his Fight of the Year loss to Swanson in December 2016, with the criminally underrated Darren Elkins welcoming former lightweight contender Michael Johnson to the division for the first time.
A week later in Boston, unheralded upstarts Calvin Kattar and Shane Burgos lock horns on the pay-per-view main card, while the FOX event in Charlotte the week after that features two more competitive, intriguing matchups in the featherweight division — Dennis Bermudez vs. Andre Fili and Mirsad Bektic vs. Godofredo Pepey.
Zabit Magomedsharipov might be the best prospect on the male side of the roster. Yair Rodriguez still has all the upside he possessed heading into last year. Chad Mendes is eligible to return in June and should go right back to being a factor near the top of the weight class.
And then there is still Renato Moicano, “The Korean Zombie,” Jason Knight, Jeremy Kennedy, Zubaira Tukhugov and Alexander Volkanovski, not to mention Arnold Allen, Gabriel Benitez, Chas Skelly, Sheymon Moraes and Makwan Amirkhani.
Featherweight is packed and after almost three years of being “murky” as Holloway used to say, the division is open for business again and poised to be the most intriguing collection of talent on the UFC roster for the foreseeable future.