The UFC's lightweight division has long been a scrutinized weight class of fighters that suffered from a huge disparity between its top ten talent and its champion. Most fans believed B.J. Penn would sit atop the mountain and batter any challenger into a bloody pulp until one day he left the sport as possibly the best to have ever graced the Octagon. Unfortunately for Penn, Frankie Edgar came along and shook up the division.
But this wasn't the only problem some fans had. There was also the issue of the Japanese lightweight fighters never actually being tested against the UFC's talent, and while many fans felt the UFC's roster would prove they could beat out their DREAM and Sengoku counterparts -- it's never actually been proven. Some fans argue that Shinya Aoki's loss to Gilbert Melendez finally proves it, but in retrospect -- Melendez really hasn't battled the UFC's best either.
Interestingly enough, there are now some parallels between these past arguments about the UFC's lightweight division and future speculation that the WEC's featherweight division may suffer the same issues. After Jose Aldo's drubbing of Urijah Faber at WEC 48 and the post-fight reaction that Aldo may keep the top spot in the division for a very long time, the division looked like it may take a turn in the same direction. In the past, Japan's MMA scene was much more stable, and we could see many fighters making careers in that region while remaining separate from the North American promotions -- thus creating these debates as to whether those fighters could compete with the UFC's best.
Times have changed, and the declining Japanese MMA scene may actually set up a possible royal flush for the WEC in terms of attaining all of the top talent in one weight class. Not only would it give the division a roster of the best talent available to challenge for the title, but it would prove without any shadow of a doubt that Jose Aldo is the best at 145 pounds. Here's a little look at who could make the WEC's 145 pound division even more exciting:
Bibiano Fernandes (8-2) (#5 USAT/SBN): Fernandes is currently ranked as the best featherweight outside of the WEC. Currently ranked at #5 on our own rankings, Fernandes has the abilities to be a real menace in the fold of the WEC's featherweight division. Incredible Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, solid strength and athleticism, and improving striking have given him a very well-rounded set of skills to work with.
Chances in the WEC: Good, but not great. While I think he is the best featherweight outside of the WEC in terms of his ranking, I think there are some fighters out there that have skill-sets that would give some of the top guys more problems than Fernandes. His improving striking is a plus, but I could see wrestlers giving him problems and fighters with great sprawls and bombing power.
Hatsu Hioki (20-4-2) (#6 USAT/SBN): Hioki is definitely one of the most interesting fighters for me. While he's definitely an one-dimensional fighter in that he has a propensity to ground fighting, he's one of the best in the division in that area of a fight. His length is a huge problem for nearly anyone in the division, and the fact that he can literally pass an opponent's guard by stepping over from side control is a huge advantage for him.
He does have some problems in being sucked in slugfests, and his length isn't a great attribute in helping him defend powerful strikers. He's not good at using his length to keep opponents at bay in some instances, and there is a good chance he could be bombed by guys in the WEC.
Chances in the WEC: I actually think Hioki is the best possible option at potentially vying for the belt. Whether or not he'd be able to get through a Urijah Faber or Mike Brown is up for debate, but his jiu-jitsu is phenomenal. Ultimately, I think he'd get punched out by someone in a contention spot, and he'd probably have a rough time against powerful top control punchers. I wouldn't mind seeing him try, but I don't think he'd win a title in the WEC.
Michihiro Omigawa (10-8-1) (#7 USAT/SBN): Former UFC fighter who failed at 155, but made the right choice in dropping down to 145 pounds, a weight class in which he's been an absolute monster. While he's got some gift decisions in fights in Japan, he's shown massive improvement from his days in the UFC. He has some solid boxing ability, good clinch work due to his Judo background, high strength, and an appealing toughness about him that fans have began to love.
Chances in the WEC: He's probably the lone fighter right now that has a very good chance at actually competing in the WEC in the near future. After Yoshida Dojo's split from World Victory Road and the ASTRA event this past weekend, Omigawa has stated he wants to fight in the WEC.
He's an interesting fighter with a lot of heart, determination, and grit, but I think he'll find it very tough to implement the gameplans we've seen from him in Sengoku. Clinching and taking down opponents will probably give him some wins and sit him outside the top four or five fighters in the division, but I don't think he'll crack the top two as he'll succumb to better strikers and speedier fighters.
Marlon Sandro (16-1) (#8 USAT/SBN): Marlon is the ultimate x-factor in this discussion. He has the Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigree of Nova Uniao and great striking, but he'd likely never vie for a title in a division with teammate Jose Aldo. It would be interesting to see how he'd fair against guys like Mike Brown and Urijah Faber. The appealing part about Sandro is that he's suddenly become this insanely powerful knockout threat after being criticized for lacking that type of power before his stint with World Victory Road. He's truly improved and become a powerhouse featherweight.
Chances in the WEC: I think if he can maintain that type of knockout power and continue improving... he'd turn a lot of critics into believers very quickly. In reality, he could be the next great featherweight in a division that's ruled by his own teammate. That sort of sucks for the fans, but Aldo will more than likely move in weight if he dominates the division. Wagnney Fabiano is just way too one-dimensional to snatch the title, so Sandro could move into that role if Aldo leaves.
This is all purely speculative as none of these fighters have signed with the WEC, but there is a lot of evidence lending itself to the overall decline in Japan in the MMA scene along with many fighters seeking to move to North America to not only better themselves as fighters -- but fight the best in the world. The WEC contains the best talent, and that's where many of these fighters will likely move to when the chance presents itself.
The overall point, however, is that the WEC could potentially lock up these fantastic talents from overseas and put to rest any notion that there are fighters outside the WEC who are better. Sure, talented, young fighters will continue to rise out of the woodwork, but it's almost a certainty that those fighters will head to the WEC as they mature. The UFC's lightweight division dealt with that for years, but that's been solved with some key acquisitions and the years that have past since PRIDE's reign.
Not only does it add more fighters to the mix and a stacked division of nearly every single fighter in the top 15, but it could produce potential challengers for their champion. And if it doesn't, we still get a whole lot of exciting action to enjoy in a division that people can safely say is the best in MMA in terms of talent.
Undisputed champions always seem to have some sort of asterisks in that they haven't fought a fighter due to where they are fighting, but the WEC could truly create a division in which undisputed world champion wouldn't need to have "WEC" in the name. That fighter would truly be undisputed in any promotion in the world.