UFC Featherweight Division Geared for Huge Summer, Potential to Become Premier Division

Will Jose Aldo's performance at UFC 129 cause UFC lightweights to think about moving down to 145 pounds? It could make for an interesting rest of 2011. Photo from Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In the aftermath of UFC 129 this past weekend, questions arose regarding the status of the UFC's featherweight division and whether Jose Aldo should be considered one of the elite fighters among the rest of the talent on the roster. SB Nation MMA writer Jonathan Snowden opined that the lackluster performance by Aldo against challenger Mark Hominick in front of the record crowds at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario has hurt his perceived status:

Hominick, to his credit, wasn't willing to do what was expected. Instead, he out fought Aldo in almost every round, catching him flat footed and working nicely behind a smooth jab. Aldo, sold by announcers Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg as one of the world's pound for pound best fighters, didn't look the part. His power saved him. Although Hominick's technique was better, when Aldo did land, he landed with fight changing force.

It was enough to skate by with a decision. But the idea of headlining a card with Aldo after this debacle has to be thrown out the window - at least for now. Lightweight stars watched Jose Aldo last night and their mouths are likely still watering today. The list of established fighters willing to drop ten pounds to challenge Aldo already includes former 155 pound contender Kenny Florian. After last night it's only going to grow longer. Aldo looked vulnerable, helpless off his back, and quick to tire.

Another lesson learned, one we've seen played out time and time again in the combat sports arena. You don't build pound for pound greats in marketing meetings or by creating the coolest highlight package. You don't build them by feeding them fighters you think they can beat. The best of the best earn that title in the cage, by styling on the greatest fighters in the world. Jose Aldo may get there one day - but last night proved with a certainty that he isn't one of the sport's elite.

I'm not in agreement with the eventual conclusion of the article, but Snowden brings up a point that may lead to the division alleviating some of the talk that it is lacking the depth to be produce proven elite fighters. Inevitably, the division will gain enough depth to produce a bevy of legitimate challengers to the crown. Unfortunately, before UFC 129, the timetable for that type of growth was a few years. Aldo's performance may have injected the thought into the minds of a few select lightweights that the featherweight division might not be a bad destination, adding some intrigue and name recognition to a division that could use it going forward.

Of course, this may be false perception. Aldo was reportedly sick coming into the fight, lending credence to the opinion that had he been healthy -- we would have been watching a different fight unfold before our eyes. But perception reigns supreme when it comes to public opinion, and it likely wouldn't deter thoughts of dropping down to the weight class. 

In a strange way, Aldo's perceived weaknesses, whether you believe he isn't as great as many fans believe or not, could be a blessing in disguise and fuel the growth of the division. Casual fans have no idea who some of these fighters are due to the newness to the division in the ranks of the UFC. Recognizable names battling unknown featherweight could create potential stars. Fighters like Dustin Poirier, Josh Grispi, Diego Nunes, and Erik Koch could benefit immediately.

The division's rise in prominence won't rely solely on Aldo's performance at UFC 129 however. The summer could provide the outcomes to push the featherweight division into the spotlight amongst fans:

Diego Nunes vs. Kenny Florian - UFC 131
Michihiro Omigawa vs. Darren Elkins - UFC 131
Dustin Poirier vs. Rani Yahya Jason Young - UFC 131
Erik Koch vs. Cub Swanson - UFC 132
Josh Grispi vs. George Roop - The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale
Tyson Griffin vs. Manny Gamburyan - UFC on Versus 4
Joe Stevenson vs. Javier Vazquez - UFC on Versus 4

That list of bouts has a number of positives, most notably the inclusion of Kenny Florian, Joe Stevenson, and Tyson Griffin to the ranks of the 145 pound weight class. If that wasn't enough, most of these bouts have implications to the pecking order at the top of the division. Nunes vs. Florian will likely determine the next contender, but it isn't unfathomable to see Poirier or Koch leap into the upper reaches of the division with emphatic wins.

Adding to the intrigue is the collapse of Japanese mixed martial arts. There are some rumblings that it will eventually rise from the ashes, but many of the prospects that were built in the land of the Rising Sun have left for the greener and more stable pastures stateside. Marlon Sandro has been relegated to Bellator's contract hell, but Japanese kingpin Hatsu Hioki would be a great acquisition for the UFC. In fact, I wouldn't look past Hioki as a potential winner against Aldo if he could use his reach at range and get the fight to the ground.

The UFC's featherweight division has the potential over the course of the next few months to become a premier division under Zuffa's banner. The only hindrance is the slotting of the fights on the UFC cards. The UFC realizes that fans do crave more established divisions and more recognizable fighters. There is also more interest in the heavier weight classes, which takes slots away from the lighter weight classes. Facebook and the increase in free preliminary cards on Spike TV and ION help the cause, but can they add enough interest to make the lesser known fighters within the featherweight division more attractive to casual fans? We'll find out this summer.

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