145lbs might be the best weight class in MMA - small enough to lightly quick but just big enough to still have serious power. I can't remember a featherweight fight in WEC, Bellator, or Japan (via HDNet) that I didn't enjoy before the UFC absorbed the WEC and created this division. But it also happens to be one of the weakest in the UFC right now . . . thanks largely to Champion Jose Aldo. He beat down Mike Brown, leg-kicked Urijah Faber to the bantamweight division, annihilated Manny Gamburyan, and gutted a tough but real win over Mark Hominick. Those four are four of the top fighters at this weight class. Convincingly beat, its hard to argue than any of those four really deserve another shot at him. Here are two major challenges towards creating a real marketable division:
First, The gulf between contenders and prospects. Erik Koch, Dustin Poirier, Diego Nunes, and Chad Mendes are the future of this division . . . but other than Mendes, none of them are ready for a shot. And I'm not sure Mendes is either, but he's undefeated. Its why the UFC had to hot-shot Kenny Florian into title contention after one fight, its why Tyson Griffin is so highly ranked in the BE rankings despite one fight in the weight class. Clearly, the UFC is hoping to build up Aldo by fighting a couple of name fighters while Koch, Poirier, and Nunes get ready. The addition of Hatsu Hioki is a good start, and he should only be a fight or two from a title shot - if he beats George Roop convincingly I wouldn't be surprised if him and Aldo/Florian scrap at UFC Japan.
Second, There are no name stars. At bantamweight, we have guys like Torres and Bowles and Faber and Cruz and Mighty Mouse who seem to exist in a large consciences among MMA fans. Again, I retreat to my argument of why Florian and Griffin are ranked so highly despite each only having one fight in the division. In a scary statistic, since Jose Aldo was made Champion at UFC 123 there have been exactly TWO featherweight fights on the scheduled main card of a numbered PPV - Aldo vs. Hominick at 129 and Florian vs. Nunes at 131. There have only been three featherweight fights on broadcast Prelims and only three fights on Fight Night cards. Guys like Chad Mendes and Erik Koch - real studs, should be featured on PPVs so fans can learn who they are and get excited for them.
So how do we solve these issues?
1. TUF. The UFC is on the way when you come to the question of divisional depth - this year's TUF Bisping/Miller season will feature featherweights, a an especially good one in Micah Miller. TUF 12 winner Jonathan Brookins returned to the division, which should help. But TUF should be a nice way to infuse some much needed talent onto the roster after years of pointless seasons full of lightweights and welterweights.
2. Feature featherweights on TV cards. The UFC was brilliant in putting Dominck Cruz and Demetrious Johnson on for their final Versus card . . . the novelty of a title fight for free should help and gives these guys (especially Cruz, who should win) gain a greater name and a stronger PPV name. Chad Mendes vs. Hatsu Hioki (should be beat Roop) should be a co-main on a FX show. Erik Koch and Dustin Poirier are very fan-pleasing fighters.
3. Add some lightweights . . . and not over-the-hill, can't win lightweights. The lightweight division is just stacked right now, and bottled-up to boot since Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard have held it hostage for basically a year. With BJ Penn's permanent move to welterweight, it opens things up a bit. But with the huge influx of talent for too many TUF seasons has created a glut. The division is so deep that so many fighters take two steps forward, but one step back (Sotiroupolos, Miller, Gomi, Dos Anjos, Tibeau, Wiman, Dunham, Tavares, Pearson). And with lightweights getting bigger and bigger, some of these guys could come down. In particular - Wiman, Dunham, and Pearson could really become outstanding featherweights.
4. Put fights on the PPV! I was STAGGERED that only two featherweight fights had been on announced PPV cards. These are GREAT fighters - especially a guy like Money Mendes. I feel like the bantamweight division has come along faster because they have more of a television presence. Don't waste these guys.
5. Frankie Edgar. I think Edgar will eventually come down . . . the monsters awaiting him at 155, guys like Henderson, Guida, Cerrone, Pettis, and (yes) even Melendez - not sure if he can run that gamut. Personally, I think Gray gets it done at 136. Edgar would bring some real star power, a real threat to Aldo, and a guy that would give some serious star power, a guy who is in his prime.
So that's my thought. Featherweights produce some of the very best fights in all of MMA - I just wish the UFC would do a better job with this division.