"What division is the strongest / weakest in the UFC?"
"Rank the weight classes from best to worst!1"
And so forth. These terrible, egregious questions, generally utilized to support a thinly-veiled assertion that X champion’s dominance is more better than Y’s.
That said, a couple of short years ago, 145 would have been far down the list of most people that bothered to respond. Now, it’s one of the most exciting and intriguing divisions out there. It was always fun. Now it’s fun and relevant.
The Featherweight of the Past: Why Shallow
First, the unbalancing effect of Jose Aldo. Any dominant champ always alters perception of their weight class. A deep pool is still a puddle to a giant, or something. See: Jones, 205, shifting perceptions of depth before and after. At time of writing, Aldo is still here, though. Is worth thinking of him as being a magnifier of negative perceptions of depth, rather than a primary cause.
History: The face of the division during its WEC tenure was Uriah Faber, who was exciting, marketable, a P4P stalwart with a strong fan base. Mike Thomas Brown beat him twice, before losing his belt to Aldo. Faber got his own shot, his front leg pounded to jelly for his troubles. Brown went on a downward spiral and Faber upped sticks for the Bantamweight division.
This kind of amputation, your erstwhile #1 and #2, can’t help but leave a void.
After Faber lost, Zuffa scrambled to find appropriate challengers. First up was Manny Gamburyan, fresh off his upset knockout of MTB. This ended with the Anvil unsurprisingly getting beat like the relevant Verdi opera percussion line inside of two rounds. Next was Mark Hominick, a man ranked outside the top 10, who had finished George Roop (first George Roop reference, hurrah) to get his shot. He managed to put up a brave showing in defeat, dragging Aldo into deep waters. Still, impression that FW was a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled over by its scar-faced overlord was reinforced.
Fighter Rafts and the Danardy Effec
There were still talented fighters in the weight class which are presences in it today, so what was going on? At least part of this is the Danardy Effec, seen in some of the deepest and strongest weight classes.
Back in 2010, 170 was still a strong division. All around, good fighters were beating each other or had lost to the champ:
- Koscheck walloped by Paulo Thiago
- Ellenberger lost to Condit
- Condit lost to Kampmann
- Kampmann walloped by Daley
- Story lost to Hathaway
- Rory MacD was an awkward foetus back then
- Johnny Hendricks hadn’t been let out of the prelims yet.
Cue Dan The Outlaw, who rose to what was, in fact, a totally legitimate title shot, on a raft of fighters at least a notch below everyone mentioned and a 6 fight win streak. Often criticized as a cupcake for the champion, or someone who only got a crack at the title because of his marketability. Not actually true- he was the best option at the time.
This kind of thing happened in the WEC FW division as well.
- Alcantara beat Lamas
- Lamas beat Swanson (lots of people beat Swanson)
- Korean Zombie lost to Garcia and Roop (Roop Ref #2)
- Dias beat Alcantara
And so forth. Good fighters diverted from paths to title contention by losses to other good fighters, who in turn lost to good fighters.
A spot of consistency was Chad Mendes, but his fights were, charitably, less than thrilling. Rarely does this equal a fast track to title contention. He did eventually get his chance in UFC Rio, where Aldo kneed his head into the stands and then went running off to find it, mobbed by uncomprehending spectators on the way.
Featherweight joins the UFC
With the merging of WEC and the UFC, there were predictions that many from the UFC’s bulging lightweight class would make the drop to featherweight. Before, economic concerns had dictated that this wasn’t a good idea- with an obvious disparity in pay and exposure between WEC and the UFC, if you possibly could force your body to, you’d fight at Lightweight in the UFC rather than 145 in WEC.
So, with 145 being added to the UFC, undersized LWs would make the drop, 155 would become less god damn confusing, and 145 would gain much-needed depth. Awesome.
Did this actually happen? Hrm.
A steady and increasing trickle of fighters started to drop down to 145. They have had a level of success best qualified as "spotty".
Tyson Griffin was a talented lightweight who had simply come up against better fighters in his run. He was pretty short, so why not drop? He missed weight calamitously and got blown away by fun journeyman Bart Palasczewski.
Perennial frustrated belt-hunter Kenny Florian dropped in one last search of UFC gold. The former middleweight clawed every scrap of flesh off his bones, and after a preliminary effort against Diego Nunes, fought Aldo in a contest resembling a lost Ray Harryhausen, Jose and the Argonauts perhaps. You could almost see the relief when the scores were read out. I don’t have to do that again.
Skilled striker Ross Pearson made the drop and looked uncomfortable and out of sorts, winning a close decision over Junior Assuncao and losing by knockout to Cub Swanson. Similarly, talented prospect Charles Oliveira made the drop after being manhandled by Donald Cerrone at 155, and also found himself being brutally Cubbed.
Other transplants from outside of Zuffa like Hatsu Hioki and Michihiro Omigawa underperformed, with Hioki displaying some of his characteristic inconsistency against fighters like George Roop (that guy!), and Omigawa struggling to compensate for being stripped of his greatest weapon, the must decision.
Some UFC drop downs had success. Nick Lentz reinvented himself from the top control snoozer of his LW days into a top control guy who beats up quality featherweights. If you’d looked at Dennis Siver and Ross Pearson side by side, you’d say that Pearson would be the one who could make the drop without ill-effects, and yet Siver waddled and battered his way to a top 10 ranking while Pearson made his way back to 155. Frankie Edgar has performed pretty much as expected. Clay Guida won on the judge’s scorecards against Hioki.
The rise of the featherweights can’t just be attributed to things like the Danardy Effec, or to UFC talent transplants. These are part of it, to be sure, but the main reason is something harder measure or rationalize out, just a concerted, overall stepping up of game by some of the main players in the division. Reasons for this are entirely speculative- iron sharpens iron, a few fighters specifically hitting their stride at the same time in their careers, more money meaning more training once in the UFC, motivation for the big stage, just some kind of weird mass psychology, etc. Entirely open to debate. Let’s look at some of these guys and how they’ve changed.
Chad "Money" Mendes
Time was, Mendes was the lowlight of WEC shows. Functional stand-up, good wrestling and a tendency to ride out the clock. Since losing to Aldo, given a couple of easy matchups in Yaotzin Meza and (worst mismatch in recent UFC memory!)Cody Mckenzie, and to his credit, crushed both in the first round. May have been a surprisingly good move by Zuffa, as it increased both his confidence and marketability. More impressively, he also mashed Darren Elkins, a genuinely good featherweight, in about a minute.
In those three fights he displayed more effective offense than the rest of his Zuffa career, and introduced himself to the UFC crowd as an exciting, dangerous fighter. Indeed, when his ever-delayed matchup with Clay Guida was announced, many were eager to see Violent Finisher Mendes punish the Illinois native for his conservative fights.
Caution: excitement about Violent Finisher Mendes should be tempered. Not uncommon to see previously conservative fighters throw high octane offense early in a fight, then revert back to good ol’ reliable Plan A if it’s ineffective (eg: Tyron Jimmo). Seeing as the high octane has been working pretty good, we haven’t seen whether he conforms to this.
Ricardo "Renegade" Lamas
Lamas is probably one of the few guys on this list who hasn’t displayed some kind of massive improvement, but it also just doesn’t seem to matter to him. He’s one of those fighters where if you’re asked what makes him good you just go "well, I dunno, I guess he’s ok at striking, good at grappling? He can kind of take people down, tap them out or beat them up or something?"
That said, he doesn’t have a dominant takedown game and actually struggles a fair bit in some of his fights. He’s like a grappler equivalent of Carlos Condit, who is, kind of, I dunno, a good striker… I guess? What they share can’t really be measured as a skill- plain killer instinct and ability to win. Lamas was down on the cards against Swanson and pulled out an arm triangle in the second. Against Erik Koch, his takedowns were being stuffed and he was starting to get shut down on the feet. After a slip and a scramble, he proceeded to elbow Koch’s face into puddin’ from top position. Don’t make mistakes against Ricardo Lamas.
Dustin "the Diamond" Poirier
Not that much to say about him other than that he’s well rounded, fun to watch, and aggressive. He made his way into featherweight absolutely smashing one of its prospects in Josh Grispi, taking the time to eat his soul and all his fighting ability during a one-sided drubbing. Still a lot of potential there, clearly a fighter who is just a couple of puzzle pieces sliding into place away from being elite. Failing to set the world on fire from an early age and having too many tattoos doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. Just ask the man who defeated him last.
Swanson was a prospect in early WEC. Unlike many, he wasn’t derailed by hubris or a lack of discipline. He was tapped out by Jens Pulver in Pulver’s last relevant victory, flying kneed to death by Aldo in a title eliminator. Mendes took him down a lot, and Lamas got him with the comeback sub.
Combined with recurrent hand-breakages keeping him out, seemed like Swanson’s career path was set. He was fun and tough and would take the fight anywhere it went, but better wrestlers and stronger fighters would outmuscle him, he’d take risks on the floor and get tapped out by BJJ experts, and more technical strikers would capitalize on his wild punching style. Like Mackens Sermezier, with whom he had a great, underrated fight, he was a WEC relic who probably wouldn’t last in the UFC.
And yet. George Roop (Reference number....4?), predicted to outsize Cub and rough him up, mouthpiece blown across the cage. Pearson, a technical striker, wrecked in highlight reel fashion as he tried to close down Swanson’s movement. As BJJ prodigy Do Bronx was crumpled with a brutal body shot and overhand right combination, his face twisted up in seeming confusion, epitomizing what we were all thinking. What the hell, Cub Swanson. What the hell. By the time he beat Dustin Poirier and pulverized Dennis Siver, Cub winning wasn’t a surprise.
For all the flak that the Jackson camp attracts, Swanson still hasn’t sacrificed a smidge of seity. He still fights with his hands down, using weird strikes and odd angles, still gets up using omoplata sweeps and other esoterics. It just all fits together much better than it did- there’s stability and a confidence to his wildness. When he hits people now, he HITS people. You can imagine Younger Swanson throwing these punches, his hands exploding like an Asian comic book character trying to use Soul Crushing Strike before his Ki levels were high enough.
Chan Sung Jung, The Korean Zombie
Perhaps the greatest, weirdest exemplar of the featherweight charge. It’s like he was designed in some freaky MMA Lab (no, not that one) to scoop up popularity, from the base level upwards, regardless of contradictions incurred on the way. His first fight with Leonard Garcia was a ridiculous silly slobberknocker guaranteed to thrill the lizard brain as the two men blasted each other over and over. Following that, he got shockingly punted in the head by George Roop (THE George Roop) which diluted the unbelievable fan fervour he’d earned.
KZ was not done. He made an impassioned blog post telling his fans that he was putting the "zombie" fighting style to rest. He hit the road, training with Alpha Male in Sacto, MMA Lab in Arizona. He wanted more elements of MMA fandom. He had garnered Asian hipsters, just bleed fanatics, underdog-rooters. People who thought his name was cool. To start his comeback run, he went for grapple-junkies with a Twister submission of Garcia. Followed up with a 7 second counterpunch knockout of Mark Hominick for you strikers out there, and a go-everywhere Fight of the Year against Dustin Poirier. Outside the cage, he called out GSP for wearing a Rising Sun Gi in a respectful way which fighters 10, 20 years older could learn from.
He gets his chance against Jose Aldo on August 3rd. He is an underdog, and deserves to be. Uncontrolled and unorthodox where Aldo is focused and brutal. The arena where he poses the greatest threat is most likely on the ground, and Aldo has shown steely takedown defence, that he springs back to his feet, and is no mat slouch to boot– putting Uriah Faber in a crucifix is not an easy task. In addition Jung’s takedowns tend to be opportunistic rather than explosive. He is coming off a 15 month layoff.
"I can talk with confidence, but a fight is a fight. It’s possible that I lose disgracefully by a one-punch knockout. I do think that this sport can be so harsh, but that is the life of a professional fighter. I am just concentrating to fight my best."
The Zombie is, for now, shambling out into the front line of 145, the division that could. The surge in talent and skill from the featherweights has been almost palpable, no-one embodying this better than Jung. Before us he’s jumped, ceaseless, from brawler to BJJ whiz to complete mixed martial artist. He has surprised you a lot. Featherweight has surprised you a lot.
In conclusion, George Roop. He ties everything together like a big strange rawboned oddity. He’s down at 135 now, looking like Redneck Skeletor and still doing OK, somehow. He never got to fight Pablo Garza for the Freaky Inconsistent Featherweight Giant title, and that makes me sad.