Despite Dana White's assertion that Jose Aldo/Anthony Pettis was "already booked" after UFC 169, Anthony Pettis is fighting Gilbert Melendez instead (after a coaching stint on TUF 20). That means, of course, that featherweight champion Jose Aldo will likely defend his belt for the 10th time dating back to his WEC days.
Aldo easily beat Ricardo Lamas earlier this month, which gives him victories over all of the current top 5 ranked featherweights. Realistically speaking, he's the greatest 145er we've ever seen and even though he's not been the finishing machine he was in the WEC, he's still a cut above the rest. His move to 155 is almost inevitable, but the Melendez/Pettis announcement makes his stay at 145 that much longer. Options are few, so who should Aldo's next opponent be? I've singled out 3 of the most suitable candidates:
Cub Swanson. If there's anyone who has a case for most improved fighter since joining the UFC, it's Swanson. As recently as 2011 he was an afterthought at featherweight after Ricardo Lamas choked him out, and it looked like his career had stagnated. Swanson has won his last 5 fights, including a 3rd round knockout of Dennis Siver at UFC 162. There's no denying that there is a substantial increase in quality between Swanson's UFC tenure compared to his days in the WEC, where he was no doubt entertaining, but also struggling to beat Mackens Semerzier and holding the mark of being Jens Pulver's only win in the organization. The biggest argument in the past for Swanson not rematching Jose Aldo is the 8 second flying knee KO he suffered in 2009. We're approaching 5 years since that unforgettable sequence, and I think based on body of work he's done more than enough to prove his worth and be in consideration for a title shot.
Chad Mendes. Like Swanson, Mendes has been knocked out by Jose Aldo's knee, only his was 2 years ago for the UFC belt instead of the '09 non-title bout. Mendes, criticized for not being much of a finisher, proceeded to finish his next 4 opponents post-Aldo, including a TKO of Clay Guida, who has otherwise built the reputation of having one of the best chins in MMA and had previously never been finished by strikes. At UFC on Fox 9, Mendes made it 5 straight wins with a decision win over Nik Lentz, a feat achieved despite suffering from the flu. Him and Swanson have the joint lead for longest active UFC win streaks in the division, and although they've both already lost to Aldo, they're the top two candidates.
Dustin Poirier. This was a bit of a long shot in the first place, and then today the UFC promptly confirmed that Poirier would be fighting Akira Corassani in April, which I'm personally not too keen on. Still, Poirier is just 25 years old, has fought in the UFC 9 times already and has amassed a mark of 7-2, with defeats to Swanson and Chan Sung Jung. His biggest win to date is over Erik Koch, who was only forced out of a title shot with Aldo because of injuries to the champ and himself on separate occasions. From a pure skills perspective, Poirier is the "worst" of the 3, and his willingness to engage in wild brawls is pretty much a guaranteed undoing against someone like Aldo, but the scope of the division suggests that Poirier is well-suited to be a #1 contender down the line.
As much as Mendes is in hot demand because of his knockout wins, I believe Swanson should be chosen for a title fight ahead of him. The tiebreaker ultimately falls on Swanson's superior strength of schedule. His winning streak consists of George Roop, Ross Pearson, Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, and Dennis Siver. Mendes' opposition includes Cody McKenzie, Yaotzin Meza, Darren Elkins, Clay Guida, and Nik Lentz. Poirier and Siver are ranked 6th and 7th respectively, while Lentz and Guida are 8th and 9th.
For all of the talk about Mendes' vastly improved striking, there has to be some skepticism involved when he's fighting opponents who are not considered quality strikers, if not particularly well-rounded in general. Those are all highly favorable match-ups for Chad, and he's yet to be tested against someone who can actually pose a threat on the feet. Theoretically, he could fight Swanson in a "#1 contender" match-up (which would be a rematch of their 2010 encounter, which Mendes won), but that basically forces Aldo to wait longer for his next fight.
I'm not sold on either one of these guys being able to beat Aldo, but I am sold on Swanson having earned the right over Mendes and the rest of the division to face the champion.