- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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There are a couple ways of interpreting what happened in the UFC featherweight division this weekend.
If your glass is half-full, you saw the emergence of two exciting 145-pound title threats in Ricardo Lamas and Cub Swanson. If it’s half-empty, you saw the official fall from grace of Hatsu Hioki and a nice effort by Swanson, but nothing near what it would take to instill confidence he could beat Jose Aldo.
Consider me a bit of both. The UFC featherweight division isn’t terrible -- but it’s not as if Aldo has been run through the gauntlet, either. Chad Mendes is talented, but still raw. Kenny Florian nearly killed himself to make weight in what ultimately amounted to his last appearance in the Octagon. Mark Hominick is technical, but relatively one-dimensional.
Will Aldo continue making an easy go of it, or are there potentially scary fights ahead? Let’s break down which feathers have a shot at UFC gold by the end of 2013 and which, well, probably don’t.
Hettes showed plenty of evolution in just two fights in the UFC, notching two 10-8 rounds in a unanimous decision against Nam Phan in December. At 25, he might have the most upside on this list, but his skillset doesn’t match up well currently against an athlete with takedown defense like Aldo. Siver is dangerous, but seems destined to be that guy who’s always Top 10 but never quite Top 5. Nunes has flashes of title-contender stuff, but rarely are flashes enough to win it all. Pearson is a solid talent and very fun to watch, but against a technical speed kind of guy, he’ll struggle.
The guy who didn’t want it: Hatsu Hioki
I’m not going to rake Hioki over the coals because he passed on a title shot. Was it a smart decision? Probably not. Is it a sign of no confidence? Not so sure about that. Couldn’t it also be seen as a sign of confidence in the sense Hioki believed in himself so much he accepted another fight, knowing he would win but just wanting more Octagon experience?
Either way, this isn’t the guy we expected to see in the cage. He’s never looked at home in the UFC, even when they had him fight at home (at UFC 144 in Japan). He hasn’t showcased what makes him, -- him and even if he reverted to old Hioki, old Hioki kind of got hit a lot.
The streaker: Ricardo Lamas
Lamas has been on a tear since dropping to 145 pounds for his UFC debut last year. There’s a lot to like right now about this guy. At 30, he seems to be peaking mentally and physically, he’s adapted to this weight and his confidence is up. He’s got heart and he’s well-rounded.
Will be interesting to see though, if he becomes slightly overrated due to these last two wins. Thing is, he was losing that fight to Cub Swanson before Swanson got too comfortable on the ground and Lamas caught him. Then he edged Hioki, who hasn’t been who we thought he’d be. Lamas is good, but he’s not in Aldo’s league yet.
All three are capable of looking like world-beaters, but all three have identifiable examples -- recently -- of flat performances.
As a lightweight, Oliveira got blasted by Donald Cerrone. He recovered and won his next two matches, but he was a deer in the headlights against the confident, aggressive Cerrone. Similar situation with Poirier when he fought Chan Sung Jung. It was a big spot for Poirier, headlining his first card, and he froze a bit. He came out stiff, pumping his jab in the beginning of rounds and the Zombie went for blood and put him on his heels every time. Swanson has shown moments like he did against Pearson before, but he’ll also fall into some serious mental lapses. He basically stopped fighting in the second round against Lamas and it quickly led to a loss.
The unfavorable styles: Chan Sung Jung, Chad Mendes
In an Aldo-less division, I’d like both these guys to hold the featherweight belt at some point in their careers. As long as Aldo is there, though, it’s going to be tough.
If there’s one thing we’ve realized about Aldo, it’s that a one-dimensional approach won’t work. Florian actually had arguably the most success against him and it’s because he switched things up. He forced Aldo to think. Aldo’s athleticism ultimately was far too much, but Florian had him guessing at times in that fight. Mendes’ standup is coming along but it needs more elements. When he’s able to threaten Aldo on the feet, the takedown will open up.
The Zombie is a tough competitor and you’d have to give him a shot against Aldo, but think about this matchup: Jung is a pressure fighter. He’s in your face, he’s accurate and he’s got enough tools that he can be hard to predict. He’s not really a speedster though. Aldo is a phenomenal counter puncher and frankly, he’s twice the athlete Zombie is. Jung could win it on the floor, but it would be hard to get the fight there.
The athlete: Erik Koch
Koch hasn’t proved it against the best in the world yet, but if there’s anyone who passes the eye test in this sport, it’s him. He’s maybe the one guy that can keep up with Aldo’s speed and explosiveness. A good analogy is that Koch is the 145-pound version of his teammate, Anthony Pettis. He uses speed and footwork to dictate range, he’s got knockout power and he’s surprisingly good off his back and in the scramble. The biggest concern is: has the UFC rushed him into this spot too fast?
The answer: Frankie Edgar
If Edgar fails in his attempt to reclaim the lightweight belt from Ben Henderson in September, there’s got to be a high chance he drops to his natural weight. And who knows? Maybe he gets an immediate title fight if he does.
If that were to happen, this is the only fighter I see dethroning Aldo in the next 18 months. He’s got the style to beat him. Edgar is fast, dangerous in different areas, and his takedowns are highly underrated. This guy took down big lightweights like Henderson and Gray Maynard. He’d take Aldo down, too. He sets a high pace, maintains that high pace and we know he can take a punch.
Far be it from me to doubt Edgar in the lightweight rematch. Clearly, you can never count this guy out. If he loses and drops to featherweight, I think he’ll be the 145-champ come December 2013. If not, Aldo will continue to roll.